School leaders focus on physical, mental safety of students

During its statewide regional tour this fall, KASB and USA-Kansas conducted in-depth discussions with school leaders on the physical safety, mental well-being and educational success of students. 

What school leaders said is that all three of these topics are strongly connected to one another and require continued work and improvement. 

The 10 meetings, which drew more than 300 school leaders from more than 100 school districts, allowed board members and educators to gather insights from each other, take those ideas back to their home communities and provide feedback that can help guide state policymakers in their partnership with local districts. 

Working from specific questions, participants provided hundreds of ideas and points of information. KASB has synthesized the discussions based on each question.  

We hope the discussions will provide useful information for the Legislature when looking at K-12 policies. The information comes from those closest to the education of students and represents centuries of experience and work in Kansas public schools. 

Question No. 1 

How are your schools assessing potential threats both internally and externally? What steps have your taken to ensure there is communication happening between different entities within your community and district? 

Because of recent school shootings and the incidence of school violence and youth suicide, school leaders talked of increased efforts to secure their buildings and to tend to the mental health needs of students.  

On the security front, educators emphasized the need to open lines of communication with local law enforcement, fire departments, hospitals and emergency medical services. More training, drills, coordination, and regular follow up meetings between school administrators and emergency personnel are needed. Schools are hiring more SROs, securing school entrances, using security cameras, web portals, apps and other technology for students, teachers and parents to communicate.  

But just as important, school officials are turning their attention to students and school culture. Building positive relationships with all students is key to ensuring that students are being treated all right and in a healthy place where they can learn. This requires more counselors, social workers, partnerships with community mental health agencies, trauma informed teaching practices and making sure every student feels safe in reporting anything he or she feels warrants attention. 

Question No. 2 

What are the greatest barriers to redesigning the system to improve the safety and security of your schools? How have the new legislative/regulations (requiring nine crisis drills) impacted your schools? 

Some said the increased number of crisis drills has raised awareness and communication, but concerns were also mentioned. Educators said they don’t want school to feel like a prison or to scare children and some said the increased number of drills led to complacency and desensitized students.  

Factors producing barriers to improving safety were many and included: The amount of time required for the drills eating into classroom instructional time or the lack of time to train staff properly; many older buildings are more difficult to secure and will require additional funds; a lack of mental health services; a school “code of silence” on the part of students; lack of understanding or resistance from staff, parents and students. “Some think we are such a small town, it will never happen here,” was a notable comment. 

Question No. 3 

What steps are being taken to intentionally develop the right culture and climate in your schools and community? 

Schools have greatly increased their focus on the social and emotional health of their students by hiring more staff and adopting well-known training methods, such as Capturing Kid’s Hearts and ACE’s trauma training. They also are establishing school “families” with students from different grade levels and implementing IEPs for all students. Schools also are working on updating anti-bullying programs and instituting dozens of practices, ranging from “Buddy Benches,” on playgrounds to student mentors to kids eating lunch with classmates in their classroom with their teacher. 

Question No. 4  

What does KASB as an association need to advocate for related to school safety? 

Resoundingly, school leaders say more mental health support is needed statewide. In addition, schools need more resources for counselors, social workers, anti-suicide programs and SROs. The state should provide improved training for future teachers, increased funding for early childhood education and enhanced help for parents. School districts need flexibility to meet their local needs and some school officials said the nine monthly crisis drills may be too many.  

(The meetings were held in Pratt, Haysville, Greenbush, Lawrence, Emporia, McPherson, Manhattan, Garden City, Colby and Beloit)

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