Are Our Schools Really Safe?

Security personnel checking staff and students prior to being allowed into school. (courtesy news.lk)

H G S PREMATUNGE

Security is an integral part of education, and instability and violence pose a direct threat to a child’s right to education. The prevailing bomb scare, resulting from the Easter bombings is a case in point; schools have been out for over two weeks to all intents and purposes. The second school term was to commence on April 22, but was delayed by two weeks following the Easter terrorist attack on April 21. Archbishop of Colombo Malcolm Cardinal Ranjith has requested all Catholic schools to be closed until such time safety can be guaranteed.

Of course, certain safety measures have already been taken. Ten security personnel each were deployed to all schools in Colombo 1 through 15, along with sniffer dogs and equipment to identify explosives. The Army conducted awareness programmes for school teachers, parents and school prefects on handling emergency situations. Sri Lanka Army strengthened road blocks and security patrols closer to schools. In addition, security measures such as regular checks of the school grounds, limiting vehicular traffic during opening and closing times of schools, checking the identity of those who enter school premises have also been adopted to make Sri Lankan schools more secure.

However, although non-Catholic schools reopened for students from Grade 6 and above on May 6 and the school term was not way off schedule, only 10 percent of the student population attended school over the first week of opening.

The main reason for parents’ reluctance to send kids to school is that they are dissatisfied with government’s assurance that schools are safe. This begs the question, are our schools really safe? After all, with a student population of approximately four million, one policeman allocated per school can only do so much. There is no guarantee that terrorists will use the main gates of a school to make an entrance, where most military personnel or police are stationed. And with such large school grounds, an assurance that all schools are secure seems rather hyperbolic.

At the risk of sounding prejudicial, kids of terrorists no doubt also go to school, probably regular schools like all regular children. If these extremists can blow them up into smithereens along with their families, what’s to say that they will not resort to sending their kids to school with explosives? In foreign countries schools spend millions on security to make their paying parents feel that their children are safe at school. Most Sri Lankan schools are public and it is no secret that their security is in a dismal state.

The Inter University Students’ Federation reacted to the circular issued by the Ministry of Education in relation to the safety of students, claiming that it does not contain proper security protocols to safeguard students. They criticise the circular as it only dictates that the school staff and the local community form a committee to safeguard the schools and students, government authorities ridding themselves of any responsibility in the process.

In the first four months of the 2015-2016 school year, the Educator’s School Safety Network (ESSN), a non-profit group focusing on school safety training in the US, identified more than 740 bomb threats aimed at schools. There had been 37 active shooter incidents from 2000 to 2017 in the US. And having learned from highly publicized mass murders at Columbine High School, Sandy Hook Elementary School and Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School and other such mass shootings, the US government formulated a comprehensive set of security guidelines for schools. Partner Alliance for Safer Schools (PASS) is recommended by the Security Industry Association, US.

The US guidelines use a four tier approach to dealing with potential threats at school: Shelter-Evade-Defend-Care. During a threatening situation staff, along with students, is advised to take shelter in a safe place away from the threat, remain in a low position taking shelter behind large items that might provide extra protection.

Evade is to avoid the commotion. For example, if there is a bomb scare, it is advised to flee from the location, rather than going to the scene to investigate.

The Defend component of this approach is ill-advised in the Sri Lankan setting as it involves tackling the threat by oneself. For example, it would be stupid to try to stop a suicide bomber by oneself.

Last, Care is to reassure and provide comfort to those around you. Give emergency first aid to the best of your abilities.

School attendance continues to be low owing to fears of further attacks.
School attendance continues to be low owing to fears of further attacks.

Below are a few tried and tested guidelines, formulated in foreign countries that can be adapted into the local situation:

  • Training and drills – It is important to teach students to understand the different types of threats. Both staff and students should receive training and drills that emphasize survival skills and decision options.

Teachers, staff should be trained on emergency protocols. They have significant responsibilities before and during an emergency, especially since students look up to them for guidance during such. Although they should be trained to follow protocol, they should be encouraged to take initiative according to the situation.

  • Evacuation plan and designated route – Students and teachers should be pre-trained with drills on how to evacuate in during an emergency. The purpose of an evacuation is to get students and staff out by a route designed to avoid contact with a potential threat, such as a suspicious package or a threatening person, as quickly as possible.
  • Have a dedicated shelter – A place in school can be pre-designated as a shelter in the event of an emergency, so students would know that this would be the place to go to in a case of emergency. It should be well fortified with strong walls and high windows, a school hall for example.
  • Identify access points and limit entryways – Admit visitors, students only through the main entrance, subjected to a thorough check. Lock all other accesses from the inside. Periodically subject all locks to checks against tampering.
  • Screening – Screen school buildings and grounds regularly, this should include crowded areas such as hallways, canteens and playgrounds.
  • Wise landscaping – Materials such as decorative rocks, shrubs and plants can be used to make usually crowded areas and unauthorized areas less accessible by vehicle.
  • Security fencing and perimeter walls – This is the first line of defense in case of a terrorist attack.
  • Strong communication component – Public address system, asking staff and students to get familiar with emergency numbers, ability to dial emergency number using school landlines, without having to use complex access codes
  • Emergency alarm system – An emergency alarm system could have duress buttons located in various parts of the school. It would be ideal to have an alarm system where in, if an emergency alarm is set off at a school it is registered automatically with local law enforcement.
  • Student IDs – The Polish student identity cards are a case in point. They are valid for a school year and students under age 18 as well as teachers can get these IDs.
  • Monitor visitors – Require them to report to the main office and sign in. Issue visitor badges, which they should have on at all times.
  • Video surveillance system – the existence of a surveillance system is deterrent enough. Even terrorists are afraid of exposing their identity because it would help to positively identify them and thereby put the other members of their organization at risk.

Security guidelines for schools in foreign countries can be adopted into the Sri Lankan school setting easily enough. Of course, most of these guidelines, although to be desired, are hardly economically viable for a developing country like Sri Lanka. For example, it would be impractical to expect the education ministry to provide two-way intercom system with call buttons or metal detectors to all schools. Colombo schools as well as private schools may be able to afford such extravagances with their own funding, and why should they not, when the safety of thousands of children are involved. But as seen from the guidelines above it is obvious that there are other, more feasible recommendations.

 (This article is the sixth instalment in a series of articles, which will discuss education related issues)

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