Education Commissioner Candice McQueen released a new report to provide insight on the landscape of school safety in Tennessee. For the first time, the department is releasing information on trends found in the strengths and challenges in school security seen across districts. This new report allows the state to increase awareness, prompt further conversations, and spur future action.
"We take seriously the responsibility of providing a safe and secure learning environment for Tennessee students and will continue to support our schools in this daily effort," Commissioner McQueen said. "Critical work to improve school safety has been started under Governor Haslam's leadership and this report shows us several ways we can continue to improve our practices moving forward. We know that safety must be an ongoing process of continuous improvement. This report continues the work started with individual school assessments by providing a state-level view of current practices and identifying opportunities for improvement. I am grateful for the partnership of our state legislature, other departments, school districts, and law enforcement agencies to make this work a priority in Tennessee"
While Tennessee has made several efforts in recent years to promote student safety and prepare schools for potential threats, Governor Haslam took further action in March 2018 by convening a School Safety Working Group that recommended a statewide review of school facilities and safety procedures and precautions. These recommendations were swiftly accepted by the governor, which led to the first statewide individual school safety assessments that rated each school on 89 safety standards and was overseen by the Tennessee Department of Safety and Homeland Security, in coordination with the Department of Education and local school officials.
"The Governor tasked me with chairing the School Safety Working Group along with the support of Cabinet members Commissioner Candice McQueen and Commissioner Marie Williams," Department of Safety and Homeland Security Commissioner David W. Purkey said. "My goal was to ensure the committee work carefully yet swiftly to develop a well-informed plan that would provide security guidelines for our TN school districts. A 17-member committee represented by professionals in the area of education, mental health and public safety from across the state were able to accomplish this mission. School safety remains our priority, and we will continue to provide the necessary tools and services to our schools to keep our students safe."
To support this work, the 2018 Tennessee General Assembly approved $25 million in one-time funding for schools to address vulnerabilities and risks and $10 million in recurring grant funding for ongoing safety and prevention programs. To receive funding to enhance school safety, districts had to conduct individual school security assessments and submit schools' emergency operations plans (EOPs) and drill logs to the department. All school districts were eligible to apply for funding to address local safety and security needs once identified through the assessment process.
All 147 school districts submitted assessments for every school in the state, and districts and schools have begun using funds to make both major and minor improvements, ranging from better door locks and updated visitor screening procedures to adding mental health staff positions.
This collection of school security assessments, Emergency Operations Plans (EOPs), and drill logs presented an unprecedented opportunity to analyze current security and preparedness actions at the building level in order to inform Tennessee's goal of providing a safe and supportive learning environment for all students. Because this was the first time that this information was collected by the department, the purpose of this initial report is to establish a baseline for statewide safety needs and help drive future targeted efforts to enhance school security and preparedness.
Findings in the report show that most of Tennessee's schools met or exceeded standards on many items related to school facilities and operations. Overall, schools were well prepared in most of the areas examined. For example, on average, schools met or exceeded the standards for eight out of the nine emergency planning and prevention items. However, data revealed the greatest weaknesses to be in vehicle control, access control, and surveillance for schools across the state.
While the school security assessments demonstrated that many Tennessee schools were well prepared for potential emergencies, EOPs revealed that this preparedness has not yet translated into suitable documentation on school sites. The majority of the EOPs examined met fewer than half of the rubric items, and none of the EOPs examined met all items. As with the school security assessments, the department examined these data by area, rather than individual item, to identify the areas in most immediate need of improvement.
Surprisingly, some of the strengths identified in the security assessments were determined to be potential areas of challenge by the examination of the EOP data. For instance, one of the strongest areas from the security assessments was Emergency Planning and Prevention, while the EOP evaluation revealed that submitted EOPs were lacking much of the required documentation. This may highlight an issue with documentation and the EOP submission process.
Similarly, the analysis of drill logs showed that schools were committed to preparing their students for a range of potential emergencies and conducted an average of almost 15 drills per year; however, many schools were still not meeting all of the drill requirements. This may be the result of drill logs varying in submission type and level of detail. Also, it is possible that a school completed more drills than they documented and/or submitted, so the data does not provide a full picture to the number and types of drills actually conducted.
Moving forward, the department has identified five key actions to address the challenges identified during the review of safety data. They are:
- Identify priorities for supporting districts and schools.
- Revise EOP and drill log templates to enhance planning and improve documentation.
- Create options for delivering training and guidance that provide flexibility and build local capacity.
- Monitor grant spending and results to identify promising practices.
- Integrate safety planning requirements into the school approval process.
The information provided in these assessments, coupled with significant new funding, have resulted in critically important dialogue and changes to improve school safety in communities across the state. As Tennessee moves forward with improvements in the areas of security and preparedness, it is important that our state continues these conversations and that school safety remain a vital component of ensuring student success in and outside of the classroom.