Smart Start: How New Technology Mitigates Operational Risks in Schools

Tom Strasburger


April 1, 2014


Like any institution, every school district faces the challenges of having enough time and resources to effectively mitigate risk. With large staffs, multiple buildings, large and diverse student bodies and a range of daily visitors, managing school risk while fostering a safe environment can be overwhelming.

Maintaining safety standards requires swift and thorough communication between school leaders and staff—something that is easier said than done. But keeping schools safe for everyone not only helps mitigate risk, it also leads to quality academic instruction and learning in the classroom.

Risk in the school setting covers a range of concerns for both students and teachers. School administrators and human resources departments are responsible for staff training, student and staff accidents, student discipline, safety tasks (drills and inspections), as well as adherence to state and federal safety and health mandates. With so many district, state and federal legislative requirements, reporting processes and the overall management of school safety can get muddled.

Moving Beyond Pen and Paper
In the digital age, any process that requires pen and paper seems outdated, yet many districts still rely on handwritten reporting. The use of technology, on the other hand, facilitates instantaneous management of safety compliance requirements. As budget cuts shrink departments and administrators’ responsibilities increase, manual processes are no longer adequate or manageable.

To improve safety and reduce risk, it is essential to properly and effectively train staff on safety issues. Quality training can make the difference between a minor incident and a legal nightmare. A school district that can access online training records to show that a staff member has completed training and has a record of sign-off on its policies will be in a far better position than a district that has to search through paper files to find documentation.

The Northwest Regional Education Service District in Hillsboro, Ore., for example, is responsible for training across 33 school districts, including 3,000 roaming substitute teachers and 12,500 full-time staff members. Federal and state mandates require that substitutes receive the same training as full-time teachers, but tracking which substitutes completed appropriate training and whether one district’s training process met the requirements of another became increasingly difficult.

To create a seamless process, ease stress on administrators and human resources and reduce the possibility of liability issues, the district turned to a web-based system for a number of safety concerns, including staff training, student and staff accident reporting, student behavior reporting and safety task management.

Staff Training
Quality online staff training combines two specific features—the online training content itself, and technology that automates the training process and manages and tracks completion. If the system contains content but lacks a management and tracking mechanism, districts are still burdened with ensuring all staff members are in compliance.

For instance, Forest Hills Local School District (FHLSD) in Cincinnati, Ohio, used an online staff training service for years. However, it did not address their need for a comprehensive safety program—a risk it could not take while moving toward becoming self-insured for its 950 employees.

To better track which staff members had completed specific training, the districts upgraded to an automated, web-based staff training system that featured both online content and tracking and management systems. Instead of shuffling through thousands of loose papers and creating extensive tracking documents, the districts kept all content and completion records online, allowing educators to train at their own convenience and administrators to easily access records.

FHLSD’s online staff training system automatically assigns, communicates and manages annual training courses for staff members, even new hires. The system sends each employee an email containing a link to the required training course and a deadline for completion. As the deadline approaches, the system automatically sends reminder emails to staff members who have not completed the training, prompting them to do so before the deadline. Ultimately, the new system offers more support to stay compliant.

With a completely hands-off approach to staff training, human resources departments only have to get involved if any staff have not completed training after the deadline. The system then sends the human resources department a non-compliance report listing those who failed to complete training.

Tracking On-Campus Accidents
Handling of staff, student and visitor incident reporting presents another safety concern. When schools complete these reports by hand, it is difficult to maintain consistency. This often leads to incomplete reports, requiring an administrator to collect additional information and making the process more difficult and time-consuming. Such delays may impede the investigation as details of the event fade.

These oversights increase a school’s exposure to liability—something FHLSD was not willing to risk. Like its old training process, the accident reporting system was not efficient enough to withstand the switch to self-insuring. When the district implemented its new online training system, it also implemented an automatic, web-based accident reporting system. The system provides an easy way to report incidents with an online form that encourages a common reporting language. When submitted, the system automatically notifies a designated administrator. This not only ensures that the report is investigated in a timely manner, but also that only those administrators authorized to see this information have access, helping avoid possible future liability.

When an accident occurs, staff members now immediately fill out an online report. The system prompts employees to complete all necessary fields, and will not allow a report to be submitted if information is missing.

Because all records are kept in one online portal, administrators can pull reports to identify trends and fix issues causing multiple incidents. For instance, a single report of a staff injury in a stairwell might not be a problem by itself, but trend data that shows multiple injuries in the same location might point out that there is insufficient lighting or that the stairs need repair.

Reporting Student Behavior
With increased media coverage about student behavior and its impact on school safety, schools often notice that their current reporting systems are more burdensome and less effective than necessary. Schools traditionally rely on paper-based reporting or bulky information systems for student behavior concerns. Failing to properly report student behaviors and track consequences not only increases the probability of future problems and liability issues for the district, but also puts other students and staff at risk.

In 2011, Kings Junior High School (KJHS) in Kings Mill, Ohio, applied for the state education department’s Ohio Schools to Watch program, which recognizes exemplary middle schools. To qualify, the program required that students meet behavioral, academic and social expectations of the staff, parents, district and community.

To help students better understand behavior expectations, KJHS needed to streamline reporting processes for consistency in consequences based on actions. Much like FHSD’s staff and student accident reporting system, KJHS implemented a web-based student behavior management system.

Instead of filling out a paper behavior report, staff members submit online infraction and positive behavior reports as soon as an incident occurs. Once submitted, an administrator is alerted via email to take action and communicate with relevant staff. Administrators are able to quickly and easily view all of a student’s infractions at once to determine that the appropriate consequence is being meted out and to more effectively support students at risk.

After implementing the online system, students better understood the school’s standards for good behavior because they knew the consequences of their actions. KJHS was named an Ohio School to Watch for the 2011-2012 school year and was one of only three schools statewide to receive the prestigious designation that year.

Managing Safety Tasks
School districts have to complete specific regulatory safety tasks to be in compliance with district, state and federal mandates. These tasks can be as easy as posting staff accident reporting awareness posters, or as comprehensive as administering a chemical safety program. Manually keeping track of the large volume of compliance tasks and completion deadlines is a grueling job that leaves room for many errors.

Assigning safety task management to an automated system relieves administrators of having to keep up with each task and due date. By automating the process, web-based safety task management systems ensure completion, compliance and safety, without extra effort from administrators.

At Chinook’s Edge School Division #73 in Alberta, Canada, an online safety task management system has really paid off. The district employs 1,200 staff members across 45 facilities that span almost 5,600 square miles, yet has only one safety manager. With such a vast area to cover, it was nearly impossible for the sole safety officer to visit all buildings to complete inspections and safety tasks. To help close this gap, Chinook’s Edge implemented a fully automated online system in 2007 to manage compliance and safety tasks.

Since then, the district has been awarded a Certificate of Recognition (COR) every year for its Occupational Health and Safety Program. Presented by the Alberta Employment and Immigration department along with certifying partners, the COR includes an evaluation by a certified auditor that ensures the organization’s health and safety management program meets rigorous standards. Using the automated risk management system, Chinook’s Edge was able to completely automate four of the eight requirements. COR status also earned the school division a financial incentive through the Alberta Workers Compensation Board Partnerships in Injury Reduction program.

Convenience and Compliance
With shrinking budgets and such a wide range of responsibilities and safety concerns, it is paramount that schools use employees and resources effectively. By replacing traditional, time-consuming processes with more efficient technology, schools can save money, promote a culture of safety with almost no additional effort and, most importantly, return to the business of education.
Tom Strasburger is vice president of PublicSchoolWORKS, a provider of online safety and regulatory compliance programs for K-12 schools