Back-to-School.jpgThe California Constitution guarantees that all public school students and staff have an inalienable right to attend campuses which are “safe, secure and peaceful.” Both the state and federal government have enacted a multitude of laws aimed at protection of children, schools, educators and staff; so many that we could not possibly cover them all in this piece

Although many schools face tight budget constraints these days, schools can, within their resources, take steps to promote safety.  This is not an exhaustive discussion of all the laws and legalities for maintaining a safe school.  The following are just a few highlights of the laws and some ideas for what even the most financially strapped schools can do at the local level.

Comprehensive School-Safety Plan

State law requires every school to create a comprehensive school safety plan.  Although the California Education Code, as well as federal laws, have their own requirements, a best practices approach is to have a single comprehensive plan which facilitates school site coordination of safety efforts and avoids duplication of effort.  No one likes having to go looking in six different policies and manuals to get the answer.  Make it user friendly.  A single comprehensive plan complying with both the California Education Code and federal law, and containing your anti-discrimination/harassment policy and hate crime reporting procedure makes it a one-stop shop for your administrators, teachers, students and parents.

What is this Comprehensive School Plan?  Education Code sections 32280 through 32289  and 35294 through 35294.15 require and outline a specific policy for creating and maintaining a “Safe and Orderly Environment Conducive to Learning.” Schools must use the “Safe Schools: A Planning Guide for Action” prepared by the California Department of Education (CDE) in developing their school safety plan. A school site council (Education Code sections 52012 or 52852) or a school safety planning committee (Education code section 32281(b)(2)) shall be responsible for developing and annually updating the comprehensive school plan.

Your comprehensive plan should include procedures for notifying teachers of “dangerous pupils” pursuant to Education Code section 49079. Teachers must be notified of pupils who have committed certain offenses within the last three years, or of any student “reasonably suspected” to have engaged in any such offense within the last three years.  The types of offenses teachers must be notified of include, but are not limited to:

  • Causing, attempting to cause, or making threats of physical injury
  • Unlawful possession of a firearm, knife, explosive or other dangerous object
  • Possession of controlled substances (unlawfully), alcohol, or drug paraphernalia
  • Actual or attempted robbery or extortion
  • Causing or attempting to cause damage to school property
  • Material disruption of school activities
  • Actual or attempted sexual assault
  • Hazing or bullying
  • Sexual harassment
  • Hate violence

This means that elementary, middle and high schools will have to communicate and share records.  You may be concerned about laws restricting disclosure of student records.  Our firm wrote an informative piece on this very topic for Campus Safety Magazine which can be found here.

The California Welfare and Institutions Code imposes additional notification requirements on District superintendents and principals to inform counselors, teachers and administrators when a student is found guilty of a felony or misdemeanor involving certain kinds of misconduct. 

The plan should also include the following:

  • Discrimination and harassment policy of the District and school. Gender relations have been a component of almost every recent incident of mass school violence.
  • Procedure for reporting hate crimes and harassment punishable by suspension or expulsion. (Education Code § 233.)
  • An “acceptable use policy” (AUP) regarding internet use by students. (Education Code § 51871.5.)
  • A “transportation safety plan.” (Education Code § 39831.3.)
  • A Cal/OSHA Workplace Injury and Illness Prevention and Security Program. (Labor Code §§ 6300; California Code of Regulation, Title 8, § 3203.)

The Education Code and the California Department of Education require much more to the Comprehensive School Safety Plan.  Information on Comprehensive School Plans can be found here.

Prevention Is Worth A Pound of Cure

There are many easy, low or no cost ways to actually prevent violence from happening in the first place; in some cases, these steps are required by law.

