Maintaining the physical, emotional, and psychological well-being of our community is a responsibility that we take very seriously at Park.
This letter is a reprise of one I wrote five years ago in the aftermath of the events at Sandy Hook Elementary School. It is almost inconceivable to me that concerns about school safety have accelerated rather than abated, but I suppose that is a topic for a different kind of letter. This one is about the ways that Park goes about maintaining the physical, emotional, and psychological well-being of our community through plans, policies, procedures, and -- most importantly -- our culture and climate. Ironically, for reasons of school safety, I am only providing a broad sketch of these efforts.
ERT & SST Teams
While the horrific nature of school shootings justifiably captures our imagination, there are a range of concerns that Park addresses on a regular basis to keep our students safe. We begin this work by maintaining two teams that meet regularly to review concerns and develop plans to mitigate them: the Emergency Response Team (ERT) and the Student Support Team (SST). These teams are made up of key staff and administrators, each with unique perspectives, job functions, and responsibilities. As the names suggests, the ERT is mostly responsible for physical safety and the SST is mostly responsible for the emotional and psychological well-being of our students.
The ERT meets monthly throughout the year to review and revise Park’s Campus Safety Plan, conduct drills and safety audits, and run “table-top” exercises that simulate responses to hypothetical emergency situations, assess our preparedness, and review responses to actual emergencies. The SST meets weekly to develop and monitor plans for supporting students who are experiencing academic, social, or emotional difficulties. Students can be referred to this team by parents, faculty members, or by their own request. This team consists of our school psychologist, division heads, school nurse, and other faculty as appropriate to the individual student situations.
Park maintains a comprehensive Campus Safety Plan that anticipates a wide range of emergency situations that could affect the School. At the core of this plan are three drills that we practice regularly:
Fire Drill. Many times over the course of the year, students and faculty practice evacuating buildings and grouping up as classes at assigned places on campus.
Campus Evacuation Drill. The entire community annually practices walking off Park’s campus to a nearby evacuation site.
Lockdown Drill. Conducted annually, this drill requires faculty and staff to lock all external and internal doors and shelter students in pre-designated safe areas in each classroom, office, or teaching space.
When used in various combinations, these three drills address all of the physical safety issues that Park might face. Each time a drill is conducted, the ERT assesses its efficacy and addresses any issues or concerns that the drill may have uncovered.
It is the last drill -- the Lockdown Drill -- that is often the most evocative for faculty, parents, and students. Preparing in this way heightens anxieties and focuses us on threats that we would prefer not to contemplate. In this regard, Park is very fortunate to be located within the jurisdiction of the Amherst Police Department, which has been invaluable in providing the School with training, security audits, and officer assistance. The police officers who work with Park do a fantastic job dispelling some of the anxiety around our emergency response plans while providing critical details regarding their own training and response procedures and how they mesh with Park’s safety plans.
Park has invested in technology that allows us to better communicate both on campus and to our external community. A paging function connected to our phone system and augmented with external speakers is used for campus public address announcements, and systems are in place for rapid, bulk phone calling and emailing should we need to activate one of our emergency response plans. For our current families, this is why so much time and effort is focused on making sure we have your most current emergency contact information.
Educator Sexual Misconduct
Historical and contemporary allegations of sexual misconduct by educators, coupled with an increasingly public dialogue about these incidents, have prompted most schools across the nation to review and revise policies, procedures, and practices to prevent such incidents from occurring and to respond appropriately if they do. To this end, under my tenure, all Park School employees are annually educated about and expected to adhere to an explicit code of conduct, published in the School’s Employee Handbook, that is in place to protect students from physical and sexual abuse. Further, all of Park’s faculty are considered to be mandated reporters of suspected child abuse according to New York State Education and Social Services Law, and are trained annually on their roles and responsibilities under the law.
If an employee were to violate these professional standards, the school’s leadership is committed to availing ourselves of all available external resources in response, including involving law enforcement and Erie County Child Protective Services. We are also guided by principles of good practice developed by both our state and national associations regarding proactive approaches to prevention such as employment screening, internal reporting procedures, and ongoing employee training.
Culture, Climate, & Kindness
Park places a premium on the social and emotional well-being of our students. We do this because we believe that helping students effectively address their social and emotional lives creates a school culture and climate that is more conducive to learning. A byproduct of this effort is also a community in which psychological and emotional concerns -- often the forerunners to physical safety issues -- are addressed with frequency and efficacy by classroom teachers, or identified and conveyed rapidly to our Student Support Team for more intensive interventions. This aligns with the findings of a U.S. Secret Service study on school-based violence, which concluded that, “schools should ensure a climate in which students feel comfortable sharing information they have regarding a potentially threatening situation with a responsible adult.” Indeed, our core value of “Kindness” may be the very best way to ensure our safety.
Semper Paratus while “Keeping it Park”
Our focus on safety is balanced with our desire to maintain an open and friendly campus, and the policies and procedures we have adopted, walk this fine line. This said, we are now locking more of our building doors and actively exploring the costs and benefits of changing how we might secure our buildings and will report out on this when we have more to tell. I share this with you cautiously, as I believe these type of security measures are mostly illusory. What is more tangible is maintaining a healthy community, which we believe is a much better way to guard our safety than these more tactical responses. We couple this belief with a semper paratus philosophy, remaining “ever ready” to address whatever issues might come our way.
Head of School