The senseless violence and loss of life in Westerville and Parkland, Florida have once again brought the concerns of our own safety, and the safety of our children, to the forefront of local, state, and national attention. As we watch the news and face our own reality, we do so with apprehension, anger, and hopelessness. We hear prognosticators and experts debate hot topic political issues, we engage in personal conversations about what can be done, and we hug our kids just a little longer each day.
As an educational leader, I wish there were a single answer. I pray each night and morning for the safety of our community, of our schools, and of our students. In Hilliard we averted a potential tragedy because we practiced “see something say something” and at that moment prayers were answered. We live each day with both intentional practice and hope. We are empowered to take steps to keep our children safe, but we also live with the stark reality that we can’t guarantee that the unimaginable will never happen in our community.
As your superintendent, I can assure you the district has taken numerous steps over the past several years to enhance our building security and to increase the mental health services we provide to students. Please know the work is never done. There is no finish line and it will never be “good enough.” Our practices and procedures are fluid . . . we live our growth mindset and aim to improve every single day.
There are some steps we’ve taken that are part of our emergency planning with law enforcement and first responders that we simply don’t share with the public. Our emergency plans are purposefully not subject to public record laws – this is for the protection of everyone involved. Let’s make it simple, we don’t want the bad guys to see our plans. There are other steps we’ve taken that are evident through our policies and structure.
Our high schools now employ the same access system that was previously used at other buildings. We strive to limit access points during the school day. We have also added hundreds of additional cameras district wide to provide video access to both the exterior and interior of our buildings. Our partnership with the Hilliard Police and Norwich Fire and Rescue, and when circumstances merit the Joint Terrorism Task Force, FBI, Columbus Police and State Highway Patrol, is essential in keeping our students safe. I can’t imagine having stronger and more trusted partners than we have in Hilliard.
Starting with the 2018-19 School Year we will be adding an additional professional development day prior to the first student day in August. This day will be dedicated to safety training and drills with our first responders. Our district’s Joint Safety Committee is already at work creating the scenarios and activities for our staff. This is in addition to the building level training exercises. These days both assist us in preventing potential events and prepare us if a situation takes place. Preparing for the unthinkable saves lives, training is essential.
In Hilliard, we are committed to enhancing the mental health services and social emotional work we do in the district. At the State of the Schools in October, we launched our Ready for Tomorrow initiative. We know schools can’t simply teach academics; our work is about the whole child. We are now measuring specific social emotional attributes of our students. We have the opportunity to identify at-risk students; to help students with low self-esteem or belonging issues. We have added licensed social workers over the last two years, with dedicated clinicians at each high school and additional support at all levels. Our partnership with Syntero provides great resources to our school, parents, and community.
While there is no single action that will keep all our young people safe, there are immediate actions each of us can do to be part of the overall effort.
- Listen to the young people in your life. Take the time to engage in active conversations. With teenagers specifically, this can sometimes be a challenge. It requires time. As a family, put away the devices at dinner and listen to what’s taking place. Speak with your children about “See Something, Say Something” and encourage them to reach out if they know someone who needs help.
- Log into your child’s social media accounts, photo stream, and text messages. Your children have no expectation of privacy from their parents – be proactive and make it a priority. In almost every tragedy, there were warning signs. Follow your children’s posts and sign-up for alerts. Follow your children’s friends . . . intentionally know what is happening in their lives.
- If something bothers you, if your gut tells you something is wrong, step-up and do something. Syterno has resources for emergencies – https://www.syntero.org/emergency-information/. Don’t let yourself be talked into a narrative of inaction. If you have knowledge of a specific threat, call the police.
- Finally, if you have concerns about someone else’s child, call them. I know it is uncomfortable; we all know that no one wants to hear bad news. But ask yourself one question, “if someone has concerns about my child’s safety and health, would I want to know?” If you have concerns, make the call. It could save a life.
Young people across America are taking note and finding a voice. Students are talking about the balance between personal liberties and public safety. Adults and parents are asking tough questions. Your district leaders are actively engaged with law enforcement and first responders to provide the safest possible environment. Your district leaders are expanding cybersecurity and monitoring operations at the school and community level. Your district leaders partner with parents, health care professional and mental health professionals to provide services to those in need. There are no easy answers; there is no single tool we can purchase. It takes a village for us to keep young people safe; our Hilliard community will come together, have the tough conversations, and continue to prepare each and every child to be Ready for Tomorrow.