As families send their youngsters off to school each morning, they want to know their children are spending the day in a safe place. They count on schools to provide this secure environment, so we checked with one of our regional school districts to learn more. Here are three things you should expect your children’s schools to provide.
Safety From the Outside
“All external doors at every school at every level are locked all the time except the main entrance,” says Phil Giaramita, Communications Officer for Albemarle County School Division. Inner corridors are also secured to prevent persons simply wandering the halls.
“This security means that all visitors are funneled into the main office where they must sign in,” he says, adding that sign-ins are all done on a computer. “Visitors must sign in with their name, the purpose of their visit, the time they came and the time they leave.”
In addition, schools have up-to-date emergency contact information for times of individual student illness or problems as well as a school-wide emergency or lockdown including an accurate list of persons authorized to pick up children from school.
“These are the very basic things,” says Giaramita.
Students should also be coached in “safe” behaviors such as notifying school staff when a stranger is on school grounds and reporting situations that threaten other students’ safety. It must be emphasized that they are not being a tattle-tale for reporting such things, they are doing the right thing.
Safety On the Inside
Each Albemarle County school has either a full-time, permanently-stationed police officer or regular visitations from officers. “The three main high schools and one middle school have full-time police officers,” Giaramita says. They are called Resource Officers and they are full time in full uniform with the same officers serving all year at individual schools.
“It’s an important point that this is more than just law enforcement,” he emphasizes. “That is part of it, but beyond that—especially in high school—the officers are very involved with the students about things like internet and social media safety. They answer questions about drivers’ licenses, issues in students’ everyday lives, bullying and harassment, all sorts of things like that.”
He says that many schools have anti-bullying programs and the police are often a major partner in designing these programs. At the elementary school level, it’s called responsive classrooms. “We encourage students to make a leadership difference in preventing and reporting bullying by mentioning problems to their teacher. In middle and high school it becomes a student-centered program,” he says.
The In-School Climate
It’s also very useful to sample each school’s climate, Giaramita says. “This started about five years ago when the Albemarle School District and Charlottesville City Schools shared a ‘Safe Schools, Healthy Students’ grant. The grant required an annual climate survey.” The “climate” refers to how students feel about their school.
Children at all school levels take an anonymous online survey. It asks a number of things like: How safe do you feel? Have you ever been depressed? Have you ever brought a weapon to school? Have you ever been bullied? Have you seen anyone else bullied?
“Since it’s anonymous,” says Giaramita, “the results are an honest appraisal from kids about how they are feeling in school every day. For example, sometimes when we ask if another student has been bullied, students will enter a name and we can follow up.”
Student participation is high. “More than 90 percent participate,” he reports. “The grant has expired but we continue the surveys because they proved to be so valuable. They are very helpful for principals and administrators to get a snapshot of what their students are feeling.”
The Bottom Line
Schools can make policies and changes and operate programs about bullying and violence and safety, but it’s essential for family members to be part of the safe school system from kindergarten right through high school graduation. Depending on their ages, talk with your children about general safety, fire drills, bullying, drugs, weapons, and violence. Be honest. Be open. Be available.
It’s not just okay, it’s sensible to check out your child’s room, backpack, computer, and cell phone from time to time. It’s not only your right, but your responsibility to know what’s going on in your child’s life. One dad, for instance, learned from a message on his high school daughter’s computer that she was being stalked by a much older student, but had been too frightened and embarrassed to mention it.
Don’t assume your children know the basics about safety. Be sure they learn about bullying, sexuality, and risks from you. By presenting such information in a casual rather than a crisis setting from time to time, you can establish a climate where your child will be inclined to come to you with questions or problems.
Establish order and structure in your home. Guide your youngsters toward self-discipline. Stress respect for teachers and law enforcement officers, but also make it clear your child can come to you about a problem with an adult. Be on your child’s side, but listen to what the other adult is saying.
Working with your children at home, and supporting the staff at your local school goes a long way toward ensuring their security and safety in the world.
Marilyn Pribus and her husband live near Cale Elementary School in Albemarle County.