Dear Harding Academy Community,
Another school shooting, this one in Parkland, Florida has, once again, shaken all of us. It has galvanized a call for action to keep our schools safe. In this moment I’ve heard from many seeking reassurances around what Harding Academy does - and will do - to keep our students safe. I’ve also heard from many of you wondering what our position is as it relates to the various events calling on young people to walk out of class in support of school safety. I plan to address both of these below.
Safety at Harding Academy
Our top priority as a school is to keep our kids safe. Our campus is an open campus, one that we all find charming and comforting in its neighborhood feel. But it can also feel vulnerable in some ways. Over the last five years, we have taken a number of steps to reinforce our security infrastructure and procedures. These include requiring everyone to sign in at the front desk and wear an identification badge, installation of addiitional access pads on external doors, and upgrading our security surveillance system.
Additionally, we have a crisis management plan that covers a range of possible scenarios from fire to tornado to active shooters. Each scenario is accompanied by drills we practice with the children. Specifically, we have outlined a framework for responding to an active shooter based on A.L.I.C.E. training, an acronym that stands for Alert, Lockdown, Inform, Confront, Evacuate. Our YELLOW and RED lockdown drills help us to practice the various aspects of this training.
On the Wednesday following the Florida shooting, during our Late Start Wednesday time, our faculty and staff met and reviewed our lockdown procedures and the A.L.I.C.E. training together. Our next lockdown drill will be held on Wednesday, March 28. This will be a RED lockdown, in which rooms will be locked, doors barricaded, shades drawn, lights turned off, and communication protocols tested. All of this will, of course, be introduced to the students in an age-appropriate manner.
What is most difficult to accept, however, is that we cannot train for every possible scenario. We know we must do our best. Our faculty and staff are dedicated and caring professionals who will do everything in their power to keep your children safe. I trust them with my child. I know you do too. Still, we have added a faculty professional development day during our August meeting week leading up to the first day of school that will be dedicated to crisis preparedness and will include a live action drill in which we hope to have local law enforcement participate.
Finally, over the course of the fall and winter we interviewed and have recently selected a security firm to perform a comprehensive security audit. Representatives from Invictus Consulting, LLC (the same security firm hired by Sidwell Friends in Washington, D.C. where the children of two recent Presidents have attended) will be on campus at the end of the month and will provide an all-encompassing report to me and the Board of Trustees ahead of our May meeting. I will be sure to communicate our next steps following that meeting.
The Walk Out
Recently, a group of 8th graders approached Jay Codispoti and me about participating in the nation-wide March 14 School Walk Out. We met on Tuesday, and I left with an incredible sense of hope. These students exemplified our mission, demonstrating that they are thoughtful, creative, lifelong learners and self-disciplined, responsible, caring citizens.
As a PreK-8 school, we are in a unique position of balancing the fact that our mission and vision clearly point to facilitating these students' yearning to advocate by guiding them towards civil, responsible, respectful and productive engagement while our responsibility remains, as always, to keep these same students safe. Furthermore, we must take into account how our younger students with no background knowledge regarding the Parkland tragedy will hear, see, or learn about what our older students are doing.
As a learning community that has committed to developing the global sensibilities of our students, the act of engaging in the national discourse about school safety is a ripe and relevant opportunity to guide our students in what it means to participate in a democracy. Not only does it align with our mission, but also our middle school social studies curriculum. But we also acknowledge, as highly experienced educators steeped in the developmental whirlwind of pre-adolescence, that not all of our students will want to or feel ready to engage. And that needs to be acceptable also.
Therefore, in our conversations with these student leaders, we have laid out certain “guardrails” in order to facilitate voluntary engagement. Certainly, student and parent choice is of primary importance, but also requiring that in whatever way our students participate that ALL viewpoints be allowed and dialogue remains civil and respectful. Finally, we want to couch the conversation and activities for our younger students in a way that explains that our older students want to make sure everyone at school is safe.
As we continue to work out the logistics with our students, we are approaching this as a middle school focused learning opportunity that stays on campus, crafting a permission slip for parents to sign, providing tight supervision for those who choose to participate and those who do not, and an agenda for the actual walk out that meets the objectives as stated by our students: to encourage government officials to take action through legislation, to advocate for the importance of safe learning environments around the country, and to honor those who lost their lives at Parkland.
Schools are cherished environments where students, educators, and parents work together on the journey to self-actualization, the highest level on Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs which he describes as “the desire to accomplish everything that one can, to become the most that one can be.” I appreciate your support in this journey. As I have followed discussions around these topics very closely over the past two weeks, I made note of the resources below which have helped parents across the country approach their children in the wake of these events. Perhaps they can help you too.