My name is Josh Ottow, and I am the assistant principal at Yarmouth High School in Maine. Yarmouth is a suburban town of approximately 8,000 residents and 1,400 students, with 500 students at our high school. I serve on a team of administrators that helps plan for security and emergency preparedness in our district. Currently, we have an emergency management protocol that applies to all schools, and has additional specific information and plans for individual schools.
We feel that Yarmouth High School is already a safe school, in that we foster a trusting and respectful school culture, where positive relationships between students and teachers are of the utmost importance. For example, we do not have locks on our lockers, bells between classes, or hall passes. It’s important to us to add measures that make our school more prepared for emergencies without losing that trusting culture.
This can be a challenge because, in the eyes, of students, things like locked doors, buzz-in systems, cameras in the parking lot, and lockdown drills can feel like we are assuming the worst in them, as opposed to trusting them to do the right thing.
At Yarmouth High School, the centerpiece of our emergency preparedness is having a strong Advisor/Advisee program. We believe in the innate strength and potential of a small group of students working together with an advising adult for four years. A student’s advisor is a person to rely on for advice, information, and genuine help and support in moments of distress. Each teacher’s group of advisees comprises a unique combination of students, who might not otherwise have become friends. We see this as an opportunity for students to offer support and receive support from a group that will be a constant in students’ life for four years at Yarmouth High School. Because of our commitment to this program, we knew that it would be critical to our emergency preparedness implementation efforts.
Over the past year we spent considerable time in our Advisor/Advisee groups, talking about new emergency preparedness measures. The key is doing so in the context of keeping our school culture intact and making the school a safer place. One way we approach this is by employing discussion questions in our Advisor/Advisee groups to stimulate conversation, build understanding within our student body, and give students an opportunity to share their opinions and concerns. Example questions include:
- What makes Yarmouth High School a secure place?
- What makes the culture of Yarmouth High School unique?
- Do you feel safe at Yarmouth High School?
- Do you know what you would do in an emergency at school? Do you feel prepared?
- What can we, as a school, do to ensure that we foster and maintain our positive, trusting, and respectful culture AND have a more secure school?
Teachers are advised to be sensitive to potential stress-level increase and emotional reactions surrounding these discussions, and are aware that student reactions may vary widely, and everyone’s opinion should be given its due. Our hope is that this conversation is honest and impactful for students as they wrestle with these tough issues. We are also hoping that this conversation spills into “dinner time” talk with their parents at home. Parents are always invited to play a contributing role in these emergency preparedness plans via community-based forums, where they can express their opinions, make requests, and give suggestions.
Another method that we use to address emergency preparedness is collecting direct feedback from students. For example, we ask students (through their Advisor/Advisee groups) for feedback on our response plan and suggestions for future protocols each time we hold a lockdown drill. Advisors are given a detailed, play-by-play lockdown drill guide that they go over with their advisees after each drill. Sometimes, we get great suggestions from the students that we may not have thought about otherwise.
For example, during a recent lockdown drill we asked students to hand over their phones to their teacher. One student asked his Advisor why we did that, and he was told that one reason was to minimize light and noise coming from the classroom. In response, he suggested that teachers should also close the lids of their laptops, because his teacher had his laptop open during the lockdown and it was emitting light. This was not something we had specified in the plan and may not have thought to add if this student hadn’t brought it up. Advisors have access to a shared online document where they can note these suggestions, and then we talk about the responses and potentially revising our plans at a school-wide faculty meeting.
Our emergency preparedness efforts in the past several months, from new plans and new equipment to authentic and honest discussions amongst students and staff, have shown me that involving students and being open with them about how preparedness measures could impact school culture is the best way to ensure a safe and positive school.
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