School safety expert offers tips for Texas parents as students return to the classroom

Yffy Yossifor/yyossifor@star-telegram.com
·5 min read

Parents may be having difficult conversations with their children about school safety as they return to the classroom following the mass shooting in Uvalde.

Stephanie Peterson is a training and education specialist at the Texas School Safety Center, and worked on a school safety guide for parents. She offers tips in an interview with the Star-Telegram. Responses have been edited for length and clarity.

Generally speaking, what are some school safety measures parents and guardians can expect districts to have?

School safety is a shared responsibility. Administrators, staff, teachers, parents, students, legislators, and the community: It requires all of us to place school safety as a priority.

Schools are required to conduct school safety and security audits and audits involving a comprehensive and detailed evaluation of all school and district facilities and safety and security policies and procedures. I also wanted to mention that school districts are required to have an anonymous reporting system available for students to report instances of any school safety concern but especially bullying, cyber bullying or harassment. It provides a tool in which a student can report any concerning behaviors without having to identify themselves.

What are some ways parents and guardians may be notified of an emergency, like an active shooter situation?

There is new legislation that was passed this past year that requires parents of a student enrolled in a district to provide their contact information in writing upon school enrollment, and no later than two weeks after each school year. So that includes their address, phone number and email address. That’s important because school districts need to include in their emergency operations plan the communication measures that they have in place and ensure that they’re adequate in both the technology and the infrastructure to provide that immediate notification to parents in any situation that provides a significant threat to the health or safety of their child.

If the child it needs to be evacuated from the school and requires reunification because they have to be reunified with their parents at a place other than the school, the school will notify the parents of the reunification site and that will be done through several methods of communication — text message, email or phone call.

If there’s an emergency at a child’s school, particularly an active threat such as an active shooter situation, what should parents and guardians do and what should parents and guardians not do?

Most active threats are over within five minutes, and we use the active threat term because the threat may be from other things other than an active shooter situation. Some schools may ask parents and students to not contact each other for the first five minutes of a perceived threat or crisis because that gives time for administrators and first responders to have time to gather accurate information and respond.

I understand that it’s very hard — but to avoid contacting the school or driving up to the school. If first responders need to come or if there’s any sort of situation going on, it gives time for the school to address that and handle that without, you know, 5,000 cars coming up and additional people, which may get in the way of safety and security. And to again, reiterate that the school is doing their best to get information out as quickly as possible.

How can parents and guardians approach talking about school safety with their kids and what are some key things they should make sure students know?

Reassure your child that measures have been taken to maintain their safety. So children are not able to focus on learning if they’re concerned about their safety. So using age and developmentally appropriate language, explain that a vast array of people have been trained and planned on what to do to ensure their safety.

Active threat safety measures for real emergency are things that are practiced with drills. So when they are participating in drills, their attention and cooperation is important. Also to notify you — their parent or guardian — their teacher, their principal, or if they have school based law enforcement. If they’re aware of any threat or anything that is concerning to them or scary to them, to be sure to notify those people.

How often should parents and guardians discuss school safety with their kids?

There’s not a clear-cut answer for that. I think it depends on the child, their age and developmental level. As things come up it may need to be redressed. So when there is current events, that might be another time do have that conversation with them. But it’s not something that is a one and done conversation.

In a time where most kids, particularly older kids, have access to social media and phones during emergencies, what instructions should parents and guardians give to kids about phone and internet usage in a potential active shooter situation?

During an active threat, your child’s phone needs to be silenced. They shouldn’t be calling or texting because that could put them in danger. So if the child has not silenced their phone and it’s ringing or a text notification comes through, the light or the call could give away the location to the attacker. So again, those first five minutes, just having that patience to have everything on silent and to just be out of sight and quiet is the best practice for that. And then, again, after those five minutes, that delayed contact time, they may be able to have additional information.