I recall the first time I put my oldest child on the school bus. I drove my car down the driveway of our rural home at 6:26 a.m. It was pretty dark outside and my excited, just-turned-five-year-old was sitting next to me, his new Power Ranger backpack on his lap. His excitement for the first day of school was palpable.
Before I could get fully out of the driver’s seat, the big yellow bus pulled up and my baby eagerly leaped from the car. He quickly disappeared through the unfolding doors. The bus driver gave me a quick smile and a wave, the doors slid closed, and he was gone.
I stood there in the glow of the dawn, and realized that in the simple act of putting my child on the bus, I was sharing the duty I had to protect the most precious person in my life with people I barely knew – the school district and the local board of education. I am not entirely sure that I shared him willingly, and I know I experienced more than a little trepidation in what felt like a colossal leap of faith.
Thankfully – but not unexpectedly – my son reappeared through the same folding bus doors a little after 1 p.m., tired, smiling from ear to ear, and safe and sound.
For me, the experience underscored the weighty responsibility that school districts have to ensure the safety of the children entrusted to them.
The safety and security of the school environment is also essential to effective education and student achievement. When the New Jersey Anti-Bullying Bill of Rights (N.J.S.A. 18A37-13) was enacted, the Legislature declared that, “a safe and civil environment in school is necessary for students to learn and achieve high academic standards; harassment, intimidation or bullying, like other disruptive or violent behaviors, is conduct that disrupts both a student’s ability to learn and a school’s ability to educate its students in a safe environment; and since students learn by example, school administrators, faculty, staff, and volunteers should be commended for demonstrating appropriate behavior, treating others with civility and respect, and refusing to tolerate harassment, intimidation or bullying.”
It is the responsibility of each board of education to foster with its community of parents a sense of well-being and confidence that each child is valued and will be protected from any form of threat or danger to their safety and well-being. One important tool the board has to ensure the safety and security of the students and staff is clearly-articulated policy.
Safety and security broadly affects each individual and all aspects of the educational program including community relations, administration, business practices, personnel, student behavior, the curriculum, and facilities. Some topics for policy consideration include:
Who is in school today and should they be there? Visitor policies (NJSBA file code 1250) are essential to minimize the disruption of unscheduled visits and ensure the orderly conduct of the educational program. It is more important, however, to have rules to control access to the school building and document who is in your facility. That helps to control whom the staff and children are exposed to, and protects the students and staff from unauthorized intruders. At a minimum, most schools have policy requiring that all visitors sign in and out of the school office and that they state the purpose of the visit. Some schools take additional precautions by photographing visitors and requiring them to leave drivers’ licenses.
Similarly, policies and procedures on participation by the public (NJSBA file code 1200) cover school volunteers and regular visitors. Volunteers are subject to all the rules for visitors with additional requirements that may include criminal background checks and training on school policy. For example, most procedures we evaluate have requirements that volunteers stay only in the area to which they are assigned and are not permitted full access to school facilities. Volunteers are required to be supervised by staff at all times and are not authorized to manage the students independently.
Recently, I spoke with a board member from northern New Jersey. His board was under fire from a disapproving community when it terminated a program that allowed parents to come to school to share lunch with their children. The program grew and became a liability when the number of participants exceeded the staff’s ability to adequately supervise the period. Without enough supervision, these adults were found wandering around the school. When large numbers of visitors are milling about, it is easier for an unauthorized person to sneak through, creating a potential threat to the students or staff. Additionally, it is more difficult for the school to monitor students who may be subject to custody rulings. This board did not make the popular decision, but it made the safer choice.
Is my facility secure? The safety and security of the facility includes policies and procedures for keeping entrances locked and monitored (NJSBA file code 3516 Safety, and discretionary policy 3517 Security). There are a wide variety of district-specific policy topics including ID cards and keys, biometric devices, surveillance cameras, metal detectors, school resource officers and even panic alarms. The specific needs of the district dictate the type and amount of security measures necessary for day-to-day operation and school events. The local law enforcement agency is often consulted in the determination of the prudent security measures taken at school facilities. Depending on the measures identified, there are policy considerations for compliance with law. For example, the board may authorize the installation of a surveillance system in school facilities or school buses, but the law requires that notice be posted that surveillance equipment may record activity. There are additional policy considerations regarding the use and storage of recorded information.
Is the school environment safe? A biosecurity plan (NJSBA file code 3542.1 Wellness and Nutrition) is part of the state Department of Agriculture regulations for local wellness and nutrition (N.J.A.C. 2:36-1.13). Food biosecurity is the protection of food from bioterrorism or any intentional use of biological and chemical agents for the purpose of causing harm. Districts are required to prepare for the threat of bioterrorism or a crisis emergency in their foodservice operation.
