Practical and Effective Way to Make Our Schools Safe(r)
“All of us –parents, schools, communities and government –share responsibility to keep our kids safe.” - Bill Clinton
In 2001, while still in high school administration in Virginia, I developed a practical and effective way to make our schools safe(r). Following the tragedy at Columbine, high schools around the country were looking at ways to prevent a repeat on their campus. In my high school, parents and neighborhood groups were saying, “You are not doing enough. I want my child safe.”
Many toured the school and we outlined what was in place. “Not enough,” they said. “We want some guarantees!” I paused, and then looked at one vocal parent and said, “Will you guarantee me your child will come to school each day fed, rested, and ready to learn?” There was silence. I followed with, “Now, give me some time, and with your help, we can develop a safer school. You may not like the results because they will be costly, yet they will be practical and effective.
A few weeks later, after presenting my plan to a rather large assemblage, there was a few seconds of silence…followed by an uproar of objections, “Too costly! It’ll never work! Where is the personnel coming from? You are creating a prison-like environment! School safety is your responsibility, not mine! I can’t devote that amount of time.” And these were the more civil responses.
I paused, walked to the side of the stage and pointed to the large screen behind me as several pictures began to flash, “Or would you rather have this,” I said. The audience gasped as they saw graphic pictures of the inside of Columbine.
That was 2001 and this is today. Beginning with Columbine and including Marjory Stoneham Douglas High School, according to my sources, we have had 25 fatal school shootings in grades K-12 with 129 deaths.
I do not have all the answers, just a few recommendations and suggestions from 32 years of experience in a school system with 68,000 students.
Due to recent events and shared dialogue, I decided to uncover my notes from 2001 and add updates from my own readings, thoughts and from the thoughts of others. Yes, there are flaws with my plan. Yes, there will be much criticism from those on the political right and left. However, it is practical, safe(r), and would be more effective than what we have now.The numbering of recommendations does not indicate importance. However, it does make it easier for one to support or criticize. Please note: Unlike many dreamers, I provide funding recommendations at the end.
Practical and Effective Way to Make our Schools Safe(r)
1. Every student, teacher, faculty member, and school employee would be required to wear picture identification badges. I do have consequences for failure to wear. Comments at the end.
2. Every exterior door would have cameras, electronic locks, and a buzzer system for entry, preventing unauthorized access.
a. Once the day begins, students are not allowed to open doors for outsiders.
3. Police officers would be assigned to every school. Number based on student enrollment.
a. Minimum of two/school.
b. The school system would recruit retired officers and ex-military (especially, but not limited to MP’s). Passing annual physicals and preparedness tests would be required.
c. Gender and ethnicity would reflect the student population.
4. Students entering building:
a. At the beginning of the school day, all students would enter through no more than four doors.
1) Each door equipped with a metal detector and an assigned police officer.
2) Students must show picture id badges to enter. System and consequences in place for failure to have badge. + (See end)
3) All back packs would be searched.
4) Students not allowed to wear coats during school hours.
5) Backpacks must be kept in locker until end of day.
6) Once school begins, students and visitors enter through one door only.
7) Returning from field trips or other school activities during school hours: One door entrance – metal detectors and bags searched. Show badges.
8) Faculty and staff would comply with entrance regulations and badge requirements. ++ (See end)
5. Unarmed security staff would also be employed to monitor halls, restrooms, cafeteria, etc. Number based on student population. Ex: I had one police officer and four unarmed security personnel for an 1,800-student school.
a. One security person would always monitor the camera room.
6. Leaving the school building for physical activities classes:
a. Officer present on school grounds.
b. Activity uniforms required…easy to tell who does not belong.
c. Badges not required for physical education classes.
7. Emergency procedures in place covering fire drills, intruder, and active shooter situations.
a. Students would re-enter from outside drills through the four metal detector doors and show badges.
b. Emergency movement situations in place for outside threats when students are participating in drills or physical activities.
8. Extracurricular activities (games and practices): Appropriate number of security persons present. Everyone entering for games would be ‘wanded’ by security person. No backpacks allowed.
