Our schools are safer in some ways today and less safe in others. School safety training has advanced in so many ways as a result of tragedies. Protocol has dramatically changed, too, among law enforcement officials as a result of lessons learned through the years. When school shootings occur, the response time to get the situation under control has improved a hundredfold.
But the one factor that has hindered the promise of safer schools is the higher incidence of mental-health needs going untreated because of budget cuts in schools and communities. Safety risks have increased as fewer people have access to the mental-health resources they need. Mental health is one area where we cannot compromise if we are to keep our young people safe.
As a school counselor who has worked in the aftermath of three school shootings, my opinion of what we can do to make schools safer may not be the typical response, but I hope it offers tools for saving lives.
First, each school employee must be accountable for knowing their school's crisis plan. In the event of an emergency, every person needs to know what to do at any given time. Yes, every crisis will have unique aspects, but seconds can determine the difference between life and death. All drills must be taken seriously.
Second, everyone in a school must know and follow the chain of command for crisis response. There can be no second-guessing. If every person knows the crisis plan, then each person will do his or her part to make sure all aspects of the plan are carried out and nothing is left to chance. For this reason, selecting the right person for each position within the crisis response is crucial. Leaders must take into account people's talents, areas of expertise, personality types, etc.
The final step may be the most important, but it is often overlooked—the ability for crisis responders to act as a team. A counselor who worked in the aftermath of one of the most notorious school shootings told me that the key to his team's effectiveness in responding to students' needs and bringing about the quickest healing path possible for their school was the ability for the counseling department members to get along. Simply put, they liked each other and worked well together because they had a team mentality.
Our schools are safer when educators and other staff members are accountable and prepared with a plan, follow the chain of command, and execute as team. Culture and climate are critical in any organization, especially in organizations dealing with human beings and the increasing mental-health needs they encounter.
Sandy Austin is a past president of the Colorado School Counselor Association and has provided counseling in the aftermath of three school shootings, as well as other tragedies.