School leaders of a certain age might remember Bert the Turtle, the star character from the nuclear preparedness animated film “Duck and Cover.” The Federal Civil Defense Administration commissioned the 1951 film, which was shown to elementary and middle school students to demonstrate how to protect themselves in the case of an atomic attack. Bert, who retreats into his shell when danger approaches, provides a reminder that school safety concerns are not new. As a superintendent, the concept of erring on the side of caution was a valuable criterion for decision-making.

Of course, with the benefit of hindsight, we know that duck and cover wasn’t the most effective way to protect ourselves and students from nuclear weapons. These days, erring on the side of caution isn’t always possible. Balancing the safety of students and staff with learning and mental health needs is a more modern challenge. 

Since a middle school student shot and killed his middle school principal in Goddard, Kansas, in 1985, the threat of school shootings has become a grave concern for school leaders.

Education Week reports that there have been 130 school shootings resulting in injury or death since 2018. School districts have responded with a host of measures, from hardening school entrances to enhancing school and community mental health services.

The problems school leaders face today are far more serious than those of the 1950s. At the same time, we know more about how to help students in need than we did in the 1950s. We also understand that our knowledge is best applied using the context of each local community. Safety to our rural school boards is similar in some ways to those in the cities in New York state but very different in others. In recent conversations with Alaska board members, I learned that they have the same challenges with mental health and suicide as those districts in urban areas. Simultaneously, they struggle with isolation and the elements in ways that urban areas do not.

In my years as a superintendent, a commonly accepted maxim was that when it comes to kids, we err on the side of caution. While this is still a good rule of thumb, we also know that being overly cautious can create its own set of problems. That is why boards need to work with their parents and communities to design and implement school safety measures that fit their communities. 

In Bert the Turtle’s day, school safety was simpler than it is now. Not only does it include keeping students safe physically, but it also means looking after their mental well-being. We must mitigate the risk of contagious illnesses and attacks on our networks and private student data. Threats come from outside the community and also can lurk within our schools.

Research has shown that students learn best when they feel physically and emotionally safe. Academic achievement is inextricably linked with security and safety. It is a responsibility that should never be taken lightly and should be given the attention it deserves. School safety means protecting the rights of every student to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

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