Safe School Zone – Part 1

As parents in Ottawa and around the world reel from the news of the Connecticut school shooting, officials and experts explain why Ottawa schools remain a safe haven for students

It’s been only two months since the unthinkable school shooting tragedy took place in Newtown, Conn., in which a gunman killed 20 first-graders and six educators at Sandy Hook Elementary School.

Amid the global outpouring of grief, parents not only hugged their children a little tighter in the aftermath, but also began to question school safety in their own cities.

Ottawa parents may wonder what procedures are in place to prepare for such an event and what, if anything, parents can do to help protect their child’s school from such violence.

Officials at the Ottawa-Carleton District School Board say they do not take risks of violence lightly, and that a number of measures are in place to prevent such a tragic event from happening here at home.

This is likely why there has not been a shooting or gun-related violence at an Ottawa school in recent history, said Brett Reynolds, principal of Inclusive, Safe and Caring Programs.

What Ottawa schools are doing
While adults may worry about school safety, especially after reports of mass shootings, Dr. Petra Duschner, manager of Safe Schools, said for the most part, children don’t worry about safety in their schools.

“Schools are safe, and children see evidence of the range of safety measures that are in place to protect them physically and emotionally,” she said. “For example, fire drills and lockdown practices are held in all schools so that students know what to do in case of life-threatening emergencies.”

She added that visitors to schools are required to check in at the main office, most schools limit access by locking exterior doors, and that protocols and procedures are in place to support students who report feeling unsafe due to bullying or threats of violence.

Also, there are many district-and school-based initiatives in place to encourage character development, promote safety, and ensure a safe, inclusive learning environment, including the Violence, Threat, and Risk Assessment Protocol.

This means that schools share information with police and have open systems so any students reported to be making threats are identified, said Reynolds.

And in light of the Newtown shooting, the government of Ontario has expanded the Safe Welcome Program, intended to help keep elementary schools safe by providing funding to support a locked-door policy while students are in class.

“When parents send their kids off to school they are putting their trust in us, and we have to get it right,” then-premier Dalton McGuinty said in a statement.

“That’s why our government is committed to providing safe, welcoming places to learn for all our kids. It’s up to us to take all reasonable steps available to us to protect our kids. Locking school doors is a reasonable step.”

The program has enabled 850 schools to install more locking doors, security cameras, and buzzers in order to give staff more control over who enters the school.

What teachers can do
Teachers are strongly encouraged to keep the lines of communication open with their students. “It is important for educators to take time to acknowledge, listen, and talk with children about questions or fears they may have,” Duschner said. “Conversations will vary depending on the age of the child, but it is helpful to acknowledge and validate their worries and fears as a first step.

“It is also important to answer their questions as honestly as possible – children may become more concerned if they feel adults are minimizing their worries or ignoring questions. Then the focus can shift to talking about safety at school and personal safety.”

Teachers are advised to discuss how the school is safe and what should be done if someone is worried or afraid, said Duschner.

“Knowing what to do, where to go, and who to talk to in situations where children feel worried, anxious, or afraid helps build resiliency and confidence in coping with difficult situations.”

Meanwhile, Reynolds said school staff knows to watch for warning signs, including reports of threats made through social media sites such as Facebook, or students who are creating dark imagery in pieces of writing or drawings that suggest contemplating violence.

“Where there have been shootings by students there have also often been warning signs – having our protocols in place and having staff trained in threat assessment is the first step [in preventing such violence],” he said.

“It has probably prevented quite a few incidents, whether it’s against the school or a student.”

What parents can do
It’s key that parents continue communication at home as well and use discretion when events such as the Newtown tragedy take place. It is suggested that parents limit exposure to media coverage, as it may be worrisome or even traumatic for some children to view the images, Duschner said.

“Many children who heard about the tragedy would have reacted and had questions and most would have been able to cope and continue with their normal daily routines and activities,” she said.

“However, children who have been exposed to previous trauma or who are vulnerable emotionally may have more difficulty.”

She said it’s important for parents to observe and monitor their child’s emotional state, as well as watch for changes in behaviour, appetite and sleep patterns, all of which can signal anxiety or distress.

She also said reassurance that schools are safe helps to reduce worries, and that information was provided to Ottawa parents and teachers on helping students manage distress following the Connecticut shooting.

She also advised that parents reinforce the protocols that schools and teachers put into place with children. Children need to know that lockdown drills, which take place twice a year, should be taken

“Also, if they become aware of something that is at all concerning, either with their own child or a friend, parents should let the school know,” Reynolds said.

“When a child comes home and says, ‘My friend said something about blowing up a school,’ they
should share that information and not hesitate to report things that are of concern.

“There’s no harm in sharing that kind of info – at least it gives people at the school a chance to find out why someone would say something like that.”

Prevention and intervention
Ultimately, Duschner said it’s essential to remember that school shootings are still extremely rare. “It is also important to understand that high-profile violence doesn’t just happen – people don’t simply ‘snap,’” she said.

Violence is an evolutionary process and people are influenced by a number of factors that can lead someone down a path to violence, she said.

This suggests intervention and prevention are possible. In Ottawa, the four school boards and Ottawa police have signed a community-based violence and threat risk assessment protocol, a
collaborative response to student threat-making behaviour, said Duschner.

“The partners are committed to working together to respond to behaviours which may pose a risk to other students or staff by assessing the threat-making behaviour in order to develop an intervention plan that ensures safety and offers support.”

Author: Jennifer Cox