Safe Schools Begin With Safe Schools Checklists

“Our safe schools checklist starts with the outside of a school and works its way inside,” says Gerald E. Summers, director of Safety and Security for Evansville Vanderburgh (EV) School Corporation in Evansville, Ind. The third largest in the state, EV is comprised of 37 school buildings, 23,000 students and 4,000 employees.

“For example,” Summers continues, “we want to be able to see inside the building, so we want low shrubs. We make sure the entrances are well lit. Moving inside, we make sure signage at the front door leads a visitor to the office. At the office, the visitor signs in on a laptop, which takes his/her picture and prints it out, and which is tied to the National Sex Offender Register.”

Clearly, Summers and his team work hard to create a safe learning environment for the district’s students. “If the students don’t feel safe, they won’t learn,” he says. “They need to do the best they can academically, and it’s up to my team to create that safety.”

EV has accomplished a lot toward improving safety in the last few years. Specifically, in 2007, Summers approached the district superintendent, noting that security needed to be upgraded because “people were coming into the schools and doing things they shouldn’t,” he says. He was told to push forward.

Next, Summers asked Mike Dorn, executive director of Macon, Ga.-based Safe Havens International, to work with him to create a safe schools checklist. Safe Havens, a nonprofit organization that focuses on making students safe rather than revenue generation, has completed more than 2,000 public and private school assessments in the last 36 months, in addition to five statewide projects.

Dorn spent eight days in the district, assessing every school from top to bottom. “He wrote an assessment for the superintendent, outlining what needed to be corrected,” says Summers.

“The assessment is always driven by the school district’s needs,” Dorn explains. “So, for each one, we develop customized assessment tools. This is a good idea for anyone, whether you do it yourself or hire someone to help you, so that the assessment matches your local risks, realities and threats. Ask yourself, ‘How are the schools designed, what is the community’s threat level and what exactly are you assessing?’”

Ironically, Dorn’s assessment was necessary for Summers to apply for a Readiness and Emergency Management for Schools (REMS) grant, which was awarded on the second try. Issued by the U.S. Department of Education, and according to the organization’s website, the grant supports efforts “to create, strengthen and improve emergency management plans at the district and school-building levels, including training school personnel on emergency management procedures; communicating with parents about emergency plans and procedures; and coordinating with local law enforcement, public safety or emergency management, public health and mental health agencies, and local government.”

Summers spent the $240,000 grant carefully. Emergency policies were updated. For example, FEMA says color codes for emergencies are out. An emergency is called what it is: a lockdown is a lockdown. This is because some people in a building, such as substitute teachers, may not know what Code Red means. Emergency manuals were updated and reprinted to reflect the new policies. Videos were created to train staff about policies and procedures, such as what to do and how to do it in an emergency. Emergency kits were purchased for every classroom, containing such essentials as first aid kits and flashlights.

The grant money was also used on training. Dorn conducted 14 different training sessions with the safety team and district staff. He also held two bullying training sessions for parents. “Bullying is tough for everybody,” Summers notes. “When it comes to bullying, parents don’t understand their role, and we want to partner with them.” A gang specialist spent two days training 200 staff members about what to look for in terms of gangs. Another professional spoke with principals about the importance of school resource officers (SROs). “There has not been a school shooting in the United States where there has been an SRO in the building,” he points out.

Summers also applied for and received a Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) grant. Issued by the U.S. Department of Justice, it helps grantees establish and enhance a variety of school and community safety programs to prevent and respond to juvenile crime within their communities (according to the organization’s website). The $84,000 grant allowed Summers to install access control at four schools. In addition, every school is now outfitted with two-way radios so staff can communicate with one another in case of an emergency.

Summers, who retired from the Evansville City Police Department and is in his seventh year with EV, acknowledges that with Safe Havens’ help and the grant money, he has accomplished a lot toward improved safety for the EV district. He recommends that other school districts work diligently with a safe schools checklist to make sure that everyone is on the same page when it comes to safety and security. “Security is huge, and everybody needs to know what to do in an emergency situation,” he says. “In my district, I want everybody to know the same thing for minimal student damage.”

You don’t need to spend money you don’t have on a safe schools checklist. Safe Havens has a free 25-page checklist that administrators can customize to their needs.

More specifically, Dorn notes that there are three ways to approach an assessment: do it yourself, bring in a consultant or do it yourself with coaching from an outside entity. He cautions that, if you hire a consultant, you must do due diligence in checking the organization’s references, qualifications and background. The reality is that, when security is done wrong, people can die and school districts can be held responsible. Dorn cites an administrator who paid a consultant $20,000 per building for an assessment. He was in each building for no more than 45 minutes and provided her a two-page checklist. She was sick about it, he notes. When she found Safe Havens’ checklists, she knew she could do a better job herself.

Summers sums up the importance of a safe schools checklist as such: “Whatever happens in the local community comes into the schools. We have to be prepared for that. We have to adapt to keep our students safe.”