Do Not Rely on Schools to Protect Your Children: Do It Yourself
by SUSAN KONIG
December 14, 2012
One day when my daughter was only nine, I had a business appointment that would get me home a bit after school ended. But she had a Girl Scout meeting that afternoon at the school and that would give me an extra hour. I arranged for my two sons to stay in the after school program so I could pick them all up at once.
After my meeting, I was driving home when my cell phone rang. It was my daughter. "Mommy, where are you?"
"Where are you?" I asked her, feeling slightly panicked.
She was home. She'd felt a bit sick and told her teacher she was going to get on the bus and go home instead of attending her scout meeting.
No one called to check with me. The bus driver did not wait to see that an adult was home. There was no car in the driveway. My daughter entered the house and the bus took off.
She was a little scared so I asked her if she wanted to go next door to the neighbors. She wanted to stay on the phone with me and I told her to lock the doors and keep the dog near her and I would talk until I got there. I was only a few minutes away but there was a traffic tie up.
Needless to say, my husband and I were both at school that afternoon talking in heightened tones to the principal and our daughter's teacher. The bottom line was the school and bus companies had made a fairly serious error. It was uncharacteristic of both and our outrage re-upped their commitment to be diligent about the kids' safety and whereabouts.
Unfortunately, emergency preparedness for schools is not as simple as one child gone temporarily astray in the suburbs.
In Beslan, where terrorists attacked a school in Southern Russia, once again, the rules changed and the unthinkable happened. Terrorists using civilians, including hundreds of children, to make their hateful points -- in this case, demanding that Russian troops get out of Chechnya.
The hostage situation went from bad to worse with a ten-hour gun fight, explosion and fire in which over 300 people perished, 176 of them children.
Americans, taken by surprise on 9-11 by terrorist attacks on our shores previously thought unimaginable, were in shock once again along with the rest of the world. A school full of children and their families...
Could it happen here?
The appalling massacre at Newtown, Connecticut proves that not only could it happen here, it has already happened! Our primary and secondary school children are not yet safe - neither are the students on our universities.
This is our vulnerability: the safety of our children.
Threat assessment expert and author Gavin de Becker proposes some good questions for parents to ask school administrators. My husband and I used these questions, from de Becker's book "Protecting the Gift," when we first enrolled our kids at their elementary school. I was surprised to hear there had been lockdown situations in the past - once when an inmate escaped from a nearby penitentiary. There was also an emergency plan in place in case of the need to evacuate.
According to de Becker, "Rather than relying on government, you can make at least as vigorous an inquiry of your child's school as you would of your child's babysitter. Below is a list of questions that can guide your evaluation of a school. The school should have a ready answer to every one of these questions. If they don't, the mere fact of your asking (which can be done in writing) will compel them to consider the issues. There may be resources the school feels would improve the safety of children, possibly even resources they have long wanted, and your own participation in the process can help them implement those improvements."
He suggests parents ask these questions:
- Do you have a policy manual or teacher's handbook? May I have a copy or review it here?
- Is the safety of students the first item addressed in the policy or handbook? If not, why not?
- Is the safety of students addressed at all?
- Are there policies addressing violence, weapons, drug use, sexual abuse, child-on-child sexual abuse, unauthorized visitors?
- Are background investigations performed on all staff?
- What areas are reviewed during these background inquiries?
- Who gathers the information?
- Who in the administration reviews the information and determines the suitability for employment?
- What are the criteria for disqualifying an applicant?
- Does the screening process apply to all employees (teachers, janitors, lunchroom staff, security personnel, part-time employees, bus drivers, etc.)?
- Is there a nurse on site at all times while children are present (including before and after school)?
- What is the nurse's education or training?
- Can my child call me at any time?
- May I visit my child at any time?
- What is your policy for when to contact parents?
- What are the parent notification procedures?
- What are the student pick-up procedures?
- How is it determined that someone other than me can pick up my child?
- How does the school address special situations (custody disputes, child kidnapping concerns, etc.)?
- Are older children separated from younger children during recess, lunch, rest-room breaks, etc.?
- Are acts of violence or criminality at the school documented? Are statistics maintained?
- May I review the statistics?
- What violence or criminality has occurred at the school during the last three years?
- Is there a regular briefing of teachers and administrators to discuss safety and security issues?
- Are teachers formally notified when a child with a history of serious misconduct is introduced to their class?
- What is the student-to-teacher ratio in class? During recess? During meals?
- How are students supervised during visits to the rest-room?
- Will I be informed of teacher misconduct that might have an impact on the safety or well-being of my child?
- Are there security personnel on the premises?
- Are security personnel provided with written policies and guidelines?
- Is student safety the first issue addressed in the security policy and guidelines material? If not, why not?
- Is there a special background investigation conducted on security personnel, and what does it encompass?
- Is there any control over who can enter the grounds?
- If there is an emergency in a classroom, how does the teacher summon help?
- If there is an emergency on the playground, how does the teacher summon help?
- What are the policies and procedures covering emergencies (fire, civil unrest, earthquake, violent intruder, etc.)?
- How often are emergency drills performed?
- What procedures are followed when a child is injured?
- What hospital would my child be transported to in the event of a serious injury?
- Can I designate a different hospital? A specific family doctor?
- What police station responds to the school?
- Who is the school's liaison at the police department?
De Becker refers to not relying on the government. Parents in search of information on school emergency preparedness will find the going tough when using the U.S. Department of Education or Centers for Disease Control Web sites, as the information is not easily accessible. It is better to use your county as a jumping off point. Most have emergency management brochures that can be downloaded from the Internet.
But when it comes down to the details, it is up to parents and schools to connect, to communicate, and to know what the plan is. After the Virginia Tech University massacre and the killings that continue to happen sporadically throughout the country, isn't it now time to focus on a thorough reorganization of all official programs which must be designed, then activated in order to secure the safety of our children?
Susan Konig is a well-known authority on family communications and other issues whose columns have appeared in the Washington Post, Ladies Home Journal, Parade, Us, Travel & Leisure, the New York Post, Catholic Review, and National Review Online.
She is also the author of the book Why Animals Sleep So Close to the Road and Other Lies I Tell My Children. She brings not only a lifetime of journalistic, writing, and family experience to FSM, but also her unique humor and perspective that allow her to deal with the deadly serious issues of national security in a relatable and easygoing manner. She co-hosts a daily radio show "Speak Now with Dave and Susan Konig," with her Emmy-award winning comedian husband on the Catholic Channel, Sirius 159.