When I started teaching four decades ago, schools held monthly fire drills and occasional earthquake drills, but the focus on safety never outweighed the emphasis on learning.
Then, after the tragic shooting at Columbine High School on April 20, 1999, schools began including active shooter drills and redesigning facilities for security. Since that time, atrocities such as the deadly shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary and countless others have challenged a basic premise we as educators and parents always held — that school is a safe place.
No child or student should ever have to go to school scared. After the recent school shooting in Parkland, Florida, students have begun speaking out and organizing. In Sonoma County, school-aged youths have joined their peers around the nation to powerfully and peacefully demand that the adult community take action to make schools safe.
Additional walkouts are expected on April 20, the 19th anniversary of the Columbine shooting. As a former history and government teacher, I am encouraged to see our youngest citizens taking such an active role in their democracy. Students have a right to free speech under the First Amendment and California Education Code that we must support and uphold.
In March, many students walked out of class in protest, and we saw many schools strike an admirable balance between protecting student free speech and upholding safety. The California Teachers Association and the Association of California School Administrators urge educators to provide students with a secure venue and substantive activities where their voices can be heard on-campus.
Should students leave campus to protest, school staff should continue to work together with parents and local law enforcement to ensure student safety. Teachers must also remember that they have an obligation to stay with any students who choose remain in class to learn and that student speech is limited when it violates school rules, incites violence or disrupts class.
I want to reassure students that their voices are being heard and that schools around the county are making safety a top priority. Each public school is required to maintain and annually update a school safety plan, which helps schools prepare for emergencies.
In addition, schools hold annual lockdown drills where they rehearse their response to an on-campus shooter or threatening individual. If you’re concerned about how your school is preparing its teachers and students for a crisis, I urge you to talk to your school administration. While no amount of preparation can completely prevent tragedies like the one in Parkland, it can help mitigate them.
The Sonoma County Office of Ecucation (SCOE) is working with local law enforcement and first responders to further address safety concerns. In August, SCOE will host two active shooter drills for school districts. SCOE has also distributed active shooter pocket safety cards to all teachers in Sonoma County.
At the same time, SCOE continues to promote trauma-informed teaching methods and restorative practices that can help address student mental health and behavioral issues early — before they escalate.
When I first ran for county superintendent, I did not imagine that I would have to dedicate so many resources to safeguarding schools. I would much rather be advocating for innovative teaching methodologies and practices and helping our students heal from the fall fires than talking about active shooter drills.
However, because this is our new reality, we must commit to making schools safe havens for our students in every way possible.
These steps are necessary, but they are also a sad commentary: that schools are being asked to deal with issues that society has not solved. Safeguarding the health and mental wellbeing of children has overtaken our initial mission of teaching and creating exciting opportunities for learning.
As a community and as a country, we must ensure student wellbeing and safety so that educators can return their focus to the vital task of creating positive, safe, and exciting classrooms for children to learn.
Steven D. Herrington, Ph.D., is Sonoma County Superintendent of Schools.