From Theory to Practice: Improving Student Safety and Security
School safety is a complicated matter. There are so many variables that we sometimes lose sight of the big picture. Often, district administrators and principals will focus on specific outcomes, like completing a drill within a specified time or compiling a set of procedures for a particular type of incident.
Every school district has guidelines that govern emergencies, but effective implementation takes time and careful planning. I am often invited to address administrators from various jurisdictions. At these events, the same pattern recurs. Everyone wants to examine what the next district is doing. They want to learn from other school districts’ successes and apply those lessons to their own, because we can all learn from each other. However, there comes a point where we have to take that good idea and apply it to our situation and our campuses.
From Theory to Practice
I grew up in the city of Boston and did my undergraduate in Rhode Island. I then did my Masters and PhD here in Texas. My degrees are in criminal justice, but I focused almost all of my work on school safety.
As a researcher and associate director at the Texas School Safety Center at Texas State University, I used my theoretical knowledge of the subject to assist administrators, trainers, and legislators from across the state to create safer schools and healthier learning environments. On top of my research work, I was a frequent presenter of school safety and security talks at local, state, and federal agencies, and community organizations.
In August of 2018, after nearly seven years in the academic and policy world, I made the switch from the state to local level. I became the Director of Safety and Security at the Comal Independent School District. It was a newly created position, and the right job at the right time in my career.
The Right Level of Complexity
It is essential to build overall strategies that govern school safety and security, but there's also a danger of oversimplifying if you don’t drill down far enough. School safety presents a host of challenges, and a strategy is only as good as its application to specific conditions.
School safety is a combination of strategy and implementation. It is not simply the adoption of a set of procedures or a software platform. Seeing the big picture is a matter of bringing everyone to the table and putting together all the pieces in terms of how we would actually execute the strategy.
We need to look at our facilities. We need to work with our counselors and support staff to address mental health issues. We need to collaborate with law enforcement and emergency responders, and we need to train our administrators on how to run drills and implement safety and security protocols.
Everything has to work together. Here's one example: A couple of months ago, we changed door hardware out so that doors could be locked from the inside of the classroom. It's a small but significant upgrade. In the event of a lockdown, a teacher doesn't have to fumble with keys to lock a door from the outside. Ultimately, the change makes sense as part of a more extensive safety protocol we have implemented.
Geography and Growth
Comal Independent School District is located in central Texas. We operate three comprehensive high schools, a high school of choice, seven middle schools, and 18 elementary schools. The district is spread out. It can take me 40 or 50 minutes to drive to a school from my office.
The distance we cover is not our only distinction. Comal is one of the fastest growing school districts in the state. Our annual enrollment has been increasing by 900 to 1,000 students. We serve a diverse population in the area between Austin and San Antonio, which is booming.
We are well known for high academic standards, athletics, and fine arts. Our schools are very much an incentive for families looking to move into the area. I wanted us to be just as much revered for our school safety.
The Wrong Tool
When I started here, Comal's safety and security operations had already made great strides in bringing technology to the forefront. We ran mostly on Google Docs, online file sharing services, and internal servers to store procedural documents, student rolls, and drill reports.
But it wasn't clear whether everyone who needed it had access to these documents, and knew where to find them. Then, there was the question of looking at these records and using the information they contained.
The state of Texas requires every school to run a certain number of emergency drills every year. Across our campuses, this adds up to 500 or more such exercises annually. We have to document each one of these and compile detailed statistics for further analysis.
Google's spreadsheet is okay if I want to sort everything by date. But I need more information. How many students were involved? How long did it take to evacuate the school? Who was in charge of what? Did anyone go missing?
I have to examine all the variables, see what worked and what failed, and then adjust our approach for the next drill. If one school has found an effective strategy to deal with a specific issue—like getting the kids back into a classroom faster—I'd like to be able to spot it and share it with our other schools.
I couldn't accomplish this with Google Docs. The documents were too big, and the analytical tools were too complicated. It was impossible to extract the quality of data we needed to better secure our schools.
A Tool That Makes Us Better
I met Thom Jones of NaviGate Prepared within a week or two of starting at Comal. I was a little skeptical going into his pitch, but that’s just me. Every vendor thinks they have the right solution, but it’s not always the right match.
My first conversation with Thom revolved around the geography of our district. Comal’s schools are spread out over five counties. Between fire, EMS, and police, we are dealing with something like 20 emergency response agencies. There are also dozens of departments within the school board itself.