Teach Staff to Watch Out For The Danger Signs

Employees should be trained and informed how to recognize, avoid and report school site violence.  These “red flags” can easily be discussed at your next staff meeting.  Teachers and counselors should have an open discussion among each other and with administrators about what they see and hear and whether to be concerned.  Discuss who they can talk to and how to deal with a “red flag.” Do not leave classified employees out of the discussion.  Employees who work in front offices or on campus grounds are often the ones who deal with outsiders seeking campus access and can also be the eyes and ears on a potentially dangerous situation. 

Staff should be trained to look for signs of potential problems with students (e.g., sudden decrease in productivity; lack of motivation; unusual, irrational and/or bizarre thoughts or behaviors; not getting along with others or bullying; threats; etc.)

Staff should also be trained to watch for potentially dangers outsiders (e.g., persons walking on campus without a visible visitor’s pass or loitering around the perimeters of school campuses; occupied vehicles parked alongside campus for unusually long periods of time; unsecured gates or breezeways around campus that can provide unnoticed access to campus, etc.)

Dealing with Threats/Suspicious Activity:

  • Do not hesitate or be embarrassed to call local police about something suspicious
  • Don’t be afraid to stop and ask an outsider to follow school policies for accessing campus, such as signing-in and obtaining a visitor’s pass
  • Never take a threat lightly
  • All threats should be investigated
  • A record of any threat should be made
  • Discipline if warranted
  • Provide intervention strategies and resources to address motivation and reasoning behind any threat, including mental health resources, school resource officers, and community crisis-intervention organizations
  • Involve parents, teachers, administrators, and co-workers in addressing the threat

Collaborate With Local Law Enforcement

Schools must consult with a representative of law enforcement in the writing and development of the comprehensive school plan, but have you also considered calling your local police department and asking a seasoned officer to do a “walk around” at your campus to assess potential weaknesses?  An officer can review your campus and your school’s safety plan and notify you of potential weaknesses in school safety:  the gate you never thought to lock; the breezeway you didn’t realize was not adequately monitored; the lack of code words or alarms to alert staff throughout the campus when something is amiss or that classrooms should be secured; the nice woman you see every afternoon across the street who is actually a convicted drug dealer.  Local law enforcement is an excellent resource.

Restricting Access to School Premises

Every school experiences the same scenario:  The school has a sign-in procedure in the front office before an outsider can enter campus with a visitor pass.  The hurried parent waltzes onto campus because they do not want to be “bothered” with the sign-in procedure. The school’s front desk attendant runs after the parent, and the parent says, “I’ll just be a second, I have to give my kid his lunch.”

Empower your staff!  You control the campus, not the parents who try to take liberties; not the expelled student who wants to hang out with friends; not the drug dealer hanging around the fringes of campus; and not the former employee who wants to visit. You control the campus. 

First, there are many laws which empower you to restrict entry onto campus and which make it a crime to enter a campus without authorization from school personnel. These include Penal Code sections 626.2, 626.4, 626.7, 626.8, 627.7 and Education Code sections 32210, 32211, 44810 and 44811 just to name a few.  You have the right to enforce those laws.

Second, make your staff aware of these laws.  Teachers should know that they do have a right to turn the parent away at the classroom door until the parent has followed sign-in procedures.  Your custodian should ask the stranger walking on campus where his/her visitor pass is.  Your principal is not “overreacting” by calling police about the suspicious man in the van who has been parked in front of the school for two hours.  They are the first line defense.  Any person could be a threat.  Look, listen, and ask!

Third, have procedures in place if someone without authorization enters campus and does not comply with staff’s request to leave or to use the school’s procedures for campus access.  Staff should not put themselves in harm’s way of an altercation.  However, there should be a system in place to deal with that person.  It may be an alarm that is sounded that lets teachers know to keep children in classrooms and monitor doors until the alarm is cleared.  There can be code words that, when communicated by staff on two-way radios, alert them to notify police, and lock down the campus. There are many ways to protect the students and the staff.

We are all in this together.  The district, the school, students, staff, administrators, parents/guardians, law enforcement, the community – everyone is a resource and a tool for preventing school violence.  Together we can make the schools safe.