Game Changer

School shootings have become the nightmare that is real. Schools are supposed to be a sacred place, a sanctuary for children and for learning. Nowhere in the realm of reason could I, or anyone else who prepared for a career as an educator, have anticipated back in the day that our lives could be endangered by working in a school. Now, in addition to fire drills, schools in New Jersey and elsewhere conduct crisis drills. As principal, especially after the Newtown massacre, I began to feel more intensely the weight of responsibility for the lives of all of the adults and children in my building.

The New Jersey Office of Homeland Security and Preparedness released findings that the number of reported school threats doubled during the 2017-2018 school year. In an article that appeared in The Star-Ledger (9/13/2018) entitled “Reported Threats Against N.J. Schools Doubled, Keep Being Vigilant, State Tells Students,” Olivia Rizzo quoted New Jersey’s Attorney General, Gurbir S. Grewal: “We can attribute part of that increase to greater vigilance on the part of students, parents, and the community as a whole.” The article also implied something else that has been reported in the press and shared amongst school districts: the copycat syndrome.Reports of school shootings or bomb threats cause an escalation of threats in other schools.

The Pew Research Center posted an article written by Nikki Graff entitled, “A Majority of U.S. Teens Fear a Shooting Could Happen at Their School, and Most Parents Share Their Concern,”on April 28, 2018, reporting findings from surveys conducted on students and parents. 87% of students surveyed between the ages of 13 and 17 were either “not too worried,” “worried,” or “very worried” about the possibility of a school shooting in their own school. Only 13% of respondents said that they were “not at all worried.” This study followed the shootings at the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida, and the results were released on the anniversary of the carnage at Columbine High School.

We had taken many measures over the years to ramp up security, such as changing the main entrance, hiring a security guard, installing cameras around the building, requiring lanyards with identification cards for staff and visitors, replacing outside glass doors with metal ones, and installing a doorbell with a video monitor. We spelled out all of the crisis response procedures in our faculty handbooks and reviewed them with the staff every year before school opened. We no longer permitted parents or any visitors into the building unless they had an appointment. We set up baskets for forgotten lunches (and instruments, clothing, homework, etc.) in the foyer to permit parents to drop the items off without entering the building.

Preparedness and anxiety about a school shooting can certainly be earmarked as a game changer for principals. It is one that has affected the conscious and subconscious thinking of building administrators. We all like to think it can’t happen here, but deep down we know better. Sadly, the expression “getting out alive” acquired a more literal dimension in schools, even for principals, in the dawn of the 21st century.

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