Designed for a Different World: Connecting a Century-Old Building to the Future of School Safety
Cuyahoga Falls is about every student, every day, every opportunity. We make sure we’re in the moment and giving students every opportunity they need. We enjoy talking about new ideas and experimenting to see if those new ideas are right for us. Our district empowers us to have conversations about changes to our system and structure. We’re even looking into moving our start time from 7:45 a.m. to 8:30 a.m in order to better accommodate our students’ needs. Ultimately, we may not implement that change, but we don’t shy away from such discussions. That’s how we move forward as a school, as a district, and as a community.
I think it's important to have conversations that make you uncomfortable. It’s the world we live in. And school safety is one of those topics that make people very uncomfortable. As educators, we need to take the initiative and develop a questioning attitude in order to gain feedback from students, teachers, and community members.
Even the most prepared school with security guards, cameras, and gates can still have incidents. It doesn't have to be someone with a gun—it can be anything. We had to ask ourselves: If something bad happens, are we providing the proper tools to the people we care about?
Cuyahoga Falls has always been committed to changing our approach to school safety. The recent spate of high-profile school shootings across the country has prompted more and more school districts to take school safety more seriously—but it has always been a priority for us. At the end of the day, my job is to get everyone home safe. If they arrived with 10 fingers and 10 toes, they’re heading home in the same condition. But since our school has unique challenges, we need to think proactively and creatively.
Our school is 97 years old. It was designed to bring people in, not keep them out. There are over 100 doors to our building. We have tons of cameras, but we can't have a metal detector or security guard at every door. So, it’s a major challenge to take a building that was designed for a different world and essentially put a bubble around it, without physically changing anything.
Realizing Our Achilles’ Heel
Improving our school safety keeps me awake at night. I constantly question everything we do and how we can streamline it—not just for the sake of speed—but to the point of better communication and less error. Safety is always in the back of my mind, but a false alarm brought it to the front.
One day, we had a student rip a fire alarm completely out of the wall, and it activated. To make matters worse, it didn’t allow our system to tell us where the fire pull was from. Chaos ensued. We have a few hundred pull stations and the student put the damaged one back on the wall, so we couldn’t visibly verify which one had been activated. It took over an hour to locate the damaged pull station. In that time, our staff hadn’t even finished checking in the students yet.
Each of our teachers had an emergency process printout, but the student pulled the alarm during a class exchange, making it more difficult to account for everyone. No one was sure which students they were responsible for. That was our true Achilles’ heel. We never realized how unprepared we were for something as simple as a fire pull during a class change. We recognized how serious this situation could have been if it were a major event.
That day, staff communicated using just four radios. It was like we were stuck with technology from the ‘80s. We also realized we had major bottlenecks in our emergency procedures. Someone would have to call the main office secretary, but if she was on the phone with a parent, no one could get through.
This event was a huge catalyst that caused us to rethink our entire safety program. We had to sit down and ask ourselves how seriously we wanted to take this initiative. That’s a tough question to ask yourself, but it’s a conversation that needs to happen. We wanted to create a way to empower the entire staff to learn how to run the school safety system.
Undeterred: Securing Community Buy-in
We knew we needed something to help us prevent another similar situation, so I reached out to my network of contacts across several districts to ask what was working for them. One of my peers said their school was using , so I watched the demo video online to learn more about its capabilities. I loved what I saw. We determined that we needed this solution for our school.
We planned to adopt the platform, but we wanted to see if the whole district would be interested as well. Unfortunately, for budgetary reasons, they decided now wasn’t the right time.
Since we wanted to adopt NaviGate Prepared mid-year, our budgets had already been spoken for. It was time to get creative and start brainstorming solutions. This was the perfect time to for communication to find a way to get the money to bring in the new system.
We started working with our Parent-Teacher-Student-Association (PTSA) and specific community partners; we applied for grants and fundraised to cover the cost. The PTSA was incredible. It didn’t take long for us to raise the funds needed to bring in NaviGate Prepared.