Getting the right information to the right people as needed requires a lot of coordination. Thom showed us that NaviGate Prepared could fill in the gaps in our safety and security protocols. He didn’t promise to do the work for us. Instead, he offered a solution that could improve the way we handled everything.
I did the math and saw that NaviGate Prepared balanced both cost and impact. I was also impressed by the fact that Thom treated Comal as a partner from the moment we started using the app. He listened to our needs and tweaked NaviGate Prepared to comply with our existing procedures. He gave us a facilitation tool that not only fit with what we already had but one that also provided a springboard for future improvements.
Better Data for Better Outcomes
One of the biggest challenges our administrators deal with is planning and executing emergency drills. Their main obstacle is time. There are hundreds of things that have to happen every school day.
Then there’s the matter of training. There is no value in pulling people off campus to train them if the drills don’t generate any useful insights about emergency preparedness.
NaviGate Prepared provides a mechanism to report and resolve issues that my principals may experience during drills. For example, an administrator may indicate that an evacuation space is too small because there are 200 more students this year.
I can review this information and then suggest a solution. I may also discover that other schools are experiencing the same issue and can then initiate a mechanism at the district level to alleviate the problem. I can get the ball rolling by sending them a link to an online form. It’s so much easier than asking a principal to go through a binder, find a piece of paper, photocopy it, fill it out, and then fax it back.
Another significant improvement is in data collection. State regulations require us to document our emergency drills, and we have to supply the information upon demand. NaviGate Prepared streamlines and standardizes the data entry and retrieval process. Principals can enter information about the duration of a drill, the number of students and teachers involved, the participation of law enforcement and emergency response personnel, and any other relevant factors.
The entire district now uses the same standardized forms to submit their results. I can then go into the backend, run some simple reports, and start to get a better view of everything that’s going on. I can analyze trends and see what we’re doing right, and what needs improvement. I can break down the information according to location, type of school, and the size of the student population.
For example, one of our bigger high schools may have implemented an evacuation protocol that resolves the same issue facing a smaller elementary school. NaviGate Prepared allows me to share best practices easily. If a principal has found an especially clever solution to a problem we are all facing, I can make it a district-wide policy and instantly share it.
A final improvement is in student accountability. At the end of every drill or actual emergency, we have to account for all our students. NaviGate Prepared’s Respond module has improved that process tenfold. We no longer have to carry clipboards and worry that class rosters are up to date. A teacher can do a roll call based on an up-to-date student list which syncs daily with our student information system. If a child is out sick, we’re not all scrambling to find them because we already know they’re not in school that day.
Rolling It Out Slowly
We are rolling out NaviGate Prepared in phases. It is not being used at all our campuses yet. Individual schools are also introducing it to smaller groups of teachers. They’ll start with five teachers in September, add another 10 in October, and so on.
Like any other new tool, it takes some getting used to. Teachers and principals initially reported that NaviGate Prepared was slowing them down. It took more time to get to the fire door or to account for kids because they were still learning the workflow. Now that they’ve figured out the app, everything is moving faster and more efficiently.
It’s like anything else. When you upgrade from Windows 7 to Windows 10, it takes a few days to figure out the new functions, but once you’re up to speed, it’s far more efficient. For example, principals can use NaviGate Prepared to check in with all their teachers and classrooms at the same time instead of having to radio each group one by one.
Let’s face it. You can’t just pick up an app and get it right the first time. It takes practice to figure out the features and to use them correctly within your specific context. Fortunately, my teachers and administrators are fast learners, and they are becoming proficient and efficient at NaviGate Prepared. Those who are already using it are unanimous in their approval.
Building a Reputation for Safety
Building and implementing safety and security protocols takes time. I came to Comal brimming with enthusiasm. I was full of ideas and knew I could make a difference here. But I also had to slow down a bit.
NaviGate Prepared simplifies the administrative process while taking into consideration all the complexities of emergency planning. A single platform provides tools to document procedures, collect data, generate reports, carry out emergency drills, and implement emergency plans in the event of an actual crisis.
It doesn't do the work for me. Instead, NaviGate Prepared provides a framework that I can use to plan a safety and security roadmap for the entire school district. I would very much like Comal to become a leader in this domain. I want neighboring districts to look at our best practices for inspiration, and I want parents to move here because we are the safest schools for their kids.