New York State School Boards Association

Your policies have to work in a crisis

by Courtney Sanik

On Board Online • March 12, 2018

By Courtney Sanik
Senior Policy Consultant

The Feb. 14 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla. renews troubling questions about whether adults have done all they can to keep students safe in school.

The good news is that, statistically, schools remain one of the safest places for kids. A young person in the U.S. is nearly 11 times more likely to die in a swimming pool than in a school shooting, according to James Alan Fox, a professor of criminology, law and public policy at Northeastern University.

Centers for Disease Control (CDC) has documented a decline in deaths in school from 1992 to 2010. Nonfatal "victimization" in schools - including fights with or without weapons, threats of physical attack with a weapon, rape, attempted rape and sexual battery - declined 82 percent between 1992 and 2015, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

But many kids just don't feel safe, despite the fact that schools are supposed to be safe places of learning, creativity and inspiration. Many of your Mission Statements, NYSSBA Policy 0000, reflect these words.

Since the Columbine shooting in 1999, school districts across the nation have taken many steps recommended by safety experts. But they have not been foolproof:

  • Schools have limited access to main doors and routinely screen visitors before buzzing them through locked doors. But Adam Lanza used a semi-automatic weapon to blast his way through the locked front door of Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012.
  • Lockdown drills have become commonplace. But students can be shot outside the school building. Four students and a teacher died in a 1998 shooting outside Westside Middle School near Jonesboro, Ark. According to USA Today, "two shooters ages 11 and 13 simply pulled a fire alarm and waited from a perch in the woods, picking off students as they filed out of the school."
  • School resource officers were assigned to about 30 percent of U.S. public schools during 2013-14, according to a CDC survey. But that didn't stop deaths in Florida; an armed sheriff's deputy assigned to Stoneman Douglas High has been criticized by the sheriff and President Trump for standing outside a school building rather than confronting the gunman inside.

At least eight states allow faculty to carry weapons, according to The Wall Street Journal. But that involves risks. In 2014, a Utah teacher who was carrying a concealed firearm accidentally dropped her weapon in an elementary school bathroom and it discharged. A bullet struck a toilet, causing it to explode and injuring the teacher.

We'd love to tell you that school policy holds the solution to the school violence problem, but at best it's only part of the solution.

One key policy is School Safety Plans and Teams, NYSSBA 8130, which we updated last year to reflect changes in state law. This policy will help your district in its annual, state-required review of safety plans. See more at goo.gl/roJY9W .

This policy is important as it outlines the board's general responsibilities in developing and adopting school safety plans. (Be mindful that the policy is not a replacement for the safety plan itself.)

Your district also likely has a News Media Relations policy, NYSSBA 1130, which outlines who is authorized to speak with the media during a time of emergency - or in general. (The district may also have a communication plan to further support this.)

You may have a policy on Guidance Programs, NYSSBA 4600, which outlines the program components. Here the board can also commit to hiring an adequate number of counselors not only for day-to-day operations, but also for crisis, healing, and rebuilding the school community. It is important to recognize that depression, thoughts of suicide and threats of self-harm are common in the school-age population.

Then there's your Code of Conduct, NYSSBA 5300. There's a lot in this policy addressing conduct, discipline and climate, including sections on Prohibited Student Conduct, NYSSBA 5300.30, Reporting Violations, NYSSBA 5300.35, Visitors to the Schools, NYSSBA 5300.65, and Public Conduct on School Property, NYSSBA 5300.70.

It's important that districts create a culture where reporting problems (or worries about classmates) will take place. And adults should take all reports seriously.

It's critical to have enough counselors, hire teachers who are trusted and have administrators who are available and approachable.

It's important for school leaders to have conversations about safety before there's trouble. Make sure that plans are up-to-date, clear, and shared only with appropriate outside personnel.

The National School Boards Association has many resources at goo.gl/ZkT13R .

Other resources include the New York State Center for School Safety ( http://www.nyscfss.org ) and New York's Safe Schools ( http://safeschools.ny.gov/ ).

As always, if there are other emerging policy issues that you are facing, please do not hesitate to let us know. It may become a topic for a future "Eye on Policy" article. NYSSBA Policy Services welcomes your suggestions and comments. If you have a question or would like to request a sample policy mentioned in the article, please contact us by emailing policy@nyssba.org or calling (800) 342-3360.


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