Karen Thomas, principal of Cook-Wissahickon Elementary School, recognizes how easily schools can take safety for granted.
“In a neighborhood like we’re in,” she says, “we feel pretty safe.” But in light of the school shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, CT, and the kidnapping that occurred inside Bryant Elementary in West Philadelphia, Thomas and her staff have evaluated and tightened their student safety procedures.
Last week, Thomas sent a letter to parents and caregivers outlining changes in the school’s dismissal procedures and its expectations for visitors and volunteers.
Thomas says that her changes are “nothing new and inventive,” but “speak more to the fact that we have to pay attention to our policies and to how they keep kids safe.” After reviewing these procedures, a safety team comprised of a building engineer, a lunch aide, the dean of students, the nurse, and Thomas defined areas in which the school could improve its protection of students.
Access to the school building
The most significant of the new precautions concerns exterior doors that provide outdoor access to the kindergarten and Head Start classrooms. Previously, parents and caregivers could enter and exit these doors when teachers opened them. Now, says Thomas, they “don’t open during the school day.”
Cook-Wissahickon is asking parents and caregivers to stay outside of the school building. Regardless of the weather, they are expected to drop off their children with school personnel at schoolyard doors in the morning, and to pick them up in the schoolyard during afternoon dismissal.
Thomas and her staff are also requiring parents to limit early dismissal requests to emergencies only. One finding of the safety team – and a concern shared by building administrators at a district-wide meeting – is that too many parents make a habit of taking their children out of school early. Thomas acknowledges that there are good reasons why caregivers need to retrieve children before classes end, but that even then it is best for students to attend a full day of school, from 8:35 a.m. until 3:24 p.m.
Early dismissal rules
If a child must be dismissed from school during the last hour of the school day, he or she can only leave with a parent or a caregiver listed on the child’s emergency contact form. That adult must show photo identification and sign the school waiver. “Under no circumstances,” the letter dictates, “will a child be allowed to leave the school with a minor under the age of 18 or an unauthorized adult.”
Adult visitors, including school volunteers, are restricted to the main office unless otherwise given permission by administration. Volunteers may only receive access to classrooms if the school has their security clearances on file and if they wear visitors’ badges.
Thomas says that some of these more obvious measures must be reiterated because it is “easy to become complacent” with security. “People with ill intent can do things that you would have never imagined,” she emphasized.
Thomas told NewsWorks that while she expected that the community would find some of the new practices inconvenient, she has only received a few complaints. “Most people are grateful,” she says.