Is your child prepared for an emergency in their school?

Mothers and administrators discuss safety in school

safety in schools

For years, schools have mandated safety drills to prepare students, teachers and administrators for emergency situations. However, schools now are continuously advancing safety precautions to be more careful than ever. From installing security systems, to upgrading sign-in procedures and parent communication systems, schools are making significant efforts for safety, violence prevention and threat response. It is only natural to worry about our children while we are apart. So how do we prepare them and ourselves for emergencies that occur during the school day?

The Safe Schools Against Violence in Education Act (or Project SAVE) was signed into law in July 2000. It requires every school district to develop a safety plan to address emergencies and threats of violence. Plans must outline protocols for threat assessment, reporting incidents of violence and building level emergency response procedures. School districts are also required to develop codes of conduct, create uniform incident reporting, instructions in civility, provide citizenship and character education, and school violence prevention training. District-wide safety plans are publicly available on each district's website.

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Schools are focused on students’ physical and emotional safety

The Superintendent of each school district acts as the Chief Emergency Officer and is responsible for ensuring that plans are updated annually, staff understands and implements plans appropriately and coordinates with local first responders. Mark Villanti, recently retired Superintendent of Spackenkill Union Free School District, acknowledges the on-going need for improvements. "There are two basic categories that every district focuses upon in school safety...hardening the environment (physical items) and softening the environment (people, relationships and training)." 

Many schools today aren't simply focusing on upgrading security systems. They are focusing on developing social emotional education programs such as anti-bullying campaigns and curricula that promote positive character traits. Schools also establish behavioral support teams and threat assessment teams to identify kids who may be at risk for harming themselves or others. Villanti also notes, "One of the greatest changes in recent years seem to be the increasing number of mental health issues among our students especially at an earlier age. Our counselors, staff and building leaders are very focused on working with families to provide for the emotional wellbeing of children through access to community mental health care and by developing greater social-emotional programs in our schools."

There is always more to be done

The legislation outlined in Project SAVE requires administrators at individual school buildings to create protocols based on the logistical needs of their school. While the district-wide regulations outlined in the Project SAVE Laws are public, the individual evacuation and emergency procedures for each school building are not made public. This ensures that anyone making threats against a school will not have access to lock down procedures and evacuation routes. However, parents can speak to the principal of their child's school regarding details of the building's specific safety plans.

Jennifer Cerillo, a Saugerties parent, feels satisfied with her child's elementary school security and that her daughter is safe. But also suggests there is more to be done in the higher education buildings. "Secondary schools may need more serious bag checks like entering Disney. I know it will require more security personnel and time, but I think it's worth the trouble. Once that's out of the way hopefully there will be better focus and less distractions in the classroom," she says.   

Keep communication open

Many parents remember participating in fire drills and natural disaster drills as kids, but school aged children today must prepare for potential school shootings. It can be very nerve wracking hearing your child discuss these drills but having open conversations with your child will help them understand the value of cooperating with school personnel during these drills. In an actual emergency there is no time to ask questions, so practicing protocols will help your child know what to do if they ever need it. Karina P. of Rhinebeck feels her daughter is safe in her small school district where most teachers know every student by name. She says they have regular conversations about safety drills. "I discuss everything in greater detail at home, so she understands why they have to do them," says Karina.

Some children may not want to discuss these drills as easily, but you can still prepare them by teaching them to be aware of their surroundings and to trust their gut. If they feel like something is off, it's okay to report it. Help them identify a safety network of teachers and administrators they can trust with their concerns. Let them know sometimes being a good friend means reaching out on someone else's behalf.

Safety plans are updated annually at public school board meetings. Parents are encouraged to attend those open meetings to learn about safety updates and express concerns about security. The news is filled with threats of violence against schools every day, and the most effective way to feel prepared is to act. Learn more about what is being done in your child's school building and in their school district. Educating yourself first will help you educate your child, which will help you both feel more prepared.

Roxanne Ferber is a twin mom, blogger and freelance writer living in Saugerties.