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School Health and Safety

Our World isn’t a Scary Place, But it is Uncertain

Photo: Courtesy of Michał Parzuchowski

John McDonald

Executive Director of Department of School Safety, Jeffco Public Schools

As a new teacher, nobody ever tells you that you will also become the emergency manager of the classroom and a first responder of the hallway. It’s the great secret of education and a fundamental responsibility of the position. Our students are counting on you to be both educator and protector. 

This doesn’t mean that you have to be an expert in active shooter situations or a professional crisis manager, but it does mean that you have to be emergency-prepared so you aren’t emergency-scared. 

Getting prepared

The challenge for today’s educator is that the work you do so well as a teacher can be overshadowed by the issues students bring to your classroom. So often, the classroom is the only safe space in a student’s life where a trusted adult will listen and hear their concerns. This has a big impact on educational time. It’s a delicate balance.    

Every day, we work with students struggling with the threats of our time: suicidal ideation, cutting, eating disorders, cyber-bullying, drugs and alcohol, vaping, child abuse, sexting, and the escalating issue of human trafficking are in our midsts. Far too frequently, we are also engaged with students that are engaging in threatening attack behavior that further disrupts the learning environment. We have to face facts: many of our students are in crisis; and those that aren’t in crisis are faced with the realities caused by the disruption around them.  

Not all bad news

All is not lost, nor is it hopeless. We see successes happening every day in schools that we seldom talk about. While we are adapting to the realities of school safety in the 21st century, it doesn’t mean we should ever accept this new status quo. Today we have social and emotional supports, threat assessment teams, and community and law enforcement resources all around us that have become mission partners in helping students and schools thrive. Embrace the help!  

For a safe school environment there are a few things you need to know. Never let your climate and culture be defined by what you tolerate; define it by what you are willing to do to protect your most vulnerable and innocent — your students. Stop justifying threats.  If you don’t immediately address inappropriate or threatening behavior, you have just normalized the behavior for everyone in the school. Believe every threat until its resolved because the cost of not believing is too steep. Don’t be that teacher or that administrator that didn’t take it seriously.    

We know you hate doing emergency drills, but your students and their families as well as your family and you deserve to know what to do. Treat every emergency drill as if it is the most important drill of your life because it might just be. The most successful school safety programs are those that empower students and staff alike to own their own safety.  Your life and the lives of your students are worth fighting for, and after all, you are the emergency manager of the classroom and the first responder of the hallway. 

John McDonald, Executive Director of Department of School Safety, Jeffco Public Schools, [email protected]

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