Safe At School

FTLComm - Tisdale - April 21, 1999
By: Timothy W. Shire

I had taken the picture above for an entirely different reason Tuesday afternoon, it shows two teachers and their classes working on research projects in the beautiful and well designed Tisdale Middle Secondary School. Moments after I snapped this image I was listening to the horror of another school library in a suburban community outside Denver Colorado where two youths entered the building and began shooting students and tossing bombs around. Twenty-two students were injured in the incident and another fifteen lay dead inside and outside the school building.

As a preface to this article, I listened this morning as CBC's Sheila Coles talked with a leading American expert on violence of this kind and she said that such incidents do not take place in Canada. Sadly enough Sheila is quite wrong about that, as we have had several serious incidents involving death of students and teachers here in Canada, it is just that compared to the larger population of the US we have as yet been spared this sort of terrible large scale event.

As a school principal, teacher and guidance counsellor for twenty-seven years, I know we have plenty of violence to deal with and in my career I have seen situations that involved serious violence, or threats of violence that clearly have told me that situations like that in Colorado are much more then likely to happen anywhere, given our present state of readiness. Before I discuss some possible measures that would lessen the danger, just let me point out some incidents in which I have either been involved in, or have in some way been associated with.

  • - Winter 1974 - Grade six teacher Doris Brehmer of Weekes elementary was confronted in her classroom with an inebriated parent wielding a butcher knife who threatened the students and the teacher. No injuries occurred because of Mrs. Brehmer's remarkable calm handling of the situation and the extraordinary high level of discipline of her students who remained calm during the incident where the person with the knife sat down and with no one paying attention to her finally got up and left.
  • - June 1975 - Following threats of a gunman the principal at Weekes drew up a contingency plan to handle a possible armed threat in the school and that plan was implemented when a distraught woman with a baby in her arms came into the school on a June morning after exams. There was audible gun fire in the village the plan was implemented
  • - October 1978 three youths were sent out of LaFleche school in the evening during a girls volleyball practice. Later that night the three returned to the building and trashed the entire building destroying classrooms, knocking down all lockers so that the hallways were impassible.
  • - 1990 (not sure of date) a group of young people on the Red Earth reserve East of Nipawin went on a rampage for several days terrorising the community. At supper time on their third day of drinking they attempted to steal gasoline from one of the teachers cars, two teachers came outside and they would be thieves ran about a hundred yards to their car took out guns and the physical education teacher from the school was shot and killed.
  • - October of 1994 a parent threatened several children on Charlebois (Cumberland House) school playground.
  • - Winter of 1995 an angry student entered Charlebois school charged into a classroom and assaulted his brother seated in a social studies classroom. (In this incident had he had access to a weapon of some kind the incident would have been much worse)

Those incidents are merely the ones that come to mind as I look back over my career as a principal and had the individuals involved had the access to weapons, any of these, or many other incidents, would have had much more serious consequences. In the case at Red Earth it was fortunate that only one teacher was killed and that the incident did not involve the school itself, although it did take place in the school yard. A local Tisdale teacher did have the opportunity of teaching one of those young people involved directly in that shooting. In the course of any day, teachers and administrators can be faced with extreme situations, students who have spent some time in jails of one kind or another can react in a hallway to a peer, in schools throughout this province there are students attending school who are awaiting trial for offenses from rape, assault, and robbery with violence, these are routine situations.

As a principal and counsellor, most of my individual work with students, involved students who were victims of violent crime. Rape victims, child abuse victims, spousal assault victims all are far more numerous then reading difficulties or problems doing mathematics. If students lives are intently involved in violence it is only reasonable that occasionally that environment will spill over into actions of rage involving others. Most Saskatchewan communities are seemingly civilised but even in the best communities there are individuals who have suffered painful life experiences and a possible uncontrolled act is possible.

It is absolutely vital that every school have a thoroughly worked out plan to deal with a possible threat. In the case of Weekes which is such a great community no one ever expect there to be a need for a "gunman in the hallway plan" yet we did need such a plan and as mentioned actually had to put the plan into affect. Weekes is a good example because like so many schools it has a central hallway, in which a person with a weapon can control the whole school's population. Tisdale Elementary is another such building in which its hallways are accessible. School's with multiple entrances are the most vulnerable to dangerous entry as was the case with the Arkansas school with its exposed entrances and the Colorado one with many entrances like TMSS.

If we have more security in our schools to prevent the unlikely exposure of children to some person out of control are we giving up more precious freedom? The answer is only perhaps, because there are a lot of good reasons to control movement into and out of a school and anyone can walk into any school in this province at anytime and it is unlikely that you would be stopped or challenged by anyone. It is costly to put into our schools security measures, but at the same time it is far more costly for us to go along without offering our children, for much of each day, a basic level of security.

The following steps are basic and every school staff should formulate steps to develop a safe school environment.


Develop a worst case scenario plan:



in the plan establish what a teacher, student or service worker does if they spot someone suspicious



develop a basic code to alert teachers of a possible threat.



lay out the procedures for everyone to follow once a possible threat is identified



the plan must include emergency response but also emergency follow-up once the threat has ended.



rehearse the plan once a year to up date it and orient staff.




Use unobtrusive fences and barriers to control external movement around a school and its fields that will improve teacher supervision and unwanted access.




Reduce the numbers of entrances into a school during class time so that the secretary, cleaning staff or someone's eyes can see someone entering the building. Television monitors are becoming inexpensive and would improve entrance surveillance Playground and other entrances should be secured when classes are in progress.




Take all threats seriously, especially from parents and students who demonstrate antisocial behaviour. In addition, develop teacher awareness of the signs of suicide and extreme depression that might give warning of a possible loss of control. Among the signs to watch for are self mutilation and the dispensing of a person's personal property.




The most serious threat to a "safe school" is complacency and the idea that "it could never happen here."