Improving School Safety with Real-Time Communication Tools
There was a time when “school safety” amounted to the bus driver getting kids to school without a car accident. Those days have long since disappeared. Now, those seem like the golden years compared to the violence students are exposed to today. Any given day, just turning on the TV means being bombarded with news about a school shooting, a gang fight, or a missing student from campus. It’s a brave new world out there.
As a school resource officer, my peers and I have had to adapt and grow to keep our district safe. From everything I've learned over my years as an officer, a real solution involves a multi-faceted approach, with effective communication at the heart of it all.
In my job, when people think "communication," they might picture something as simple as a police radio—equipment officers like myself have carried for decades. In reality, however, school safety status communication has been something relegated to only specific school faculty for many years. Even school officers did not have general control of alerts or notices in the facility they worked. Typically, it was the principal who made the decisions to initiate reactions, resources, and responses. The teachers in the classrooms were often the last to know what was going on.
Rethinking School Safety with New Tools
At first blush, one would think my school district—Quaker Valley—is an ideal location to send a kid for an education, with little in the way of problems needing a response team or SWAT action. For the most part, they’re right. Quaker Valley serves 11 different municipalities, most of which could be classified as affluent neighborhoods. Sitting 13 miles from downtown Pittsburgh, we are not dealing with the issues one typically finds in other urban district schools. That said, Quaker Valley does have a few low-income regions that it incorporates as well, but overall our District is not anywhere near being labeled “troubled.” Then again, the Columbine shooting, which occurred when I first started my law enforcement career, wasn’t in a troubled school district either.
As a resource officer, I play a key role in Quaker Valley’s safety program. People on the outside see me as a police officer. However, I serve multiple roles in my daily job. Aside from being law enforcement for the district, I am also an instructor and program provider, covering the non-traditional training issues like drug and alcohol abuse prevention, internet safety, personal safety, bullying, and even digital citizenship. And I also work every day as a mentor for young people, informally guiding everyone I meet and interact with. My job takes a holistic approach to ensuring the safety of our district.
Threats from Everywhere
While school shootings are on top of everyone’s mind—and something everyone needs to prepare for—many districts face more immediate threats. At Quaker Valley, we're situated right along the Ohio River. That means we deal with a lot of river traffic, barges, and things of that nature. We’re susceptible to a lot of environmental issues there.
In addition, we’re near one of the busiest train tracks in the United States. Thousands of railcars pass our school each week. They carry things like liquified petroleum, crude oil, and other hazardous materials. We've got to worry about train derailments and accidents.
These are the types of everyday threats that might not always make national headlines, but need to be top of our minds to ensure we keep our schools safe. While we drilled for these emergencies in the past, I knew we could do more to be prepared.
Technology for Safer Schools
In my 20 years in school safety, we’ve seen massive changes to the way we prepare ourselves—often for the better. Today, we have the technology to create safer schools. I knew technology needed to play a bigger role in our district’s future, which is why we brought in NaviGate Prepared in 2015. I wanted to turn our emergency response plans from bulky binders of paper into a real 21st-century solution. When I got to Quaker Valley, I knew a solution like NaviGate Prepared would allow us to be more organized—and safe.
NaviGate Prepared started with a full facility assessment. We mapped every room, section, and building of the district. Then came the library of emergency plans and response guidelines, since we wanted to house all this information digitally. Additionally, student photos for identification and demographic information were also included. The system had a full library of the school district’s existing status, plans, and response resources.
While it was important to have this information stored in one central location, it was the drills that got me most excited about NaviGate Prepared.
Better Drills for Safer Schools
While we’d always practiced drills, the communication piece was missing. In the past, like I mentioned earlier, it was traditionally principals who would take the reins in an emergency. But with communication being a critical pillar in schools safety, that’s too much to fall on one person who may not even be at the heart of the issue.
With NaviGate Prepared’s Respond app, everyone could communicate during an emergency. The faculty loved that they were now in the loop. Instantly, they felt empowered. They knew in a real emergency they’d have a resource in their pocket that could help save lives. Gone were the days of only a couple of people relaying information. NaviGate Prepared gave the power to everyone. Real-time collaboration across the district, as well as school response coordination, improved tremendously.
Instead of waiting precious minutes for someone else to make a decision, our faculty felt like they could take matters into their own hands. In addition, when something was happening elsewhere, the teachers knew as soon as it occurred. With this information, they could be proactive, which goes a long way in a real emergency.
Maybe a teacher's walking down the hall and sees smoke coming from under the boiler room door. With the Respond app, they can set off the alarm and notify everyone instantly. With the app, they can also communicate to the group through a group chat, or just directly to the administrators to let them know what's going on and why they set the alarm off. We use this every single month for our drills to ensure our staff is well equipped to handle any emergency that might arise.
At the Ready
NaviGate quickly became integrated with school life at Quaker Valley, far more than I originally expected. Teachers and administrators have seen the value in the system and how it can produce stratified communication of all types. I know we’ve improved our communication and cut down on response times, which are two critical pieces of safety.
Fortunately for us, we've only had to use the Respond app for drills and exercises. But I feel more confident than ever in our staff’s ability to handle any emergency. We’ve practiced so much that it’s like muscle memory—I know they’ll be able to help in any situation without thinking twice. We have our plans and tools in place. We pray we never have to use them, but if we do, we’ll be ready.