One of a school leader's top priorities--one I think many outsiders don't realize unless they really stop to think about it--is making sure a school is as safe a place as possible. From running routine drills to tightening up communications protocols to considering access points, we worry about it all the time. I spent much of my first few years as head particularly focused on such issues, and we had a board task force examine all our practices. We've made improvements in all areas. For instance, I swelled with pride when the fire alarm went off unexpectedly on one of the first days of school, meaning we hadn't practiced with the kids, and we emptied the building in around two minutes. Of course, safety also refers to the atmosphere within the school. Children--none of us, really--learn when stressed. Negative emotions can hijack normal neurological functioning. Put these points together, and I like to think of it as climate control.
Perhaps more than anything else, parents need to feel confident their children will be safe at school. In fact, surveys often point to this as a top factor in school choice. It's part of a school's sacred responsibility in the partnership. Recently this was driven home to me both as a head of school and as a parent.
Surely anyone reading this blog knows about the shooting at an Oregon community college on October 1. It is just the latest in what we almost have come to expect, based on our lowered levels of shock and outrage. Fewer people likely know that the day after, someone posted on the same social media outlet as the Oregon shooter that a similar attack would take place at 1:00 CT on October 5 at "a university near Philadelphia."
My daughter is a first-year student at Bryn Mawr College, right outside Philadelphia.
We first learned about the threat when Kate forwarded us the college's communications to the students on Sunday evening. We talked to her that night; and, naturally, she was quite scared, especially about walking to her early morning work shift in the dining hall. We reassured her, checked in again in the morning, and monitored the Philly-area news. More than anything, I willed 1:00 to pass. It did, and we talked to Kate again. She was still unnerved, but she could laugh about how some construction noise had caused her and her roommate to hit the floor and hide. The college seemed to handle things very well. They communicated with the students about the situation their response and what to expect and what do if the nightmare came true. Extra counselors were available. Security was doubled and visible. Two of her professors cancelled classes, explaining they did not want to force students into making the choice of coming or not. Surely they understood where the students' thoughts would be. Tuesday morning Kate was still a bit on edge, but much better.*
The temptation here is to jump on my soapbox. But I try not to become overtly political in my posts. Besides, if you're a regular reader, you could figure out where I stand on any issues related to this. And they were formed long before I had this more direct, immediate fear. There's not much I could add to the argument, and I think it's much, much more complicated than the "solutions" proffered would have one believe. In the meantime, from long distance the colleges--Bryn Mawr and others in the area--appeared to handle the situation as well as they could. All of us in schools are grappling the best we can in the face of this sad new reality.
The experience made me face another reality. We learned about the situation from my daughter; we did not hear from the college, and their website did not have any information up early on. They had no obligation to inform us. I'm not angry about that. The fact is that now my child is a legal adult, the type that I'm very proud to see her becoming, What's harder to accept is the implication of all this--that I can protect her much less than I ever could.
*Tuesday morning brought another stretch of worry. While the larger threat seemed to have past, breaking news reported a man had pulled a gun at Philadelphia Community College. He was arrested, and the cause seemed to be a dispute between two people, with no ties to the other concern.