Parents, teachers, and students across the area are still reeling after last week’s school shooting in Parkland, Fla. With 17 students, teachers, and coaches killed, it was one of the deadliest such attacks in modern American history – and comes on the heels of at least seven known school shootings since the start of the year, bringing the total number killed while at school to 22. Yes, since Jan. 1. It’s a stark reminder that our schools are particularly vulnerable to these acts of violence.
This tragedy has understandably rekindled contentious debates over gun control. But with no clear outcome in sight, every parent and teacher is left wondering how can we best protect our children in the interim? What can we do to keep our students safe?
As a former military officer turned school administrator, one of the first things I consider is a campus’s physical security, particularly at entry and exit points, and the perimeters of school grounds. This remains a critical area of focus for school leaders, as we find improved ways to limit access to our facilities and develop easy-to-follow protocols for monitoring visitors – all while ensuring school remains a warm, welcoming environment for students and their families.
At my school, we introduced a range of technical and manual oversight systems to safeguard our students, including swipe access into buildings, cameras at entrances, and an unarmed guard who roams school grounds to ensure unusual activity does not go unnoticed. Every year we invest in new technology and update our emergency response procedures, and do regular drills to ensure the girls and our staff grow comfortable with how to respond in extremis situations. The key is to ensure school feels like a second home to our students, even as additional safety and security mechanisms are introduced.
The next step is to consider how we, as a school, partner with local law enforcement to ensure they can provide us support and new ideas for training protocols – and so local emergency responders are best able to help if any incident should arise.
That is why, as I write this, I hear the popping sound of training rounds being fired outside my office window. Our local township police department is on campus, conducting a rapid deployment training exercise during a break in our school schedule. From my desk, I have a clear view of four policemen and women scrambling over the lawn in front of our performing arts center, practicing an active shooter scenario.
I know from my own Navy and firefighting training that such real-world rehearsals are critical. Practice at Baldwin School facilities allows our first responders – the men and women first to the scene if a security concern arises – to become expert at the unfortunate situations that more regularly than ever before unfold at schools around the country. They also get to know the ins and outs of our campus, understand the layout of our buildings, and understand the particular needs of our community. With parent permission, our older students are able to volunteer as bystanders, allowing them to grow more familiar with security protocols that we know could be critical over the course of life. And to see, firsthand, the safety measures in place to protect them.
Of course, these defensive measures must be paired with forward-looking efforts to forestall any attack, before it occurs.
First and foremost, it is critical to empower faculty and staff to get to know every student and family situation, so that each child has an adult who understands the academic and psychological rollercoaster of a young person’s life. At Baldwin, this means taking advantage of our small community to provide a personal network of support for every girl, including through advisors, coaches, and our school counselors.
With that in place, administrators should empower teachers and staff to reach out to students who seem troubled and find ways to help, early on. If you know your students, it is often easy to spot warning signs of a child who is struggling, or see behavioral indications that something is amiss. Early intervention, alongside open lines of communication with parents along the way, can help a young person who may be wrestling with mental issues that, in extreme situations, can result in the violence we saw at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.
To ensure these preventive efforts are most effective, they must be built upon a solid social and emotional health curriculum that helps schoolchildren develop the critical social skills necessary for them to connect with others, handle stress, and negotiate disappointment or adversity. For example, we use research-based programs that teach our girls, from elementary school on, how to recognize and manage emotions, develop positive relationships, communicate effectively with peers, and related social skills. This whole-system approach supports our students’ mental health development and improves overall school climate, underlying factors that can lead to school violence.
There is no perfect answer to the pressing question facing every parent, teacher, and school administrator right now. But the tragedy in Parkland, Fla., reminds us that we still have more work to do. For our schoolchildren’s sake, we need to start now.
Marisa Porges is head of school at the Baldwin School, an all girls’ independent school in Bryn Mawr, and a former naval flight officer in the U.S. Navy.