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Thinking Through School Safety by Jason Stoddard

2020 has been a year of evolution. The learning curve has been sharp and seemingly relentless. We have been inundated with information, often conflicting, almost to the point of exhaustion in terms of what decisions need to be made when and by whom. I have spent my life in the business of crisis management and safety, as both a law enforcement officer and now as a Director of School Safety. Along the way I have learned some critical lessons that apply now and will apply through and after the pandemic. The great news is that most of this information is not entirely new at all. In fact, most of us already have learned the fundamentals of safety. Whether related to Covid-19, at school, or on the playground, the basic principles still apply; master the fundamentals, and success will follow. For those who work in the school safety arena, there are always pressures to invest in new technology designed to add additional levels of safety and security.

If only it were that easy, we would have solved all of these issues long ago. Truth be told, it doesn’t take a lot of money, training, gadgets, or equipment to help our kids stay safe. While the list of safety fundamentals is long, there are three foundational principles that all others grow from.

1) Teach your children to have a safety plan.
2) Teach them to pay attention to their surroundings.
3) Empower them to get an adult involved when necessary.

Having a plan and paying attention to your surroundings go hand in hand. Whenever we get on a plane, the flight crew goes over the safety procedures so that passengers both understand there is a plan, and also for each to think through what their responsibilities are if that plan has to be used. Remember the line, “There are four exits on the plane, two in the front and two over the wings. The closest exit may be behind you.”

his is the crew telling us to find the nearest exit and subliminally instructing each of us to count the number of seat backs between our seat and the door. The airlines have mastered the ability to communicate important information without creating anxiety and hypervigilance. Parents and schools need to be doing the same thing for our children. Our children need to know how to identify interior and exterior exits (including windows), what signs mean (even before they can read), and where to go if they get lost or separated from their group. These are necessary skills that once learned and practiced, will stay with them for a lifetime.
Having tough conversations without instilling fear or anxiety can be difficult. However, this is where a little creative thinking can be helpful.
Make a game of finding exits when you are in the mall or big box store. Next time your child says they need to use the restroom, have them look for the signs then lead the way. This reinforces visual clues and scanning, along with self- sufficiency.
Check out for children’s preparedness games. Show your children how parking lots are labeled and what clues they can use to find the car if you get separated.

Have them take a picture of your vehicle and background, so they have a reference point to navigate back to where you parked. Having a Plan-B could literally become a lifesaver. During a time of crisis or a critical incident, cell phone service may not work because of the building’s construction or overloaded circuits.
The art of teaching a child when to involve another adult, in any situation, is a tremendously difficult task for many parents, especially for those raised in a generation of “stranger-danger.” Maintaining an open and honest dialogue with our children is one of the most critical tasks parents will ever do. There is much debate over how these tough conversations should go, but children must know they are loved and cared for. They must understand some secrets are unacceptable, and they also must also know we will not judge, over-or under-react.

Out of the three safety fundamentals, this one is the most difficult for parents, but is arguably the most important. The likelihood that our child will be exposed to a serious crisis themselves is low. However, it is more likely that they will see something, or hear something, which may cause harm to either themselves, or someone else, during their childhood. If, for no other reason than that, we must figure out a way to keep our kids talking to trusted adults who can respond appropriately.
The world is a complicated and complex place. Understanding how to navigate through it can be made easier with the application of safety fundamentals and ongoing conversations, actually talking and listening to our kids, not speaking around them.

About Jason Stoddard

Jason Stoddard is the Director of School Safety and Security for the Charles County Public Schools (MD). He is responsible for sustaining a safe learning and work environment for over 27,000 students and nearly 4,000 staff members. Since coming to the public schools in July of 2018, he has created the Office of School Safety and Security, been awarded over 2 million dollars in grant money, implemented major evolutions such as revolving backgrounds for all employees, options-based active shooter response training, the “I love u guys” Foundation Standard Response Protocols, a state of art radio communication system, and implemented a model family reunification process. Prior to joining the schools, he retired as a Lieutenant with the Charles County Sheriff’s Office in Southern Maryland. During his twenty-plus years with the Sheriff’s Office, he has served as a patrol officer, community policing officer, school resource officer, counter-terrorism officer, and crime prevention officer. His executive command assignments include tours within the Patrol Division and the Special Operations Section. His final assignment was as the Commander the Homeland Security and Intelligence Section, where he created and built a real-time crime center, the first in Southern Maryland. Mr. Stoddard has a Master’s degree in Organizational Leadership and a Bachelor’s Degree in Criminal Justice. He is a graduate of Northwestern University, School of Police Staff and Command, and the FBI Law Enforcement Executive Development Program. Mr. Stoddard is an adjunct professor at three universities; teaches executive-level leadership for the Maryland Police Training Commission, has authored several articles for magazines on topics ranging from school safety to organizational leadership, and serves as a consultant for the Department of Justice and National Institutes of Justice.

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