What Parents Need to Know About Private School Safety Plans

An increase in school violence, including the deadly school shooting at a Michigan public high school in November, has brought school safety plans into sharp focus.

Yet, while most attention has focused on public schools, private schools have their share of challenges ensuring that students remain safe should a disaster, shooting or other violent incident occur on school grounds.

Maria Sommerville, who coordinates the safety plan for The Harley School in New York, says private school safety plans do not differ significantly from those at public schools, but noted that the smaller size of most private schools can be helpful in mitigating potential problems.

“Independent schools are, in general, small, tight-knit communities,” she says. “Faculty and staff should know their community well enough to know when someone is in crisis, which helps reduce safety issues.”

Of course, private schools are not without risk of violence, even if the available evidence suggests it is more rare than in public-school settings.

[READ: As Students Return to School, So Does School Violence.]

A 2019 report by the U.S. Secret Service’s National Threat Assessment Center, called the NTAC, evaluated 41 incidents from 2008 to 2017 in which a recent or current student used a weapon to cause targeted violence (resulting in injury or death) on school property. Two of the cases were at private schools, according to a Secret Service spokesperson. A similar NTAC study in 2021 looked at 67 cases in which schools were able to avert a planned attack. Just one of the cases was at a private school.

Much like public schools, private schools are regulated primarily by state and local governments, and private school safety regulations vary by locale. Despite different laws, experts say best practices for school safety and violence prevention are largely the same for public and private institutions.

“Regardless of whether a school is public or private, school communities should follow the framework outlined in the U.S. Secret Service National Threat Assessment Center’s guide,” Lina Alathari, chief of the NTAC, said in a statement.

Best Practices to Prevent School Violence

The NTAC guide, called Enhancing School Safety Using a Threat Assessment Model, was updated in 2018 and says it is intended to help schools, “identify students of concern, assess their risk for engaging in violence or other harmful activities, and identify intervention strategies to manage that risk.”

The guide includes best practices for schools of all types:

— Create a threat assessment team that includes faculty, staff, administrators, coaches and others to oversee a threat assessment process.

— Define behaviors that should trigger immediate intervention, such as threats, violent acts or weapons on campus.

— Establish a system for students, parents, teachers and others to anonymously report concerns about potential threats. “Ensure that it … is monitored by personnel who will follow up on all reports,” the guide says.

— Determine a threshold for when law enforcement intervention should be requested.

— Establish threat assessment procedures that will guide investigation into the seriousness of a threat. This includes establishing whether a student has communicated his or her plans; has access to weapons; has researched attack plans or tactics; and whether there are emotional factors and motivations that could be relevant.

— Develop risk management options that schools will take once a threat assessment is complete.

— Promote a safe school climate that encourages intervention in student conflicts and/or bullying and empowers students to communicate concerns.

— Provide training for all school staff, students, parents and law enforcement.

[READ: Schools Confront Continued Mental Health Needs.]

Jay Brotman, an architect who helped design the new Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut after a gunman killed 20 children and six staff members in 2012, says that school safety plans should include controlling access to the school building, especially during busy times like pickup and drop-off.

Brotman also says school buildings should be designed to foster both security and positive feelings and emotions in students and faculty.

“Instead of having solid walls everywhere, more glass is needed — an opening of spaces and doors,” he says. “Transparency, high visibility, good lighting, daylight — all of these elements increase the sense of well-being and community, as well as increase security.”

How Private School Safety Plans Differ From Public

Myra McGovern, spokeswoman for the National Association of Independent Schools, says variations in school safety plans are less about whether the institution is public or private and more about the number of students and faculty and the type of facility they are housed in.

Still, she says, there are some differences between public and private schools when it comes to school safety.

“There are some hurdles public schools have when implementing safety measures, such as having to deal with multiple layers of bureaucracy to get funding, that independent schools are less likely to deal with,” she says. “But there are also complexities that independent schools face that public schools may be less likely to deal with, such as working with security details for the children of prominent political figures from other countries.”

McGovern also noted that private boarding schools have additional challenges because “they need to factor in keeping students and faculty safe where they live as well as where they go to school.” For example, she noted that during the wildfires in California, one boarding school was forced to evacuate and find alternative housing for all of its students and dozens of horses from its equestrian program, while at the same time finding a safe space to continue classes.

Though the national conversation around school safety has focused on school shootings in recent years, having plans in place for natural disasters is also important. The Federal Emergency Management Agency provides risk assessment tools and guidelines for schools to use when making plans.

Questions to Ask

Whether evaluating your existing school or choosing a new one, Sommerville says there are a few questions about school safety policies that parents should ask:

— Does the school have a safety plan?

— How many hours of school counseling does the school provide each week?

— How does the school mitigate bullying?

— How well do you know your students and families?

“Students cannot learn when they do not feel safe,” she says. “Parents should expect faculty and staff to know their students by name.”

Searching for a school? Explore our K-12 directory.

More from U.S. News

How to Get Private School Financial Aid

Bullying in Private Schools Versus Public Schools

Is a ‘Lab School’ Right for Your Child?

What Parents Need to Know About Private School Safety Plans originally appeared on usnews.com

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