Learning institutions face no shortage of safety threats these days, placing increased pressure on educators and administrators to keep students shielded from harm. As of this writing, there have been 29 school shootings resulting in injuries or deaths across the United States in 2023 alone. Back in August, an armed man attempted to enter a school in Memphis — but proper safety measures prevented him from entering the school or causing harm to anyone inside. 

Furthermore, with suicide rates among young people on the rise, learning institutions urgently need solutions to ensure student safety in all regards. But preventing violence requires much more than increased security and police presence — the prevalence of these tragedies, in combination with the documented increase in youth mental health concerns, should push educational institutions to move forward with multi-pronged prevention strategies. 

Let’s explore proactive steps learning institutions can take to stop threats to physical safety in their tracks. 

Implementing proper training 

First and foremost, staff and students need access to comprehensive training on how to identify potentially concerning behaviors and how to raise these concerns when necessary. Staff and student awareness on warning signs and indicators for things such as mental health, self-harm, substance misuse, bullying, etc. allows for increased bystander intervention. 

The most critical trainings here will center around students’ social and emotional well-being. While most educators have spent plenty of time familiarizing themselves with teaching theories, content specific to their roles and areas of expertise and the overall process of childhood development, many have not been trained in the field of mental health itself. 

As such, and through no fault of their own, staff are often unclear on whether certain behaviors warrant intervention because they lack the proper training. From Youth Suicide Awareness and Prevention to Student Mental Health courses to Active Assailant Preparedness training, such instruction will drive community alignment on warning signs. The right training will also educate students on how to reach out for assistance, whether it’s for themselves or someone else, and ensure staff members know how to address such concerns when they arise. 

The power of reporting 

Empowering students and staff to ask for help begins with making sure everyone knows when, why and how they should reach out when they have concerns. A key element of establishing this culture of trust involves connecting safety education with a mobile risk intelligence communication platform to remove any barriers to reporting — because when it comes to promoting student safety, the proper training will only go so far.   

Once educators and students firmly understand the warning signs of safety threats like suicide, violence and so on, they can use such platforms’ tip submission capabilities to confidentially flag potentially concerning behaviors they become aware of or witness. When concerns like suicide or violence emerge, students should be confident that by saying something they are helping the individual in question, instead of potentially getting someone into trouble.

With risk intelligence, school staff can gain insights into their institution’s threat landscape, reveal any concerning behavioral patterns, and improve understanding and prevention strategies. Furthermore, if and when prevention efforts fail, these communication platforms serve as an emergency mass notification system (EMNS). This means users can broadcast critical safety and security alerts to keep their colleagues informed and updated in times of need. 

Fostering a sense of community 

Above all else, it is absolutely essential for security leaders to encourage a sense of community and belonging in educational environments. When staff and students alike know they are part of something larger than themselves, they’ll feel empowered and safe speaking up when they have a concern. 

Fostering a climate where students can build strong relationships with their peers, teachers and administrators is therefore paramount. Staff and students should have individuals they feel safe approaching when they need support for themselves and others. This is where social and emotional learning come in. Building these skills is critical to fostering a sense of belonging and enabling community members to identify warning signs, so they can connect students to the relevant resources when necessary. 

Education focused on belonging is a tried and true method of promoting a welcoming atmosphere. These lessons improve understanding of and appreciation for diverse perspectives and identities; encourage empathy by teaching community members about the experiences and challenges faced by individuals with different backgrounds; and create a culture where all students and staff feel seen, heard and valued. 

A holistic approach to prevention cannot rely on emergency training alone. Teaching warning signs will only go so far if students don’t feel the level of comfort they need to speak with staff when such warning signs arise. 

A proactive approach 

The necessity of taking a proactive, concrete approach to promoting school safety cannot be overstated. Security leaders looking to solidify their emergency preparedness and prevention efforts should ask themselves the following questions: 

  • Do we conduct regular emergency response training and drills in collaboration with local law enforcement? 
  • Have we established a confidential reporting system for safety concerns and trained community members on how to appropriately use it? 
  • Do we provide comprehensive training on topics like mental health awareness; fostering belonging; and active assailant preparedness? 
  • Have we clearly communicated our safety initiatives to parents and our broader community? 
  • Do we promote an inclusive school climate where students feel comfortable disclosing safety and mental health concerns? 

Answering “no” to any of the questions above means it’s time to reconsider and reimagine the approach to student safety. While there is no way to eradicate safety threats entirely, there’s no shortage of preventative measures security leaders can take to minimize risk and maximize our ability to respond to such threats effectively. 

Implementing the proper training, leveraging a powerful reporting system and devoting time and resources to building a strong community are all well within our control. Learning institutions serious about protecting their students from harm must prioritize these areas as security leaders settle into the new school year.