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A public high school's hallway and locker area.

The '3 Ps' of School Safety: A Fundamental Understanding

“Student safety is job 1. And clearly we have work to do to ensure that this will never happen again.”

Charles County (Md.) Public Schools Superintendent Kimberly Hill apologized Friday in a letter to parents and staff after a district employee was arrested for sexually assaulting middle and high school students in school.

As WTOP reports, a sixth-month investigation of Carlos Bell, a former instructional assistant and track coach, led to his arrest for assaulting students and recording it on video. Police began investigating the incident after being tipped off to text messages between Bell and at least one high school student.

In her letter, Hill pledged that the district would review and improve its safety protocols. She noted that Bell was suspended from contact with students when the investigation began in December.

It’s a terrible situation—the kind of thing that keeps school leaders and parents up at night. There’s no way to fully prevent tragedy or to make your schools 100-percent safe.

But examples such as this serve as a visceral reminder of just how fragile our sense of safety can be.

In a world where bullying, violence, and abuse are reported with alarming frequency in schools, there’s always more to do.

In a recent webinar, former superintendent Dr. Gerald Dawkins outlined “three Ps” to school safety. As you take stock of your school safety policy this summer, consider these elements:

1. Policy

An effective school safety strategy starts with a strong school board policy. This is the underlying philosophy upon which all future safety planning is built. Your board policy represents the fundamental rules and building blocks of your overall school safety plan.

But writing the policy is just the first step.

“Your policy cannot be a shelf document,” Dawkins says. “It can’t stay on the shelf for 15 years.” Your policy isn’t something you write for the sake of compliance. It needs to be ingrained in the fabric of your school system, from teachers and staff to parents and students.

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Your policy needs to be crystal clear—to everyone.

Community input is critical to a safe school culture, which is why your safety policy must be easily understood, Dawkins says. It shouldn’t be something written only for your lawyers in the event of a problem.

2. Plan

If your policy is your blueprint for safety, your plan is how you communicate your policy with your school community.

Your school safety plan should be a “practical, tangible, step-by-step” guide to what the policy looks like in action, Dawkins says. Make sure everyone in your community supports a safe culture. Treat empathy and caring and respect as part of your overall curriculum and make sure personal responsibilities and protocols are communicated across the board.

Invite feedback on your safety plan. Give community members an opportunity to weigh in and respond to any changes in your approach. Your plan should be part of an ongoing community dialogue on safety, Dawkins says. “You can’t have an off day or on day around school safety.”

3. Process

A policy is only as good as the process for carrying it out effectively.

Do parents understand what steps school staff will take when bullying occurs in your hallways? Do your teachers know exactly where they need to be in the event of a security breach?

An effective process requires plenty of dry runs and rehearsals. Everyone needs to know what to do when. It also requires a dashboard to easily track what happens when and to monitor how effectively your team responds. Every piece of data you collect on school safety should be seen as an opportunity to improve, says Dawkins. “School safety is never a one and done deal,” he says. “It has to be continuous.”

While constantly updating your safety policy and protocols can, at times, feel daunting, Dawkins says the alternative—“doing nothing”—is far worse.

To watch the full webinar, which includes seven common misconceptions about safety, download it here.

What steps is your district taking to improve its safety protocols this summer? Tell us in the comments.