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GRAVES: Steps toward safety

For some time now, I have been wanting to write an Educationally Speaking column on the topic of school safety. It is almost a constant issue in the various news media, is of extraordinary interest to parents everywhere and is a fundamental task ...

For some time now, I have been wanting to write an Educationally Speaking column on the topic of school safety. It is almost a constant issue in the various news media, is of extraordinary interest to parents everywhere and is a fundamental task of schools. (It is, in fact, the only task more important even than student achievement, similar to Hippocrates' admonition to physicians, "First, do no harm."

But, though I've explored the idea of such a column on at least a half-dozen occasions, I've never been quite able to get my arms around it. It is a topic that scares people, and so my first inclination has been to outline all the steps that the Mitchell schools have taken to tighten up security in order to protect the children we serve.

The problem is that the list looks something like this:

• We've appointed an administrator to create a comprehensive plan for enhancing school security.

• And we're not telling you or anybody else what is in that unwritten plan, because sharing it with anyone means potentially sharing it with someone whose intent is to subvert it. Describing such a plan would be tantamount to Andy and Barney's practice of hanging the key to the jail cell on the wall so Otis can let himself out in the morning without bothering Gomer. It would undo much of the work we've put into enhancing security.

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So what can we say? Well, we can put forth a few principles which inform the security measures our schools, and many other schools, have taken. Here goes:

• Securing the health and welfare of the children in our care is the top priority. Yes, I'm repeating myself but for the sake of emphasis. Don't believe that our lack of communication about security measures means we are doing nothing. It simply means we are holding our cards close to the vest, a fairly apt analogy come to think of it.

• Be careful not to worry about the wrong things. In 2004, John Stossel wrote "Give Me a Break," which included a chapter titled, "Scaring Ourselves to Death." In that chapter, he noted how often the media sensationalized insignificant hazards - exploding lighters and coffee makers, poisonous lawn chemicals - to the detriment of the public's understanding of the real threats in modern society - obesity, smoking, automobile accidents, etc. Thus, people began worrying about and preventing things that were astronomically unlikely, while ignoring much more credible threats. This can happen, for example, when schools install devices to secure rooms from the inside. Given that, unfortunately, attacks of one sort or another on children by a school employee is statistically more likely (though still very unlikely) than by an outsider, installing such devices make more likely the already more probable in order to further minimize the far less probable. A bit like speeding during an ice storm so you can get off those slick roads faster.

• Add security measures which not only deal with the awful and awfully unlikely situations but also help with smaller day-to-day issues. Most schools have video cameras throughout their hallways and public areas. Almost none of them have ever been used for major situations but they are wonderful for sorting out student disciplinary issues of every sort. Two birds, one stone.

• Don't let tiny potential improvements in security have major negative consequences for student achievement or school climate. Forget about running frequent school security drills. Unlike fire and tornado drills in which the response is pretty much identical, there are simply too many variables involved, and the time lost comes at the expense of learning. Don't bother building an impregnable edifice. First, there's always a way around it and, second, doing so turns schools into prisons. Who wants to go to school in a prison?

• Take lessons from the tragedies that have occurred elsewhere in the country and from the experts. The best lessons are ones somebody else had to learn. Our administrator in charge of school security analyzes every major security incident in the country in an attempt to learn something about how it could have been prevented. Probably more importantly, he attends conferences and reads the recommendations of law enforcement, local and national, and school security experts. We're educators, not security specialists. So we naturally turn to the experts to help us make the right decisions. The Mitchell Department of Public Safety has been incredibly helpful in this process and has a response time that can only be described as awe-inspiring.

• Complete security is impossible, especially in a free society. Thus, improve security incrementally each year and every year, but don't think you're ever done. Every year since school security became a major concern, we have added at least one more feature to shore up our responses to security threats. The result has been continuous improvement, but not 100 percent confidence. There is no such thing and when there is, get ready to be schooled. Ever heard of the Maginot Line?

That's it. While our response is necessarily far from perfect, this year's is better than last year's, and next year's will be better still.

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