Long before discussions of school safety were in vogue, Dr. Larry DiChiara began to study the issue. He continued for nearly 40 years as an administrator across the state of Alabama — including 10 years as School Superintendent in Phenix City. No one imagined how vital this subject would become as violence began to invade classrooms nationwide. Recent events in Florida brought the problem back to the forefront and leaders in politics, law enforcement and education have joined hands with teachers, parents and students seeking answers. Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey recently founded SAFE (Securing Alabama Facilities of Education) and DiChiara — a former Alabama Superintendent of the Year —was among the speakers at the group’s first meeting. Today, he shares his presentation with All On Georgia:
SCHOOL SAFETY NEEDS TO BE COMPREHENSIVE:
Keeping kids safe at school is not just about guns and school shootings. Despite the seriousness and concern brought about by the most recent school shooting, we must keep it in perspective. We have millions of students and adults walking in and out of our schools every day in America, yet
- Odds of winning the Powerball lottery is 1 in 292,000,000.
- Odds of being killed by a gun in school since 1999 is 1 in 614,000,000.
- This SAFE Council, the Governor, and legislature need to make recommendations and decisions based on facts, not emotions.
Lessons I have learned since 1981:
- Clear backpacks do not work! Intermittent searches do! (Parking lot, lockers, backpacks, etc.). It is very easy to conceal a weapon in a clear backpack by simply wrapping it in a t-shirt or hiding it in a book or lunch box.
- Metal detectors are useless unless all exits are monitored at all times…very unrealistic! All schools have multiple entrances and exits…especially older schools. Many schools have been added on to over the years. We cannot afford to put a metal detector at every door with armed guards. Also, at most high schools, after-school activities are numerous. Security personnel do not stay after school to man the metal detectors. If students want to do harm, they could come to the school after hours and hide a weapon until the following day. Also, once a student has gone through a metal detector, he/she can easily go to the back of the campus and open a door for a student who wants to do harm.
- Severe weather is one of our greater threats to student safety. Severe weather boxes should be located in cafeterias, gymnasiums, auditoriums, etc. where large crowds gather for athletic events, PTO meetings, cheerleader practice, and so on. As a young coach, I was often in the gymnasium conducting basketball practice and was oblivious to severe weather or a tornado passing over because there was nothing in the gymnasium to warn us.
- NEVER post safety plans for public view! Often times, parents will demand information regarding safety procedures at their child’s school. Some schools will put their plans in their handbook or on their website. This is a mistake and lets the bad guy know exactly where their potential victims will be sheltering in place, or where they will gather when the building is evacuated.
- Point-of-entry electronic locks and surveillance cameras may deter and make school officials and parents feel better, but I believe them to be relatively ineffective. I have never seen anyone denied entry or questioned before they are “buzzed’ in. Very seldom will a bad guy wave his pistol and express his intent before being allowed in the building. He can easily lie and say he is there to see a former teacher or to check out a sibling.
- Communicate to your constituents what you have done to improve school safety. Don’t wait until something bad happens. Most school districts spend lots of time and resources in order to make their schools safe. They install exterior fencing, electronic locks, first aid kits, better exterior lighting, security cameras, walkie-talkies, and so on. They practice intruder drills, shelter-in-place drills, severe weather drills, fire drills, etc. Stakeholders need to be assured that we are doing everything in our power to keep their children safe. Communicating your efforts ahead of time in newsletters, at PTO meetings, at school board meetings, etc. will ease the tension and anxiety levels. The public is also much more forgiving if they know ahead of time that you are doing everything you can to keep their children safe.
- Fund security officers as we do teachers. At one time, nurses were not funded. Neither were Physical Education teachers in elementary schools. Today they are. School Resource Officers are preferred because of their extensive training, armed retired police officers, veterans, and security officers would be my second choice.
- At one time athletic trainers were wishful thinking. Today they are prevalent in our schools but locally funded. When a certified athletic trainer is involved with an athletic team, safety of students significantly improves.
