No Higher Calling: Creating a Climate and Culture of Safety in Schools

John McDonald, Co-founder of The Council for School Safety Leadership, Provides Insights on School Crisis Prevention and Response

Between 2021 and 2022, 67% of schools reported having at least one violent incident, and 59% reported having at least one nonviolent incident, according to a National Center for Education Statistics at IES report that surveyed 4,800 public schools nationwide. In the survey, 61% of schools reported at least one physical attack or fight without a weapon, and 4% reported such an attack with a weapon. Bullying continues to occur weekly in almost a third of schools, despite increased efforts to provide social-emotional wellness support and mental health treatment, the report said.  

Law enforcement, educators, and parents agree that protecting our most precious resource—our children and students—is one of society’s greatest responsibilities. In a recent webinar presented by Lightspeed in partnership with Safe And Sound Schools, John McDonald, a former law enforcement officer and co-founder of The Council for School Safety and Leadership, shared proven strategies that schools can use to better prepare for and respond to crises. The CSSL is a collaborative of the Missouri School Board Association and Safe and Sound Schools. 

  • Prior to his current role, John McDonald served for 14 years as the executive director of security and emergency management for Jeffco Public Schools. He was recognized internationally as the architect of the post-Columbine High School tragedy security and emergency management plan. The United States Department of Education also recognized him as a subject matter expert on active shooter preparedness and emergency plan development. 

In this webinar, he outlines ways schools and districts can better prevent, respond, and address school safety as they strive to create a climate of culture and safety.

Focus on Prevention 

If schools can’t prevent violent incidents, their only recourse is to respond to them. Administrators and educators need to stop the pathway to violence at the earliest opportunity so they don’t have to move to the response phase. And while not every threat is a school shooting, every threat deserves attention, McDonald said. 

It’s a misconception that supporting school safety requires a lot of extra money. More than anything, it takes communication and effort. Every student deserves a kind, caring, and trusting adult in their life, and by connecting to someone, educators can give students hope and guidance when they need it, McDonald said. 

That includes defining acceptable behavior and empowering students to report bullying, threats, and other incidents. 

“We need to ask, what do we tolerate or normalize? What are we modeling and who are we championing?” he said. “If we don’t confront it, we normalize it.” 

Districts can also do simple things to secure their environments—including shutting outside doors. McDonald started a campaign called “Stop the Prop,” which encourages administrators to train teachers and staff to “kick out the rock,” and shut and secure doors. If you create a culture where no one props open the door, you can create a time barrier for any potential bad actor seeking access to your school, he said. 

By focusing on communication, relationship building, and other prevention efforts, school leaders and staff can identify emerging threats.   

“Jeffco Public Schools has experienced three shootings in its history, all within 35 miles of Columbine High School. The timeline is both incredibly important and devastating to the whole community,” McDonald said. “If there’s any lesson I can leave you, it’s that you should do all you can to live in a world of prevention, because tragedy is too damn hard.” 

Get a Pulse on Students’ Perceptions 

Good leaders sell their vision of school safety to their education partners in a way that shows how everyone benefits. When kids feel safe, attendance improves, and test scores go up. Checking in with your students can help you gauge how well you’re promoting a culture of safety. In the aftermath of the Columbine shooting, 69% of students said they felt safe in the aftermath of the school shooting. Today, that number has risen to 93%, McDonald said, but more is needed. 

“In a district of 86,000 people, that’s good, but 7% of students still do not feel safe,” he said. “Why not? What grade levels? We need to take a deep dive into that and find out what is happening that’s making them feel that way.” 

Keep Every Threat on Your Radar 

Every threat is credible, and educators need to take each one seriously. According to McDonald, a Secret Service study reported that in 81% of all school shootings, perpetrators broadcast their intentions to at least one person. 

“If we create a culture where kids feel safe and valued, then they’ll report it, and it’s up to us to respond,” he said. 

The work continues after your team assesses and dismisses the credibility of a threat. 

“It’s not enough to do a threat assessment…you need to stay focused on that student or perpetrator focused on your school and continue to work with law enforcement to put good plans in place,” he said. 

Respond Quickly 

It’s critical to talk to students, teachers, and staff about the significance of everyone’s response during times of crisis. How you react can greatly affect your outcome. If school leaders find themselves in crisis, they have three critical windows to make the right decisions, McDonald said. 

  • The first five minutes define the impact you feel. This is where all your policies, district guidance, preparedness training, and lockdown drills come into play. If you’ve done them with fidelity and have modeled your school to take it seriously, it all comes down to the first five minutes.  

McDonald said the single biggest failure in any crisis is the failure to communicate. This could mean teachers failing to manage the classroom environment, administrators failing to teach educators important crisis prevention and intervention skills, or failing to notify law enforcement right away. 

“If you don’t have a good relationship with law enforcement, fix it and fix it today—tomorrow is too late,” he said. “If we are not collaborative and not willing to engage with each other and not willing to partner and find common goals for a common cause, we’re going to see the same failures again and again.” 

Leverage Education Tools That Promote Safety   

When schools use tools that address both education and safety, everyone wins, McDonald said. Products like Lightspeed’s Cascadia instructional audio platform integrate with existing life-safety, paging and intercom, and phone systems. These educational tools not only help project a teacher’s voice so that students can better understand what’s being said, but they also empower teachers to call for help and communicate outside of the classroom from their lanyard microphones. A teacher in crisis can communicate with the office through Cascadia’s two-way calling feature. The device allows her to provide timely, mobile, silent alerts from anywhere in the building. Cascadia also provides real-time teacher location during an active alert—enabling law enforcement to locate educators during an active event. 

“Lightspeed is a product I really like because it provides a classroom management and incident response component in one,” McDonald said. “You don’t have to decide whether to spend money on school safety or education—it’s the same dollar. We’re protecting and educating together.” 

New school safety products include advanced video cameras that detect weapons, read license plates, and recognize faces. Audio sensors can capture keywords in conversations that can help detect verbal threats. Still, paying attention to what you can do with the limited resources your school has can go a long way. While technology is important, good communication, strong leadership, and crisis training all form the foundation of a culture of school safety. 

Take the First Step 

To change your school’s culture, you should find the leaders at your school and start conversations with them to better understand your organization’s climate. Then, you need to engage in hard conversations with your superintendent and school board. In an executive session, you and your law enforcement partners must explain to your school board why you’re making these decisions and investing in safety. Then, you need to hold a public session with parents and community members to share what you’re doing. 

“When they see the work we’re putting in and its importance, it lifts up the entire climate and culture,” he said. “That starts with a conversation and willingness to engage.” 

The Council for School Safety Leadership is a non-profit organization that supports schools in the midst and aftermath of school tragedy and crisis. The group assists school leaders with crisis communication planning and management and helps them navigate the response and recovery process.  

Safe and Sound Schools is Safe and Sound Schools: A Sandy Hook Initiative is a non-profit organization dedicated to providing parents and school communities the tools and resources necessary to ensure school safety. 

Watch the replay of the webinar, “No Higher Calling…” to for more ways to creating a climate of safety and quality education,