Indiana is home to many unique things: The Indianapolis Motor Speedway, site of the world’s first automobile race. The town of Santa Claus, where residents answer children’s letters by the hundreds of thousands. Ft. Wayne, site of the country’s first professional baseball game.
And the Indiana School Safety Specialist Academy, where the state trains and certifies at least one individual from every school district in the state about how to plan for and respond to active shooters, cyberbullying, anonymous threats and more.
Although Indiana began requiring certification in 1999, the mandatory training program was already in development prior to that year’s April 20 shooting at Colorado’s Columbine High School. For the past 19 years, the state has required that every school district have at least one employee who has been certified through academy training and can help create safety plans that fit each district’s individual needs.
Initially, the state certified 300 individuals, one from each district. Nineteen years later, that number has grown to nearly 3,000, as additional staff seek out the free training, yet despite the tenfold increase in the number of persons certified, the program still receives the same amount of state funding it did in 1999.
David Woodward, state director of School Building Physical Security and Safety, attributes the increased interest in training to word of mouth and the fact that “this fills a gap. Educators don’t learn about school safety when they study to get their licenses. The satisfaction rate is really strong, with about 90 percent of individuals rating it four or better out of five.”
To become certified, individuals must complete five days of basic training that covers the fundamentals of school safety, including how to develop a plan, legal issues, recovery from an event and dealing with the media. In acknowledgement of the demands on everyone’s time, the training includes three days of classroom instruction scattered throughout the year, plus two days of self-paced online training.
“It really covers the fundamentals of school safety, and they don’t just get certified and walk away. Threats and the response to them are always changing, and certified individuals must complete two days of advanced training annually to keep up to date,” Woodward says. “The focus of the advanced training changes in response to current events. A couple of years ago the focus was bullying. If we solved it, that would be the magic pill that solved everything. Then the focus became response to an active shooter, and now it seems to be moving toward coping with anonymous threats received via social media and online triggers.”
Over the past 19 years, Indiana School Safety Specialist Academy training has generated a positive rating of approximately 90 percent in post-evaluation ratings. A sample of recent comments includes:
“This was a very informative conference! Very great speakers both days that kept me interested in every word they said. A lot of info[rmation] on things I would never of thought [about]. I would definitely recommend this conference to anyone looking to better themselves in school safety.”
“Outstanding Trainers- excellent overview of priority safety topics as well as providing a significant amount of resource material offerings that will support and expand the personal knowledge base of the Specialists, as well as provide tools to the SRO, Administrators and Managers to improve their program.”
“I came away from this training with much more knowledge than I was planning! Very knowledgeable and direct presenters that care solely about the safety of the students and delivered that urgency and passion. I am looking forward to the online portion of the training and attending the class in May!”
Adam Baker, press secretary for the state Department of Education, says that in order to keep the training relevant, the academy brings in experts relevant to the issue at hand: “We try to provide them with information they can use immediately. We want it to relate to what they’re seeing in their community at that time.”
“The basic training is pretty static. They come out with a foundation and a knowledge of the fundamentals of response to bullying, gangs, bomb threats and fires,” Woodward says. “The advanced training is more dynamic, and we’ve brought in survivors and first responders from every major event in the country to tell us what worked, what didn’t work and what we can to improve as a result.”
The state develops the curriculum with input from nationally known subject-matter experts, and individuals who complete it then take it back to their local districts and train others. Suggestions from trainees’ post-training evaluations help inform the development of the next year’s training.
“We have really good partnerships with our state police, who worked with us to create the active shooter part of the training. The state Department of Homeland Security, which includes the fire marshal, worked with us on fire response. We also have a partnership with the Criminal Justice Institute here in Indiana,” Woodward says.
The state does provide lodging to trainees who must travel a long distance to take the training, but otherwise keep expenses down by offering a “no frills” approach that does not include meals or expense reimbursement. All that’s been required to keep expanding the training are larger meeting rooms, Baker says. The advanced training is offered on a regional basis to help districts keep their costs down. For example, in 2017, Indiana offered advanced training on 27 different days at different locations around the state: “We want to make it so you to step over the school safety training to miss it.”
In addition to making the training so accessible, the state keeps tabs on the results by randomly reviewing 60 district safety plans each year, and Woodward says when they find a gap or discover a district that is struggling, “we think that goes on us. We have an online forum that districts can join. We like to say that we’re not ‘the’ school safety experts here, because no one person or agency has the answer to everything. But we can put them in touch with a large network of ‘experts,’ and some of them will be able to help.”
The Indiana Department of Education has already provided assistance to other jurisdictions looking to develop a similar program, and will work with others in the future. To find out more, contact Adam Baker at ABaker@doe.in.gov.