Michele Gay is a former teacher and a parent. She lost her youngest daughter in the shooting attack on Sandy Hook School in December of 2012. Determined to build a positive legacy for her daughter and help others learn to better prevent, prepare, and recover from tragedy, Michele founded Safe and Sound Schools with Alissa Parker, another Sandy Hook parent and the mother of Emilie Parker. Michele and I met a few summers ago at a school safety conference and have been looking for ways to support one another ever since. In this interview, Michele and I talk about school safety and the importance of parent and community involvement in our efforts to support the heart of every community—our schools.
CH: In light of your experience as a parent and an educator, what advice do you have for school leaders who want to make their schools a safer place?
MG: Having worked with many school leaders over the years, and learned from many of the best, I realize that each utilizes his or her talents differently. But they all have one talent in common: the most successful leaders are exceptional listeners. They can be found throughout the school day engaging students, teachers, parents, staff members, and professionals in the community in conversation. They watch, learn, and consider many perspectives, always with an eye for improvement.
The best leaders realize that leadership is not about them; it’s about serving the school community. They uplift others and make good use of the talent and resources within the school community. They have the ability to set aside politics, personalities, and turf battles to get to the core of each issue and away from these distractions and barriers to progress.
To put it simply, they have relationships with everyone—from the Chief of Police to the Cafeteria Manager, and they are able to bring the community together around the common goal of a safe school.
CH: If you could pick the three most important things for teachers to know about keeping kids in the classroom safe, what would those be?
MG: Know your surroundings–and the ins and outs of your room and building–literally.
How many ways can you get out of your area if necessary? How can you secure or lock down your area? What kinds of people and resources do you have to help in an emergency? For example, where is the nearest AED? CPR trained staff? Your nearest access to the PA or other communication tools? Do you have a school resource officer or local law enforcement liaison? Who’s your mental go-to in the school community? Pay attention to your environment, the people in it, and–most importantly–to your instincts.
Talk together, talk often, and talk to others.
Allow yourself to be curious and ask questions of others. This allows you to think ahead and think through how you might react during unexpected situations, as well as build a shared knowledge base together.
Remember why we do this.
Following safety protocols like keeping exterior doors closed and conducting drills regularly can feel inconvenient and disruptive to the plans we make in a school day. It’s up to us as educators and leaders to find the “teachable moments” in these tasks that make our schools—and lives—safer and these routines meaningful and engaging for our school communities. Teaching and training our students and staff for safety in school is teaching and training for safety in life.
CH: Is there a common challenge you see among school districts that you work with across the country?
MG: Schools nationwide have their own unique struggles, but nearly everyone is facing these three obstacles:
Getting people together.
It sounds so simple, but bringing folks together in today’s world takes time and creativity. And the truth is that it’s not just a matter of putting people in the same room (all thought that’s a good start), it’s about putting people to work together too. That is how a community builds common values, goals, and language.
Today’s world seems to have us all in silos, and there’s a reason for that. It’s how “experts” are made. But these silos can make it difficult to share expertise with one another for the benefit of the community. Although it’s a challenge, communities that manage to get folks together around shared goals are the ones that see meaningful and sustainable progress.
Bringing people together, assessing, planning, practicing, and auditing safety takes time. It is a real challenge to find time in an already packed school day, at a staff meeting, or to find time in common with important safety stakeholders such as parents, police, and community members.
We see lots of school communities answering this challenge by carving a small amount of time out of every gathering—PTA, staff, student, and parent meetings–to target and discuss one safety topic. These conversations often grow and lead to the kind of practical changes that make a sustainable difference.
Today, the cause of school safety may be the most underfunded national initiative. Federal funding for school safety has sunken to an all-time low in the last decade. Yet the challenge of keeping our schools safe has become much more difficult and complex. Schools face an array of complex issues that affect safety—bullying, addiction, sex trafficking, and security to name only a few.
To provide a safe facility and the kind of training that students and staff need for safety costs money. Many of the schools that we work with face this challenge with their community and all of the hands, hearts, and resources they find by working together toward the goals of a safer school and a stronger community.
CH: Do parents and the community play a role in school safety? If so, how?
MG: Parents bring context for all that we do in schools. They bring the most important part of the school community—their children. When parents are engaged and involved, the school community gains critical perspective and insight—the kind of insight that comes only from parents.
Our communities are unique to the people that make them up. Those people together establish the culture and values of each community and provide the foundation for which initiatives are built. When we involve the community in our efforts, we tap into the many resources—human and capital—that exist in every community. Involving the community builds momentum and long-term sustainability for improvement. When the whole community values and supports safety, not only is everyone’s burden lightened, everyone is empowered.
The truth is that school safety is not rocket science. There is no reason that students, parents, custodians, teachers, and community members should not be a part of the conversation. In fact, there is every reason they all should be. Each member of our community has something to offer toward the all-important goal of a safer school community. Simply put, when it comes to the safety of our schools, we need all hands on deck.