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    Creating an Especially Safe School Environment for School Communities

    MCSS began its monthly School Safety Professional Development Conference call with Michele Gay, Founder & Executive Director of Safe and Sound Schools® and Lee-Nadine Oppenheim, Director of Finance and Operations at Ivymount School as they presented Especially Safe: An Inclusive Approach to Safety Preparedness in Educational Settings. The two subject matter experts discussed real solutions in planning for school safety issues, executing safety drills, and particular considerations for special needs school populations.

    Michelle Gay is a parent of Josephine, a special needs victim of the Sandy Hook Elementary Shooting. As a result of the horrible tragedy, she assisted in the foundation of Safe and Sound Schools, a national non-profit school safety advocacy and resource center providing research-based tools, support, crisis prevention, response, and recovery programs.

    The foundation’s newest program Especially Safe was developed with expert practitioners from across disciplines to include resources, tools, and teaching ideas to meet the safety needs of community members with special needs. “We are asking for people to prepare for emergencies of all hazards, with a generalized approach to school safety,” Ms. Gay said.

    Especially Safe teaches, trains, prepares, and assists with safety planning for the functional needs of students, staff, and visitors in school communities; from developmental disabilities to communication challenges, medical needs to mobility challenge

    Ms. Gay says Communication skills and words matter, how we talk about safety has to make sense to our student population. Considerations of age, developmental abilities, and physical limitations need to be addressed in communicating with students. She continued, “It is extremely important that we are all spreading the same language and the same approach.” It is integral in school safety planning and drills to remember accommodations for speech, hearing, vision, cognitive, and English as a Second Language (ESL) barriers.

    Slide presentation provided by Especially Safe, data from US Dept. of Education 2019, National Center for Education Statistics

    Ms. Oppenheim shared her administrative and personal experiences when she arrived at her home school, several years ago, to find it was being evacuated for a bomb threat. After the event, she realized their school needed specific assistance in planning, preparation, drills, and training for their unique student requirements; both on a macro and on a micro level.

    The school needed to be proactive. Not only did they need to provide teachers and staff the tools to work with, but they needed to create unique safety plans for specific functional requirements of their community.  Ms. Oppenheim is now one of Maryland’s leading subject matter experts in school safety for special needs populations.

    Ms. Oppenheim explains school safety is a team effort, and it needs to be practiced. Just as in real estate, facilities need to realize safety is location, location, location. If you are in a flood, fire, tornado, or earthquake area, you need to drill for these particular emergencies. “Practice makes progress. If you practice in a low-stress environment, it helps eliminate drama and trauma in a real situation,” Ms. Oppenheim said.

    Ms. Gay agreed, “Safety is not a one-person job.” Administrators need to address the physical and psychological aspects of the child, the facility, the staff, and the situation.

    The two subject matter experts say school safety teams need to consider the students, their parents, faculty, and community members, who all may have unique needs as safety plans are evaluated. It is integral to plan and practice activities for increasing empowerment and building a positive culture of safety within your school community.

    Next time, Lee and Michelle discuss the importance of drills in school environments, particularly for special needs populations. And you will also learn about a new initiative coming soon from the Maryland Center for School Safety.

    Download Especially Safe guides and toolkits for schools and administrators here

    Especially Safe graphic provided by Safe and Sound Schools

    LEGISLATIVE UPDATE: Since 2018, public schools are required to have emergency plans that “accommodate, safeguard, and evacuate students, staff, and visitors with disabilities on public school grounds.” Md. Code Ann., Educ. Art. § 7-435. 

    In brief: Section 7-435 of the Education Article, Annotated Code of Maryland requires that public schools’ emergency plans comply with the Maryland State Department of Education (MSDE) Emergency Planning Guidelines. These guidelines, most recently updated in 2019, require public schools to have a “comprehensive emergency plan [to] address prevention, protection, mitigation, response, and recovery and [to] provide guidance to accommodate, safeguard, and evacuate all students, staff, and visitors, including individuals with disabilities.” MSDE Maryland Emergency Planning Guidelines for Local School Systems and Schools (Dec. 2019). 

    School Administrators: If you would like to be on these professional learning opportunity calls, please contact Alice Rhodes and ask to be added to the distribution list.