Model Programs/Best Practices

Idaho Takes Systematic Approach to School Safety Planning

Location: Idaho By Becky Lewis Published Sept. 2016

In Idaho, a llama shares top billing in the state’s new school safety PSA. Yes, a llama. Big. Brown and white. In a school hallway.

But the state’s newly created Office of School Safety and Security has a lot more going for it than just a gimmick.

The llama stars along with State First Lady Lori Otter in a 33-second PSA for Idaho’s “See, Tell, Now” campaign, which encourages faculty, students and staff “If you See something, Tell someone, Now.” Brian Armes, manager of the new office, explains that the llama’s appearance isn’t as far-fetched as it might seem: llamas and alpacas are used as pack animals in the state’s mountains That campaign, with its llama mascot, was created by an ad agency with a goal of producing a take on the concept of “stranger danger” with which younger children could connect and not feel frightened. (View the PSA at https://schoolsafety.dbs.idaho.gov/see-tell-now/).

Armes says the campaign is based on the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s “See Something, Say Something” campaign, with an ultimate objective of involving the community in addition to school campuses. It’s all part of the purpose for which the 2016 Idaho Legislature created the Office of School Safety and Security; a purpose which is, according to the Office’s website, “to support Idaho public schools in the creation of safe learning environments in the midst of an evolving threat environment.” Although Idaho’s school safety center opened several years after many other states began their own concentrated efforts, Armes says a great deal of careful and directed planning went into the center’s creation, and the state won’t be starting out by playing catchup.

“People wonder ‘Why did Idaho wait?’ ” Armes says. “Fortunately, we haven’t had any headline-making tragedies, and it made sense to hold off and come up with a well thought-out plan.”

That plan included placing the Office in the Division of Building Safety, rather than the Department of Education or the Department of Justice. Armes and two of his four staff members have backgrounds in education, but as the state’s economy begins to recover and Idaho sees new growth in population and construction, a concurrent effort to update existing schools and build new ones gives the state an opportunity to incorporate Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design (CPTED) principles into their infrastructures.

“Operations is an area where we have an opportunity to make a big change,” he says. “We’re here to serve the community and we can have a big impact through policies, practices and procedures that use and enforce safety principles.”

To review the effectiveness of that approach, the Office plans a three-year cycle of assessments, with one-third of the state’s schools under review every year: “Every effort should begin with an assessment, followed by long-term planning, and we believe a systematic approach will work best for Idaho.”

The assessments are all part of a sustained planning approach begun in 2013 after the shooting at Connecticut’s Sandy Hook Elementary School. That approach began with selection of 75 schools — large, small; elementary, secondary; urban, rural — for an initial assessment that helped inform the legislature in its decision to create the Office. Armes says the plan also includes a regional approach, because “in Idaho we have a saying that the water doesn’t get to the end of the row. It’s based on the irrigation we do here, but what it means is sometimes benefits don’t make it all the way from the state capital to the schools at the end of the line. If you shorten the row — if you use a regional approach — the water has a greater chance of reaching the area where it’s needed.”

And part of that regional approach includes leveraging regional resources such as local Crimestoppers organizations to expand the Office’s efforts, rather than setting up parallel efforts like hotlines and mobile apps.

“We want to involve the community and use what’s already there to help encourage our educators and our students to look out for each other. If we get children thinking that way from a young age, they are likely to take that attitude into adulthood,” Armes says. “There’s a tendency to think that out West where communities are smaller we naturally do that, but with people moving around frequently, there’s less thought given to community responsibility than before. I think our approach makes a lot of sense for Idaho, and it’s a good way to get people ‘back in the saddle’ and caring for each other.”