- Require that all teachers and bus drivers be CPR and First Aid trained. They are often the first adults on the scene to address an accident or a crisis situation.
- In Alabama, Automated External Defibrillators are mandated for all schools. I would require AED’s be also mandated in athletic and extra-curricular venues such as gymnasiums and auditoriums. I have personally witnessed basketball referees and fans have heart attacks at basketball games, but an AED was not available until an ambulance arrived. This is unacceptable.
All principals should have metal detector wands available.
- All principals should have metal detector wands available. This reduces search and seizure liability. For example, as a principal, I was often approached by students informing me that they think little Johnny has a knife. When confronted, you can either frisk and search Johnny, ask him to empty his pockets, or get law enforcement involved. Frisking the student has legal implications and risks. Simply waving the metal detector wand around the student’s body allows you to stay at an arm’s length so to speak, thus reducing risk of liability. If metal is detected, ask him to empty his pockets, waistband, etc. If he refuses, contact law enforcement immediately. In my experience, they usually produced the knife and confessed.
- Conduct intermittent parking lot and locker searches with canines. This will also reduce drugs in our schools. These intermittent searches need to be sporadic and unpredictable. In my experience, these searches have been the greatest deterrent in preventing drug use or sale at school and weapon possession, because they know that their vehicle, locker, or backpack may be searched any day or any time. Additionally, law enforcement look for opportunities to conduct training exercises with their canines. They gladly participate and usually partner with other law enforcement agencies and conduct these searches with several canines at a time.
- All schools should be equipped with security cameras accessible via the internet. When the tragedy of Columbine occurred, the police were hesitant to enter the building because they could not determine the level of threat. Many kids died because of that. There were numerous security cameras available but could only be accessed from the principal’s office. All cameras need to be accessible via the internet so that law enforcement can see what is going on as they are in route or prepping to go in.
Open, glass-walled classrooms should not be allowed.
- Open, glass-walled classrooms should not be allowed. The bad guy should never be able to see inside a classroom when kids are in a lockdown. This needs to be rectified immediately.
- State fire codes need to be modified. Currently, they will not allow a school classroom to have a deadbolt or extra locks on the classroom door. This should be fixed immediately. The fire inspector’s rationale is so that in case of a fire, the teacher and students should only have one lock to breech in order to exit the classroom. This is ludicrous! When was the last time a concrete-block-constructed school has ever burned down . . . with children in it? In my former district, we purchased devices to bolt the door from the inside in the event of a lockdown.
- Parking lot safety and event safety is just as critical! Lighting and supervision is critical. Parking lots experience numerous car accidents, pedestrians being hit, fights between students, drive-by shootings, and so on. More dangerous stuff happens in a school parking lot than it does in a school.
- Safety plans for during-school as well as after-school activities and events should be developed and reviewed by all school personnel on an annual basis. More students are injured during after-school activities than they do during the school day. Also, during the school day, there is usually personnel available to assist in the event of an accident or injury, such as a school nurse or administrator. These personnel are not typically available at basketball practice, cheerleader practice, PTO meetings, etc.
- All schools should be mandated to have comprehensive safety audits conducted in order to determine the level of safety and security measures in place and identify potential threats and vulnerable areas of the school. We don’t know what we don’t know.
- A set of safety standards should be developed for all schools in a district, required to be adhered to, and monitored for compliance.
- One of the last real investments that the state of Alabama made in school safety was in 2001, Gov. Don Siegleman’s Private Eyes Education Program (PEEP) grants that funded security cameras in our schools. 1.3 million dollars in grants were awarded. It’s time for the state to step up again and invest in school safety. School districts should pitch in, but the state should help. I suppose it just depends on the state’s priorities.
- We need to be honest and realistic with our parents and community: We cannot guarantee 100 percent safety for your child when they are at school, just as we cannot guarantee 100 percent safety when they go to the mall. But we can guarantee you 100 percent effort to be prepared for, and preventive of, crisis situations!