A common question in recent months from people thinking about relocating to the US concerns safety: personal safety in general and school safety in particular. In short, people are wondering how to keep their kids and themselves safe were they to move to the US.
While some aspects of school safety, such as bullying, have always been a question for parents trying to find the right fit for their child, the issue has taken on a more serious tone lately. For many, the prevalence of guns, school shootings, and racial violence have been the catalyst, and in light of that, some are considering declining offers of moving to the US.
In this article, we discuss the broader topic of school safety and what parents can do to gather information to make the best possible decision for their family. We have interviewed Sara Schmidt from Bennett International, a school consulting company, to find out how to best counsel families on exploring the topic with schools.
It’s important to note that school safety encompasses more than gun violence. Sara Schmidt says: “School safety is a much more comprehensive topic than gun violence. Kids are more likely to be a victim of bullying or intimidation or cyber harassment than they are to be impacted by a school shooting. That said, while school safety as it relates to gun violence has not typically been a question parents have asked about — it’s been assumed that the school guaranteed a safe environment — now, more families are specifically requesting a safe school.”
Before getting to the interview, some background information about how gun ownership is regulated in the US: The Second Amendment of the US Constitution ensures the right of all Americans to possess firearms. The Gun Control Act of 1968 regulates that citizens and legal residents must be at least 18 years old to purchase shotguns or rifles and ammunition. All other firearms can only be sold to people 21 and over. There are also federal restrictions in place barring some people from purchasing or possessing firearms, such as fugitives and felons. There is no national gun registry. Beyond the basics, it is the individual states that impose firearm regulations. That’s why different states have very different approaches to gun ownership. To learn about the laws of a specific state, visit that state’s government website. This site compares state gun laws.
The interview below has been edited and condensed by Felicia Shermis.
Q — How would you advise parents wanting to learn more about general school safety?
A — The overall safety conversation should include discussions of classroom safety, cyber safety, and student well-being, as well as how a school works to prevent suicides, child neglect, and child abuse. Safe schools understand that the whole child is important. Platforms and programs should be in place to report/prevent bullying, harassment, and intimidation. Find out if there is a “community engagement officer” at the school whose role is to make positive contributions to the school community and overall school safety and help foster trusting relationships between youth and law enforcement. Does the school have an emergency response plan and conduct routine drills?
Q — Are there specific community traits to look for when determining the safety of a school?
A — School safety begins with a culture that embraces community connections, says Sara and references the website Edutopia (an initiative of the George Lucas Educational Foundation), which states that a solid community engagement program may include these elements:
- Community/business school partnerships
- Parental collaboration and cross-generation learning
- Curriculum connected to real-world experiences
- Students are given a voice
- Local solutions to local problems
Q — How would you advise parents to go about finding out about how a particular school is working for a safe campus — can parents ask directly about firearm and bullying policies, for example, and if so, who is it that they should talk to typically?
A — First, a parent should always feel free to inquire about safety and security policies; in US schools, the parent’s role as an advocate for their child is commonly acknowledged. As always, we recommend a polite and cordial initiation of conversation. If there is a district lead security officer, this person may be a good source of information. While some district policies are sensitive and may not be available for public review, a family could ask for more details in a face-to-face meeting.
A good place to start is to review the district’s safety and security plan. This may be found in various locations on a district’s website. The security plan will likely run the gamut from anti-harassment policies to emergency response scenarios, including response to gun violence.
When assessing the plan, think about some of the following questions: Are safety protocols robust, and do they incorporate best practices? Since most families are not security experts, what they really need to know is that a school or district is being proactive and has engaged in creating safety and emergency policies. If a school is nonplussed by questions about security, then that is not a good sign.
To round off the interview, Sara Schmidt points to information shared by the National Center for Education Statistics, which says that during the 2019-2020 scholastic year, these are the safety and security measures most commonly used by schools:
- Controlled access to buildings during school hours
- Security cameras used to monitor the school
- Faculty and staff required to wear badges or photo ID
Sara also offers the following professional resources for those who want to learn more: