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Why “community” is the answer to campus safety

Rick Gilbert, Milton Hershey School senior director of campus safety, shares his strategy

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Rick Gilbert is the senior director of campus safety at Milton Hershey School, a top-tier school for qualifying students in pre-K through 12th grade. The school covers all costs for all students who attend. Gilbert led the MHS Safety department to being awarded accreditation in both Campus Safety, and Public Safety Communication from the Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies (CALEA), becoming not only the first, but only, pre-K-12 school in the nation to obtain dual accreditations.

Milton Hershey School

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Earlier this year, more than 100 tips from students and parents thwarted a threat made on social media against a Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, school. The key component to de-escalating the threat? The school’s community members who saw it voiced their concerns and knew who to contact.

As a senior director of campus safety, I head a team responsible for securing our school’s campus. We, like other school safety professionals, spend a great deal of time planning how to effectively respond to scenarios we hope – and proactively work to ensure – never happen. Avoiding risk altogether is the first – and obviously most ideal – mitigation strategy. My 30+ years in the field taught me that you are most likely to prevent an emergency, disaster or crisis when you involve your entire community in your safety strategy.

The concept of creating a culture of shared responsibility and vigilance isn’t new. Sadly, the public became more familiar with it following the 9/11 attacks when the slogan “If You See Something, Say Something” reiterated the role we all play in our communities’ safety.

Today, we see the irreplaceable value of a community approach to safety. Not only can it help prevent negative events and actions from taking place, but it also fosters a positive culture that creates community pride and a greater feeling of safety among individuals.

If you want your campus to be as safe as possible, including the community in your strategy is necessary. These considerations will help you identify your stakeholders, create lines of communication and foster relationships tied to your safety strategy:

  1. Identify your stakeholders – The most important element of a community safety approach is the people. Identify your stakeholders by establishing “safety layers” with internal stakeholders at the core. For schools, this core includes students, employees and parents. Next, take one step out and ask yourself, “Who do I work with to create an additional layer that helps keep that first layer safe?” This second layer may include outside organizations that have a shared interest in local safety due to proximity, including other schools, local first responders (emergency medical services and police and fire departments) and hospitals. Stakeholders in the next layer may include local businesses or other community organizations. After that, layers may include contacts at the county, state or federal level.
  2. Establish communication methods – Now that you know your stakeholders, how will you communicate? Methods may differ for internal and external stakeholders. For example, some universities and other schools use specific technology, like the LiveSafe app, so students and staff have a direct line to campus safety and vice versa. For external stakeholders, confirm who your specific contacts are and their emergency contact numbers. You may also find it beneficial to hold regular meetings (in-person or virtual) with external stakeholders to share updates and gain valuable insight. Just like having multiple stakeholders, having multiple communication channels that encourage stakeholder engagement can be beneficial to your overall strategy. In Pennsylvania, the Safe2Say Something program run by the state’s Office of Attorney General is another avenue to report safety concerns with the goal of preventing tragedies.
  3. Cultivate relationships – Building trust is an important part of your safety strategy. Your stakeholders are more likely to share concerns, honest feedback and important information when they trust you. This is especially important for internal stakeholders. You want students and staff to know you’re a person who values them and cares for their well-being, not just someone in uniform. It doesn’t happen overnight but putting the time and effort into developing strong relationships with all stakeholders pays off in the long run with the peace of mind that accompanies a safe community. Taking time to get to respectfully know your stakeholders is important in creating the “we’re in this together” dynamic that makes these relationships successful.
  4. Share – In addition to sharing information, external stakeholders may also share resources, when appropriate or possible. This might include physical resources, like materials, personnel or even their location as an evacuation site during emergencies. When you put the energy and resources forth to help another stakeholder in a time of need, the likelihood they will reciprocate in the future is higher – not to mention, it’s just the right thing to do.
  5. Listen – If you truly want to be part of a holistic approach that will keep your community safe, you’ve got to listen. You need to let people have some buy-in in your program. That means listening to your stakeholders so you can truly understand and address their needs. There is no room for egos in community safety. The best thing you can be is approachable and open to hearing your stakeholders. What they share could prevent a disaster or even save lives.

“The whole is greater than the sum of its parts,” according to ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle. This is absolutely the case with campus safety. We are at our best – and safest – when we work together.

A group of internal and external stakeholders who are unified, engaged and invested in one another’s safety makes your school community stronger and more perceptive overall.

When was the last time your school reviewed its safety strategy? There’s no time like the present.

Milton Hershey School is a top-tier school for qualifying students in pre-K through 12th grade. The school covers all costs for all students who attend.