Creating a Safe Learning Environment Demands Realistic, Proactive Safety

Navigate Prepared

School safety requires us to be proactive. Being proactive is often considered a forward-thinking endeavor, however we can best become proactive by gaining experience. In an unsafe or emergency situation, people will rise or fall to the level of their training. Every drill, every scenario, we put staff and students through, builds schema for their response in an actual emergency situation. That is why training and developing teachers' and students' responses in emergency situations is the key to being proactive.

This idea plays directly into our approach at East Central Independent School District, where I serve as the Director of Administrative Services and Leadership Development. We believe building a culture of safety for our entire staff and student body is so important that it's everyone's job. 

East Central is located in the southeast portion of Bexar County, Texas, which is the same county that San Antonio is located in. We have about 10,000 students at any given time who come from extremely diverse backgrounds. This district is like a family. No matter where you come from or what you look like, we're all part of the same tight-knit group.


Many of us employed in East Central ISD, are graduates of the district. It's a tradition to come here, stay here, and have your kids go here. It’s hard for a community like ours to not be close. With a level of caring and support as deep as this, it also means that when you see an opportunity for improvement, you take full advantage of it. After all, who doesn't want to do their part to create a stronger, happier, healthier family?

When Tragedy Strikes Too Close to Home

There are a lot of people who have been touched by gun violence over the last few years and our community, unfortunately, is no exception.

East Central is very close to Sutherland Springs, which you may know as the site of a mass shooting at the First Baptist Church in November of 2017. It's a horrible event that took the lives of 26 people and injured 20 others. Myself, and others in our school district, had family and friends inside the church that Sunday morning.

Proactive school safety begins with an honest assessment of your weaknesses.

Thankfully, my family member survived—other peoples' family members did not. When that event happened, the people in our district were deeply affected. It shook the entire district to its core. The impact was that we all realized we weren't doing enough to protect our students. 

Turning Flaws Into Opportunities

It’s true that we're seven times more likely to be struck by lightning than to be in an active shooter or mass casualty event. But at the same time, we need to be prepared for every occasion. Everyone in our district must know how to handle an unidentified person in the building, a fire in the parking lot, and everything in between. Some events are more likely than others, but the stakes are too high not to be ready for anything. 

Our first step involved taking a look at our current processes and seeing where we could improve. 

Safety drills should mimic real-life urgency. You can’t just practice when it’s convenient.

We ran drills, certainly, but we ran them when it was convenient. Never over lunch, never during a test. We didn’t practice in the conditions we might see in a real emergency, which is the whole point of a drill. Many of our own kids are in classes across this district, and if our preparation didn’t feel good enough for our own children, it wasn’t good enough for any of the children we serve. Something had to change.

Over the years, we’ve studied the topic of safety. We’ve learned the most effective way to teach people personal safety is to create a schema in their brain. They train soldiers in virtual reality situations because, while it isn’t real, it helps create an environment where they are forced to react. Through these simulations, they build the mental framework and skills needed to handle a real-world situation. 

We knew that the more scenario-based our drills could become, the more effective they would be as a result. Of course, it’s an easy idea in theory, but it’s tough to implement without the right tool. That became our next focus. 

The Right Tool for the Most Important of Jobs

We looked at a number of different platforms to support our overarching safety vision, but the one that stood out was NaviGate Prepared. We went into this search knowing the pieces our district—and every district—needed to have in place. The NaviGate Prepared solution seemed to offer them all. 

To start, the platform was incredibly easy to use. All of our response procedures would be loaded into the app to give our faculty the details on how staff and students need to act in every imaginable situation. Our safety plan and our actions would be right at their fingertips. We can’t make our staff jump through hoops in a real-life emergency, so a simple solution was ideal.

The drilling side of the platform was also incredibly impressive. They had every imaginable drill already fleshed out. We wouldn’t have to spend time researching different scenarios and the best practices for each. This would help us prepare for any situation that might come our way.

Another big part of our need was communication. It’s not enough to have these safety pillars in place if our staff can’t effectively communicate in an emergency. Thankfully, communication is built into the core of NaviGate Prepared. With the platform, our staff can alert others, even if they can’t get to a PA system. Unfortunately, you can’t always get to a PA in the middle of chaos, but with the ubiquitous use of the app, you don’t need to. This feature is truly about empowering our team with the tools they need to be effective in a crisis situation. 

In an emergency situation, communication = empowerment.

The final big piece of the puzzle is where they Respond app comes into play. NaviGate Prepared can sync with our student information system (SIS) on a regular basis so, in real time, everyone who needs it has access to accurate attendance information. If there's an alarm, every teacher is immediately provided their roster for that correct class period. They can then start marking kids present or absent. This also makes it essential for reunification.

A Proactive Future Is a Safer Future

We're still in the process of implementing NaviGate Prepared, but we’re very optimistic about the framework we’ve developed. 

Moving forward, we're going to run drills for almost every situation imaginable. Trying to do that without a tool like NaviGate Prepared wouldn't just be difficult—it would be nearly impossible. Coordination is a major roadblock to facilitating these drills, so we're looking forward to having a platform to help make it a breeze. 

We have an opportunity to create realistic training using a framework that gives people the skills they need to correctly respond to any situation. This new shift feels like we’re getting ahead of the curve for anything life might throw at us. 

Across the entire district, we’ll start to drill at times when everyone least expects it. People will understand what their different options are at different times of the day. We're not going to tell people exactly what they should do in every case—we're going to give them the skills they need to make that decision for themselves.

After each drill, we’ll debrief and help our staff build their own schema. This has always been the dream, but now it’s a reality. 

Disaster can strike at a moment's notice. This isn't something you can control and, in truth, you probably can't prevent it, either. What you can control is how prepared you are when that moment finally comes.

We’re better prepared for the future, but only because we've invested in giving our staff and students the experience they need to respond in any situation.