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Security unlocked: a look at school safety today

Private schools discuss the keys to student safety

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With small class sizes, it is the attention we're able to give each student that makes our school safe.
– Aaron Sawatsky, director of St. Jude's Academy, Mississauga, Ontario

School safety is gaining increasing attention from parents and educators across the country. In fact, a recent study funded by the Society for Quality Education indicated that school safety was among the top five reasons why parents chose to send their children to private schools.

"We were quite surprised to find that safety was at the top of the list," says Patricia Allison, the study's co-author and a part-time professor in the Faculty of Education at the University of Western Ontario.

Allison says that a number of the parents surveyed identified a problem with safety within their previous school system or said they weren't willing to take a chance.

According to Allison, the largest factors in creating a safe environment are school size and low student-to-teacher ratios. "Most private schools are much smaller so you can oversee everything going on within the school at all times," she says. "It's harder for safety to be a problem in a small school."

Also, most private schools have a clearly articulated disciplinary philosophy, which ensures student safety. "While in private schools, parents simply won't put up with a dangerous situation and so the school will respond accordingly," says Allison.

We found many examples of ways in which private and independent schools across the country are ensuring their students' safety.

Practice Counts

Once a term, every term, the students at Collingwood School in West Vancouver are taught a lesson that isn't found in their textbooks: lockdown. It's only a drill, but provides a vital test of reaction times and practice in responding to emergency situations. Various fabricated scenarios, such as potentially dangerous wildlife wandering out of the nearby woods and making its way to the school's doors or a human intruder to the facilities, teach students how to react and what to do, training their muscle memories in the case of a real-life threatening event.

"As a school, we're very proactive with it," says Andrew Shirkoff, director of emergency protocol for the Collingwood School. "It's become accepted as the norm."

Although there's never been an actual emergency requiring lockdown at the school, staff makes it a priority to ensure that students will be prepared if the need ever arises.

The school has also established a risk management committee to make sure that students are kept safe during all aspects of school life. The group, which advises the headmaster, evaluates all school activities, from what takes place on the athletic fields to student excursions around the world.

"We take student safety very seriously," Shirkoff says.

Staff-to-student ratios are second to none

For the Central Montessori Schools in Toronto, Ontario, safety means knowing where children are at all times and strictly controlling access to the schools.

"Parents hand their children off to a teacher in the morning and pick them up directly from their classroom at the end of the day," says Rosa Marcellino, a supervisor at the school. "When our kids go outside to play, they go in very small groups with at least three supervisors, unlike typical recess at public schools."

The high staff-to-student ratios and regular emergency preparedness training ensures safety is always top of mind.

R-E-S-P-E-C-T

"With awareness surrounding issues of bullying and the understanding that it is possible for one child to disrupt the learning of an entire group, we look to teachers to make the classroom safe and welcoming," says Aaron Sawatsky, director of St. Jude's Academy in Mississauga, Ontario.

This means showing respect for students, parents and teachers.

"When a parent or teacher yells at a kid, the kid often turns around and yells at someone else," he explains.

St. Jude's teachers work to enable an environment that provides validation and encourages self-confidence and self-worth.

"With small class sizes, it is the attention we're able to give each student that makes our school safe," Sawatsky says.

Safe surfing

But these days, security is no longer just a matter of keeping kids physically safe. Safety in the virtual world, too, is a priority at most private schools-especially those that provide students with laptop computers.

Several years ago, staff at Lower Canada College in Montreal, Quebec, discovered some potential issues when a student accessed inappropriate material while on school grounds. Since then, the school has implemented measures to prevent this type of situation from re-occurring. The school's new Internet security restricts children, including senior students issued their own laptops, from accessing anything deemed inappropriate while on campus.

"We have what's called a web filter," says Gary Millward, information technology director at the school. "That's basically how we keep the kids-while they're at school-in safe areas. That filter captures every request that goes out to the web, and keeps the kids on the straight and narrow."

Students are also required to sign an agreement before they're permitted to use school computers. "Whether they have a laptop or whether they're just using our regular computers, they have to sign an appropriate-use policy," Millward says. "The basics [of the agreement are]: Respect for others, you're not going to post anything that's going to upset anybody, you don't download inappropriate material, you don't install software on your laptops unless it's approved by the school. They're all part of it."

Tight-knit communities

Many private and independent schools not only provide students with a great learning environment, but also offer a tight-knit community for the whole family. Similar to the "know your neighbours" approach to fighting community crime, this type of social milieu also goes a long way to promote student safety.

Some private institutions offer the added benefit of being located in a rural space, away from city centres. For example, The Gow School-located approximately 30 minutes outside of Buffalo, New York-provides students from Canada and around the world an opportunity to live and attend school in natural surroundings.

This all-boys school offers a multicultural community in which students can participate in a huge variety of indoor and outdoor activities, including tennis, soccer, lacrosse, skiing, roping and mountain biking.

"With so much to keep the students busy and no girls to impress, security becomes much easier to provide," says Douglas Cotter, the school's associate director of admissions. With 148 students, the school has nurses and watchmen on site to ensure everyone is healthy and accounted for.

Bonus marks

Stepping up safety not only protects the physical and emotional wellbeing of students, but enhances their learning experience.

"Studies have shown that kids can learn more if they feel like they are in a safe environment," says Sawatsky. "When children aren't worried about what's going on around them, they can focus on obtaining the information being presented to them."

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