Where There’s Smoke... There’s a Drill
When I got the green light to roll out NaviGate Prepared, it was a few days before our winter break. So, I used my holiday to learn the product inside and out. It took me two weeks to learn the software and become proficient with it.
Those two weeks to play with the platform and build within the system were invaluable. I wanted to be confident in the system when we rolled it out. We started by implementing a text alert that we could send to indicate events, such as whether the school is conducting a fire drill or experiencing an actual fire emergency.
We don't have many staff meetings, but we set one up and told each teacher to bring their smartphone so they could download the NaviGate Prepared app and log in. No one could leave until it was done. We covered a few different, realistic scenarios, like what a teacher should do if they see smoke coming from a locker.
We took our time with the staff to ensure they understood both the new technology and how their own roles and involvement had changed. We anticipated there would always be a few staff members who will feel reluctant, simply because they remember a time when we didn’t need this technology. But times have changed. We’d rather be honest and completely transparent when it comes to school safety.
We showed our staff how simple it is to account for each student during an event using the Respond app. If a student has been accounted for, their icon turns green. If they’re missing, it turns red. It’s common for us to have more than 1,800 people in the building, and now our technology can finally accommodate such large numbers. The text message thread allows the 100 or more staff to communicate in real time—a major difference compared to four staff members with radios. We more than raised the bar—this was our new normal. It was a complete safety paradigm shift.
NaviGate Prepared populates a safety sheet for both drill scenarios and real events. We can get everyone out of the building in under five minutes and checked in within another five minutes. And for 1,800 people, that's impressive. Six schools share a career program, and so it's normal for us to have a couple hundred kids out of the building at a time. We had to build custom rosters for things like that because the first time we had a drill, we were missing 300 students. That’s when we realized it was the career kids. We fixed that. NaviGate Prepared has allowed us to move faster because it has enabled us to know our building that much better.
Directing the Flow of the River
Throughout the process, we kept students informed of our new systems and new expectations. We started to run drill and walk-through scenarios. We told students about NaviGate Prepared and how, from now on, they are to go to a teacher and tell them their name when there’s a fire drill. We also started making everyone carry their student IDs. We’ve even asked NaviGate Prepared to create a scanner for their IDs so the process goes even faster. We were 100% transparent with our students throughout the process. Communication isn’t only vital with your staff; it needs to include everyone who steps foot in your school.
The student body is the river. When you want something to happen, you have to get the river behind it. Once you get the river on board, you can't stop it. And, over time, we got them on board. We got parents and teachers onboard as well and now, our momentum is unstoppable.
Our school has cultivated a culture of safety. Empowered teachers means that now everyone's the captain of this ship. Practice is the key to ensuring everyone knows their role. Our drill scenarios are a little more aggressive than others because our building is so big and unique. We have to be prepared for just about everything.
When we use NaviGate Prepared, it works flawlessly. We recently had an experience where our boiler overheated and we had to evacuate. It couldn’t possibly have gone smoother. Our staff was very impressed with the product. They saw our vision, and it has become a huge part of who we are.
Single File Towards the Future of School Safety
It’s vital for any school getting started with a school safety plan to focus on visitor management. We like to know who's in our building, and who's not, including staff, students, and visitors. To gain access to the school, visitors must now get their driver’s license scanned, pass a background check, and park in the right spot. Visitors can’t come to pick up a student unless they’re listed on the individual’s emergency contact list. We can't run into a situation where we give a student to the wrong person. That's unacceptable. You have to be prepared for uncomfortable conversations; sometimes you must be able to say “no” to someone. Follow the rules you set.
With all of the technology now available, you have to ask yourself if you’re comfortable still using the clipboard-and-walkie-talkie method to track, locate, and corral hundreds or thousands of students.
Our school population and building design being what they are, we know that we can't afford to be restricted by our infrastructure or processes. We can’t change the design of our century-old building. Thankfully, we don’t have to. It’s like we’ve been able to build a protective bubble around us. Now, I’d never run a school without NaviGate Prepared. I’d pay for it myself if I had to. Implementing cutting-edge safety technology allows us constantly improve and ensure our students can focus on why they’re in school: to learn.