9. Community Volunteers: Although we have few true ‘community’ schools in existence today, school safety is a community problem and a community solution, therefore:
a. Volunteers would/could be present in the cafeteria, halls, library, gym, and in the classroom if invited.
b. All volunteers must pass routine background checks and go through orientation.
c. Local ministers, priests, and rabbis would be encouraged to participate. Adult presence is good, and men and women of God can always have a calming and soothing effect.
d. Elected officials and school board members: See first-hand what is going on and what is needed.
e. Noteworthy community leaders: Because they are well known and respected, they would be a positive influence and a good resource.
One of the main criticisms of my recommendations was MONEY. “This would cost a fortune. Don’t increase my taxes! We could never pay for all of this. I don’t have any kids in school, why should I pay” We have heard it all…and then some. However, the money must come from somewhere.
This is where I did some major updating to my 2001 plan and tailored it to my state of West Virginia:
How to pay for a safe(r) school:
1. West Virginia has 55 counties. Two of the smallest in school population are Wirt County (967 students) and Tucker County (1096). The largest being Kanawha County (over 28,000). It makes financial sense (and other ‘senses’) to combine into 10 equally populated counties. Money saved the first year of consolidation would go toward permanent security measures.
2. This one will create an uproar:: Establish a 1% county sales tax,exempting food and medical items.
3. Institute a $10 county sticker fee for every licensed vehicle.
4. Create a state General Accounting Office (GAO), with an office in each county. These offices would constantly monitor and investigate how the state and county spends taxpayer dollars. A portion of any wasteful or misappropriated funds would go to the schools.
5. Each ‘new’ county board would employ a grant writer to take advantage of state and federal opportunities.
6. Each new school board would examine all current fees and recommend adjustments, based on the economy of the county.
+ Staff failing to wear badges: Sent home to retrieve. Pay, medical, or annual leave docked.
++ Students: Directed to holding area. Return home to retrieve if vehicle available. Parent deliver. Time out of class counts toward attendance.
Note: If badge is lost or stolen (staff or student), once identity is confirmed, a temporary is issued with a $5 replacement fee.
Everyone must be responsible. When my wife worked for the FBI, one day she had forgotten her identification badge. The security guard, who had let her into the building every day for over a year said, “Sorry, go home and get your badge.” Her pay was docked. She never forgot it again.
This was my plan (2001), and this is my plan (2018) for making our schools safer. Will it ever come to fruition? Absolutely not! Even though it is practical and effective. Too many powerful lobbies. Too many politicians and not enough statesmen. Too many parents and communities who demand more and who are not willing to pay more…and, I do not just mean money. Too many ‘busy’ people outside the walls of education.
I will be the first to admit: My plan is rather radical. Costs a lot. And, requires much community cooperation. Yes, my plan has flaws. And, parts of it deserve criticism and further examination. However, even though my critics could spend much time with: What if …? You can’t do that! Too burdensome! Violates union or contractual agreements, they may be right. However, I do remember a quote from Donald Rumsfeld, a quote I take seriously, “If you’re not being criticized, you’re not doing much.”
Since I retired from education, I have seen tremendous gains in school security, usually brought about by tragedy. I want to prevent another tragedy. We must, and can do more. In fact, I can give you 129 reasons why we must do more.
Until next time, we must keep them safe(r).
“Your humor is absolutely spot-on and intelligent, peppered with a bit of sarcasm and childlike wonder. Your stories have that element of memory, poignant and comic at times, but always heartfelt and affecting. Your language is simple and friendly, weaved seamlessly in your narrative that is consistently lighthearted and warm in tone. Your experience as a teacher shows in your elaborate, playful descriptions and your sharp, unpretentious irony. I am also impressed with the way your structured the book—as a collection of short stories in no chronological order as opposed to one big chunk of episodic chapters that are more or less akin to a journal. It serves the tone and heart of your words perfectly.”
On the whole, these essays encourage us to nurture our better selves—and who among us doesn’t need an occasional nudge toward greater kindness, tolerance, and appreciation of the things that really matter in life?