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School Safety: Balancing Standard Procedures with Common Sense

Keeping your students as safe as possible while at school is largely a matter of sticking to your school or district’s general guidelines and then applying your own good sense to individual incidents. Sometimes you need to act fast, and this primer on the potential situations you might encounter can help.

On-Campus Injuries

Barbara Caracci, director of program development and training for first aid at the National Safety Council in Itasca, IL, says that in a situation in which there seems to be a “significant mechanism of injury,” you should tend to the student while sending someone for the school nurse.

Discerning those situations is, again, a matter of common sense — falls from heights, significant head bangs and bicycle accidents are among the most common culprits.

The nurse should also always be sent for if a student experiences heavy bleeding for any reason at all or goes into anaphylactic shock due to a severe allergy, says Caracci.

Ronald Stephens, executive director of the Westlake Village, CA–based National School Safety Center and a professor at Pepperdine University’s Graduate School of Education and Psychology, agrees that common sense and good judgment are the key ingredients to first aid.

“If you can help, you should immediately,” he says. “If the situation is beyond your training, get some professional help immediately.” It’s important to know who on school grounds is first aid– and CPR-trained. Ideally, he says, everyone receives such training. If a school nurse isn’t available, don’t hesitate before calling 911.

Simply put, always err of the side of caution.

First Aid Essentials

Caracci says that every classroom should have a small first aid kit. She advises a few items that should always be included:

  • Medical Exam Gloves: They prevent infection from blood-borne pathogens by putting a barrier between the student’s blood and body fluids and the rescuer.
  • Breathing Barrier (Face Shield): If a student stops breathing, someone must provide rescue breaths and CPR. The face shield is small, portable and easy to use. It prevents saliva or vomit from coming in contact to the person administering treatment.
  • Sterile Gauze Squares (4”x4” or 3”x3”): These should be placed on top of a bleeding wound. Apply pressure directly on the gauze square over the wound to stop bleeding.

Addressing Threats

Sometimes, of course, the threat to a student’s safety is another student.

According to a 2011 national survey conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 5.9 percent of high school students had stayed away from school on at least one day in the past 30 days because they felt they would be unsafe either at school or en route.

Twelve percent reported being in a physical fight on school property within the past year, and 7.4 percent reported being threatened or injured with a weapon at least once in the past year. Twenty percent reported being bullied at school.

Stephens says that if you become aware of a potential threat to a student’s safety by another student, inquire further and determine if you can easily resolve the issue. When a classroom becomes emotionally charged to the extent that the situation poses a threat to students, he says, “the role of the teacher is to make every reasonable effort to de-escalate the drama before other problems emerge.”

If you can’t handle the matter alone, it’s important to get some outside help, whether from the administration, counselors, law enforcement or other professionals who work with young people, Stephens says. If the matter involves abuse or criminal issues, it should be referred to law enforcement.

“In the best of all worlds, every school system should have a threat-assessment team where matters can be referred to trained professionals,” he says. “The assessment team should include a school representative, a mental health professional and a law-enforcement representative. Together, they can generally make an appropriate decision as to the veracity of the threat.”

Kate McDonald, principal of Metro Tech High School in Phoenix, AZ, talks with her staff at the beginning of the year about safety issues of all types and stresses that the support that’s available on campus should be leveraged to its fullest. But she’s also a strong proponent of the value of hindsight.

“When an incident does occur,” McDonald says, “we always communicate as much about the incident as we can so that we can learn from it — this is what happened, this is what the adults did, this is what worked, this is what we could have done better. We learn as we go.”

A good resource for teachers is the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Coordinated School Health program, offering strategies for improving students’ health and well-being in a number of areas.

Use these tools to create a safer environment for you and your high school students.

Taylor Sisk is a North Carolina–based writer and editor who writes frequently on mental health issues for statewide and national outlets.

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