The law also requires that schools take measures to ensure the safe handling and storage of hazardous chemicals; have procedures to control and prevent exposure to bloodborne pathogens; prevent and report contagious illness; and alert the community of any incident of soil contamination (NJSBA file code 3516 Safety, 4112.4/4212.4 Employee Health and 5141.2 Illness).
Who is supervising the students? Common sense tells us that creating safe conditions for children requires supervision. Your school staff comprehends the vast array of possibilities of what can go wrong when youthful energy is left to its own devices. School staff is required to provide ongoing supervision throughout the school day and for all activities that involve the students. A specific example is that schools are required to develop procedures for the supervision of dismissal (NJSBA file code 5142 Safety, Jerkins v. Anderson, 191 N.J. 285, June 14, 2007). It is the board’s responsibility to ensure that young children are safely ushered to their buses or released to a parent/guardian or authorized adult.
Federal law requires schools to educate students about online safety and supervise and monitor them while they use the internet. Virtual access to the global internet community can present many hazards to the safety and security of individuals and their protected and identifying information. Unsupervised internet access creates the potential for students to be exposed to inappropriate and sometimes traumatizing material. Additionally, students are required by law to receive training in the appropriate use of the internet to prevent acts of cyberbullying and/or other abuses of this form of interaction among students. NJSBA file code 6142.10, Internet Safety and Technology, states:
It is the policy of the district to establish safe and effective methods for student and staff users of the district’s technological resources and to:
- Prevent user access over its computer network to, or transmission of, inappropriate material via Internet, electronic mail, or other forms of direct electronic communications;
- Prevent unauthorized access and other unlawful online activity;
- Prevent unauthorized online disclosure, use, or dissemination of personal identification information of minors; and
- Comply with the Children’s Internet Protection Act (CIPA).
Are minds and bodies safe and secure? The board of education is responsible for providing a school climate and culture that is safe, supportive and respectful of individual diversity. All boards are required to have policy and procedures for appropriate conduct of students and staff (NJSBA file code 4119.22/4219.22 Conduct and Dress and 5131 Conduct and Discipline). Most schools have a detailed code of student conduct with clearly articulated behavioral expectations, prohibited behaviors and disciplinary consequences. The code of student conduct is designed to promote appropriate and civil behavior among students. The law requires that the board have and annually review district policy on harassment, intimidation and bullying. As part of the requirements the Anti-Bullying Bill of Rights, the board is responsible for ensuring the investigation of all reported incidents, and making environmental remediation when problems are identified.
Other policies that address helping students through difficult emotional and physical issues include 5141.6 Child Abuse and Neglect, 5141.6 Crisis Intervention/Suicide Prevention, 6164.1 Intervention, and Referral Services, 6164.2 Guidance Counseling and 6164.4 Child Study Team.
When the unthinkable happens? Clearly, the board, the staff and any reasonable person in general are interested in preventing problems and threats to safety and security before they arise. It is, however, a necessary element in any policy manual to be prepared when emergency situations occur. District planning and preparation for emergency situations is a shared responsibility and requires the connection of multiple community agencies including the police department, the fire department, the Division of Child Protection and Permanence and emergency medical services (NJSBA file code 1410 Local Units).
Schools are required to develop and review annually a safety and security plan. The plan requires consultation with local law enforcement and must include:
- The protection of the health, safety, security and welfare of the school population;
- The prevention of, intervention in, response to and recovery from emergency and crisis situations;
- The establishment and maintenance of a climate of civility; and
- Support services for staff, students and their families (from NJSBA file code 6114 Emergency and Disaster Preparedness).
Specific crisis response is elaborated through policies on violence and vandalism, weapons and dangerous instruments, reporting missing children, questioning and apprehension, and search and seizure (NJSBA file codes 5131.5, 5131.7, 5142, 5145.11 and 5145.12 respectively). In addition to guidelines on how to respond to a situation, most of the policies related to crises that affect an individual or the entire community detail the reporting requirements to the appropriate authority and to parents/guardians.
There are few themes that are more pronounced and global within a policy manual than safety and security. This article mentions many examples, but is not exhaustive. Required and district-specific policy topics related to the safety and security of students and staff abound, reflecting the fundamental importance of safety and security to the education of children.
Now that my children are mostly grown and all self-sufficient, I think back to those scary moments when I first had to trust in the board and the school district staff to protect my child and, by extension, my own heart. I am grateful to the bus driver, the school staff and the board because the faith I placed in them was well-rewarded. I can honestly say that they did an excellent job. Clearly articulated board policy, consistently acted upon by school administration and staff, as well as a school culture that values each student, promotes a safe and secure school environment and the community’s faith in its school leaders.
For model and sample board policies contact Policy Services at the email below.