Students spend at least the same amount of time at school as they do at home. As such, ensuring safe learning environments in which they can grow and thrive is critical to their ongoing wellbeing and success.
Recent years have seen an increase in awareness, training and solutions for providing safe and supportive school environments for students. This is an important achievement, but more work remains if we are to succeed in preventing all threats to our children when they are at school.
A recent Navigate360 | Zogby Safety and Wellbeing Poll shows that 61% of the teens surveyed are thinking more about their physical and emotional safety and wellness than they did 6 months ago. What’s more, 54% of those teens feel that a violent critical or pandemic-related incident could prevent them from achieving fulfillment of future goals, such as attaining the highest possible educational level or optimum career choice.
The COVID-19 pandemic has underscored the importance of mental wellbeing in our students. Suicide prevention and related programs and training are more crucial now than ever. “Whole child wellness” is proving vital to students’ success and has been correlated to such important metrics as absenteeism, graduation rates and grades.
A Proactive Approach
Keeping students safe at school requires more than reactive programs that intervene when problems occur. Comprehensive safety programs must also work toward prevention, ensuring students, educators and caregivers receive the support, counseling and tools they need to detect and prevent issues from ever happening in the first place. Addressing the full spectrum of student safety means moving from a reactive to a proactive approach, and this requires three key evolutions.
(1) Student safety must be inclusive of physical, mental and emotional wellbeing.
Traditional safety plans have long focused on physical security. Without question, training and awareness of how to handle physical threats and incidents is critical; active shooters, assaults and even severe weather situations all present the potential for harm to students and staff. But physical safety is not the only form of security that students need. Mental health issues such as bullying, substance abuse and suicide are prevalent throughout all grade levels. These issues affect the physical wellbeing of students and have a direct correlation to academic success.
“The problems (students) face can tie into major problems found in schools: chronic absence, low achievement, disruptive behavior and dropping out,” wrote Meg Anderson and Kavitha Cardoza for nprEd. And it’s just as important to provide support and coaching for parents and caregivers at home as it is for educators in schools.
(2) A safe student environment demands early detection.
Numerous case studies have shown that violent critical incidents are often foreshadowed by early warning signs. But early signs of distress can be easily overlooked. The significance of these sign(s) is sometimes misunderstood, or the signs are viewed independent of other, related datapoints which could otherwise present a more complete picture of the type and severity of the potential threat.
The sooner a threat or safety concern can be identified and acted upon, the greater the chances it can be mitigated or avoided altogether. This is true of large-scale incidents such as major weather events, group incidents such as riots or active shooter situations, and individual events such as suicidal thoughts and related mental health concerns. Early notification of these concerning behaviors allows educators, trained staff and caregivers to provide counseling and support for students in an effort to avoid a serious safety issue in schools.
Early Detection is Key
How do schools detect threats early, correctly and across the myriad data and partial indicators they encounter on a daily basis? This requires technology and methodologies that can gather information and early warning signs from a variety of sources; aggregate and normalize these data points; and filter and prioritize information based on severity to help school staff recognize threats and safety needs and act accordingly. A report conducted by the RAND Corporation agrees: “(School) staff members need easier and faster access to information, possibly through all-in-one software applications, in order to prevent, reduce and respond to the entire spectrum of school violence.”
Early detection can be achieved using technology that recognizes signs of a future incident and allows for early support and remediation. “Four out of five suicide deaths are preceded by warning signs,” writes the United Health Foundation. Take, for example, a 7th grade student who is absent more times than the average for her school or state and whose grades are slipping when compared to historical averages. When a fellow student submits a tip that she has been acting withdrawn, that tip can be given higher priority so that school counselors can address the student’s needs sooner rather than later.
(3) Early remediation and support can help schools avoid incidents altogether.
With the right technology and training, threats and concerns to student safety can be detected earlier than with manual processes. But just as important is the resulting action: How can school staff address these needs before they become incidents?
Many schools have robust, tested processes for detecting student safety issues early, but they do not always have the training and materials needed to address the root cause of the issues. This minimizes the positive impact of early detection.
For example, student suicide is a major issue in schools, yet fewer than half of states require suicide prevention training. This reduces the number of schools that have the expertise or knowledge required to address suicidal risks in their student populations. School staff that have students struggling with substance abuse often need help in understanding how to approach the topic with these students. Early detection of problems is critical, but it is only half the solution: Helping schools address these needs with curriculum, training and best practices in a timely and clear format is equally important.
The Next Generation of Safety
Overall, a lot of work has been done to provide a safe environment for our students. To continue working toward the goal of complete safety and security, the next generation of student safety solutions must consider and evaluate threats to students’ physical as well as mental and emotional wellbeing. These solutions must be sophisticated enough to aggregate and assess all available information to help school leaders understand which issues to prioritize. The next generation of student safety must also offer training and support to school staff to help them address issues of concern in a timely and comprehensive manner. Taken together, these evolutions represent a major shift in student safety, moving from a reactive to a proactive approach that can address a wide variety of threats and needs.
Student safety is the mission of Navigate360, and we are passionate about bringing this vision of next-generation student safety to schools across the nation.
Additional Safety Resources for Schools
Take advantage of these free resources to prepare you for the next generation of school safety: