A new national school safety organization will soon make Missouri its home. The Council for School Safety Leadership will bring together national experts to build prevention, preparedness, response and recovery programs for schools across the country.
John McDonald, who will be the Chief Operating Officer, is known nationally for leading the security team at Jefferson County Schools in Colorado. The district includes Columbine High School, where two shooters opened fire in 1999 – killing 12 students and one teacher.
Two years after the shooting, he was tapped to build the school safety program and become the architect of the safety, security and emergency management program. For the past 14 years, McDonald was responsible for the safety and security of 157 schools, 86,000 students and 14,000 workers.
“Columbine struggled for a decade to try and find a pathway to recovery and the school district 10 years following the tragedy was still traumatized. The trauma that you experience following a tragedy like that just doesn’t go away overnight,” he said.
After being on the job for about one year, another school shooting happened just down the block from Columbine High School. Three weeks prior to the shooting, his team talked to students and workers of that school about how to handle a shooting situation.
“We saw some remarkable, remarkable courage that day,” he said. “Our teachers actually tackled, subdued, fought to disarm the suspect, and tied him up and had him ready for transport when law enforcement arrived. We realized that we could really make a difference in mindset. We could teach our students and staff how to prepare and how to respond. We don’t have to be emergency scared – we can be emergency prepared.”
He said having an open, honest conversation with the students is key.
“Kids have an expectation that I want to feel safe when I go to school and I expect that you’re going to teach me those things that are going to help keep me safe. If we’re not afraid to talk to our kids about what do you do when you’re on fire, why are we so afraid to have the conversation about what do you do when you are under fire? We have to be willing to have that conversation,” said McDonald. “Adults struggle with it, but kids talk about it. I think we owe that not only to our students of today, but we owe that to every student around the country that’s ever become a victim or been murdered in a senseless act of school violence in the last 25 years. We’re at the end of a pandemic and I can’t help but think that as a nation, if we’d spent some time and energy, maybe the same time and energy over the last 25 years dealing with a pandemic, school violence, just like we have the pandemic of COVID, we would have whooped this thing. We would have some answers. And the answers are not easy. But they are there. And that’s the purpose of bringing this new organization together.”
He said the Council for School Safety Leadership will include a critical incident response team that can be mobilized in Missouri and beyond.
“I think that’s really a game changer, something that’s never been done before. When I’ve worked with school districts in the aftermath of tragedy, whether it was Sandy Hook or Parkland, or Santa Fe, one of the questions that they ask all the time is, ‘Who can we reach out to? Who can help us? Who do we turn to?’ There’s never been anybody with school districts in this country can turn to and say, ‘Come help us.’ There’s not a single organization that you can pick the phone up and say, ‘They’re the ones that we should call or we want to call because they understand what we’ve been through.’”
The organization will be part of the Missouri School Boards’ Association. He said it will be working to share a menu of safety measures schools can take. The menu will include a variety of costs that he said will fit their environment.
“Because there’s not a school out there that’s the same,” he said. “School districts in rural Missouri have very different needs than suburban or urban Missouri. We have to recognize that but at the same time, there’s some really core things that everybody needs. I think that’s one of the things I’m looking forward to helping design is that menu of options, or here’s 20 things you can do for less than $1,000 that help change your environment.”
What are some of the greatest challenges today in the conversation about school safety?
“I think the fight that we face each and every day in schools in the world of school safety is apathy – and also a willingness to have a mindset that it can’t happen here can happen somewhere any given day. We have to be aware of that while not scared of that. There’s just not a one size fits all solution or strategy for this and I think everybody is trying to fit that round peg in a square hole and it just doesn’t work. Schools have to be prepared for an insider threat and an outsider threat. And the strategies and the solutions for those two issues are very different,” said McDonald.
He has a message to give Missourians.
“There’s a lot of hope and help out there,” said McDonald. “Not everything is bad. We have a lot of amazing stuff happening in schools every day. I tell our law enforcement people all the time, if you don’t have good relationships with your school, you fix it and you fix it today. In schools, if you don’t have good relationships with your firefighters and your cops, you fix it and you fix it today, because tomorrow is too late.”
To hear the Show Me Today interview, click below. (31:00)
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