Safe Schools Digital Summit brings survivors, experts together for new understanding of school safety

November 6, 2018

By Matthew Kredell

USC Price Professor Erroll Southers, director of the USC Safe Communities Institute, led the USC National Safe Schools Digital Summit on Oct. 24, as a call to action for the thousands of people watching around the world to break through the rhetorical stalemate and reach a new understanding of school safety.

“This inaugural event comes in a challenging time in society,” said USC Price Dean Jack H. Knott. “We all know the challenge presented by violence in cities and schools. We know that tackling multifaceted manifestations of violence requires a multidisciplinary, rigorous approach. Schools are our most valued infrastructure, housing the nation’s most important resource: our students.”

National Safe Schools Digital Summit
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Beyond the Venue

To involve a larger audience and potentially increase the impact for a national issue in which little progress has been made — this year more than 70 acts of gun violence have taken place on school grounds across the country — the summit took place in a studio at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism and was broadcast live online, with questions taken over Facebook and Twitter.

“While similar summits are typically presented to an on-site audience, all Americans have a stake in school safety, and there is not a large enough venue in our country to cater to all stakeholders,” said Southers. “By leveraging online capabilities and social networks, the summit allowed us to reach potentially millions of people across the country and in a way that was accessible, convenient and free.”

Rarely Heard Voices

Southers contended that the discussion about school safety often is about guns, guards and gates. The USC Safe Communities Institute takes a whole-community approach to public safety to stop violence before it happens.

Three panel discussions featured voices often left out of the school safety conversations. The first panel included four students who have survived school violence; a second panel focused on security, public safety and public health; and a third panel included two journalists who have covered the aftermath of school shootings.

“We want safe schools, not just well-defended schools,” Southers said. “We want safer schools for our children and those who teach them. The country has suffered thousands of fatalities from school violence. Panelists at today’s summit have important insights too seldom heard in the national discussion of school violence prevention.”

Student panel at USC National Safe Schools Digital Summit

Student perspective panelists, from left: Denzel Whitaker, Laraine Perez, Amandeep Kaur, Kristina Anderson and Jake Glacer.

The student panel spotlighted harrowing stories of surviving active shooter incidents in schools. Jake Glacer, a senior at Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, recalled last February’s shooting; it was the deadliest at a high school in United States history, killing 17 students and staff members.

Glacer stated that he still doesn’t feel safe at school. The campus is secure with guarded entrances, but he sees rule enforcement as lax. He stressed the importance of emergency preparedness drills and getting students to pay attention to them.

“During the attack, no one was prepared, no one was thinking, ‘This could happen to me,’” Glacer said. “Even with this happening regularly in the news, I think people are still not taking this seriously, and that’s a problem.”

Kristina Anderson was shot three times during the Virginia Tech shooting in 2007. She stayed low and pretended to be dead until the incident was over. Since graduating from Virginia Tech, Anderson has dedicated her life to issues of campus safety and emergency planning. She spoke about co-founding a mobile app called LiveSafe, which provides students with a way to communicate directly with campus police to report suspicious activity or crimes in progress. USC is one of the universities utilizing the app, through the USC Department of Public Safety and the USC Department of Emergency Planning.

“Never stop pushing safety and security for your own self,” Anderson said. “But also remain hopeful. Schools are safe, people are safe, people are good, but sometimes bad things happen.”

Amandeep Kaur and Laraine Perez, students at Cleveland Charter High School in Reseda — where a student was arrested this year after threatening notes were found on campus — noted that school violence isn’t just about shootings. As queer students of color, they’ve experienced emotional abuse and bullying. They want to see more school mental health programs giving students a safe space in which to share their feelings.

“We’re going to keep advocating for change,” Kaur said. “Right now, no one is listening to students. Lawmakers have to listen to us. We’re over it at this point. What do we need to do to get you to listen to us? We need more platforms for everyone to speak their experiences, whether it’s school shootings, cyber or physical bullying.”

In the second panel, Los Angeles County Department of Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer agreed that it’s important for students to be heard, because students stop more school shootings from happening than metal detectors do.

“There has to be an opportunity for the people we are in service of to have voices lifted up front and center,” Ferrer said. “Building relationships that allow us to trust each other with a sensitive situation is what creates safety in our environments. Best practices are engagement of students, parents and faculty — everyone in that learning community — and building some kind of democracy in schools.”

Tailored Safety Measures for Each School

Panelists for the Summit’s security panel, from left: Dr. Erroll Southers, Robert Boyd, Chief John Thomas and Mo Canady.

Also participating in the panel, moderated by Secure Schools Alliance Executive Director Robert Boyd, were National Association of School Resource Officers Executive Director Maurice Canady, USC Department of Safety Chief John Thomas and Southers.

Southers said he is pushing for a national center to centralize the effort to collect and analyze information to be disseminated to the appropriate partners.

“This is a community approach, and we won’t have safe schools unless we have a safe community,” Southers said.

Southers also stressed that there isn’t one profile for school safety. Not every school needs a metal detector. Assessments need to be done to determine what each school needs.

Canady stated that he is a proponent of having police in schools, and the officers need to be carefully selected for their experience interacting with youth, then trained to understand teens and their mental health issues.

Thomas stressed the importance of relationship-based policing, but expressed that by the time these issues reach law enforcement, it’s often too late to stop them.

“I do believe the approaches have to be holistic, that we have to look at more than what is the law enforcement response, and look at what are the ways we can identify and assess these threats prior to individuals acting out,” Thomas said. “In school settings, often times precursors can be identified by teachers and peers. After incidents, there’s a lot of dissection of how it occurred, why it occurred, but the reality is we need to be as active on the front end as we are after the tragedies.”

Media panel at USC National Safe Schools Digital Summit

Media panelists prepare for live-stream. From left: Beverly White, Keshia Clukey and Lindsay Powers.

The media panel, led by moderator and NBC Los Angeles reporter Beverly White, focused on how the media balances its responsibility to cover a school shooting as news with sensitivity to emotions, privacy, and issues of mental health, equality and privilege.

Related faculty

  • Erroll G. Southers

    Professor of the Practice in National and Homeland Security
    Director, Safe Communities Institute
    Director of Homegrown Violent Extremism Studies
    Director of International Programs, USC CREATE