Distance Learning, Part 2

Progress Report podcast logo - Comprehensive School Safety Planning Series

This episode is the second of two that discusses the transition to and from distance learning. Our guests talk about the school resource officer’s role in the distance learning environment, the importance of emergency response planning, and key considerations about the return to in-person learning.

Guests: Katherine Schweit, Ron Applin, Chris Melde


  1. School Safety Success Stories: Atlanta Public Schools Case Study (video)
  2. Improving School Climate & Safety Through Inter-Professional Collaboration (on-demand webinar series)

Comprehensive School Safety Planning Series Description

In this series, guests describe the importance of having a Comprehensive School Safety Plan, explain different perspectives on school safety, and highlight the connections between school safety strategies.

Other episodes in this series:

Episode 4 Transcript

Chris Melde: One of my hopes is, because I know I’m ready to see my students again, I’m ready to see people again. One of my hopes is that this is going to be one of those events that will bring people closer together.

Brent Miller: Hello and welcome to Progress Report, a podcast produced by the National Center for School Safety, the STOP School Violence Program National Training and Technical Assistance Center, funded by the Bureau of Justice Assistance. The center is a project of the University of Michigan School of Public Health. Thank you for tuning in to this series on comprehensive school safety planning. We hope listening helps you recognize the importance of planning, understand the different perspectives on school safety, and discover the connections and how various disciplines approach school safety. In this episode, you’ll hear about a school resource officer’s role in the distance learning environment, the importance of emergency response planning, and hear some key considerations about the return to in-person learning. The voice you heard at the very beginning of this episode was Chris Melde, a professor in the School of Criminal Justice at Michigan State University. You’ll hear more from him later on. Next is Katherine Schweit, an attorney, a former FBI agent and journalist. She stresses the importance of revisiting and reviewing emergency response plan as schools transition from distance learning.

I’m curious if you have any thoughts about the implications of returning to in-person schooling after having been out for so long specifically for law enforcement, for SROs.

Katherine Schweit: Oh, definitely. I think that particularly, I think your references to the fact that we’ve lived through a year of pandemic and the school years have been a mess, I have an adult child who’s a teacher and we have these conversations, and of course, having been in law enforcement for so long, I think about what is gonna happen when people walk back into those schools, maybe on a more full-time basis. I know a lot of students have been in schools, faculty have been in schools, but there’s no question that a year of pandemic impact on the schools I think it’s gonna bring about a couple of things that are maybe more obvious and some that are not.

I think one of the things that I like and urge people to be aware of is that how students and faculty themselves may have forgotten the idea of See Something, Say Something, and may have forgotten the idea of Run, Hide, Fight, whatever the training is that you have or you may have given your school environment for emergencies. The Federal Government supports, “Run. Hide. Fight.” The FBI says, “If you can escape, please escape.” There are other kinds of similar programs out there for, particularly for targeted violence situations that require kind of a different response than you might see for a school fire. I think people may have forgotten those, and it’s just a question of… And those would be a great example of a little short conversation before class or before a meeting to just say, “Hey, let’s re-familiarize ourselves with the fact that, one of the things about school safety is that schools are safer than homes, and students should remember the schools are safer than homes right now for children, so we wanna continue to keep them safe.”

So let’s not forget what we learned, even though we’ve been out of school for a long time, let’s remember to run, hide, fight, if there’s a situation where you’re afraid. You can’t be injured if you’re not here, but also see something and say something because we know that suicide in schools is a difficult thing to deal with, and there’s a lot of stress right now, and change is very hard sometimes for a lot of people. Change and coming back to school is just as hard as change when you have to leave school. So those stressors, everybody is gonna be alert too, I would think those are some of the biggest things that my concern would be a failure to recall the training as they’re rushing to try to get back to normal, whatever normal is, and then also an ability to look at the stress situations that we have out there, and then I would just add that concern that really, law enforcement has not been in the schools. If the schools have been closed, it has been a year of really dramatic changes in the world with the pandemic and with the politics and with the other things that have stressed out this country, and I think that includes a concern about relationships with law enforcement.

And particularly, maybe important to understand that I looked up all the numbers out here, but there are definitely communities who have gained confidence in the police, and there are definitely communities who have lost confidence in the police. And again, I kinda refer back to the adults in the room. You may not like that as the adult in the room, but it’s your responsibility as the adult in the room to find ways to bridge those gaps with the community that is smaller than you are, younger than you are, and their job is to be there because the law says they have to be in that school. It doesn’t mean that they’re necessarily comfortable being in that school. But when a law enforcement officer or a school resource officer or the administration helps to humanize the school resource officer, the law enforcement as they come in, then it’s all about personal relationships, and it isn’t about badges and uniforms. And personal relationships always win the race.

BM: That was Katherine Schweit. Ron Applin is the chief of police for Atlanta Public Schools. He describes how his officers have adapted their role to the distance learning environment.

Ron Applin: A lot of public schools decided to create their own police department in 2016. We hired about 67 police officers, they all had previous years of experience just in various areas, some with former school systems, some were previous city police departments in the Metro area of Atlanta. We got those guys on board and took over July 1st and started from that, they’ve gone forward.

BM: How have your officers supported the students during distance learning?

RA: Well, this has been, this has been, you know, it required us to make some changes. I mean, we’re doing some things that some offices were uncomfortable with, but after getting some SOPs in place to help support what we do, one of the biggest things that we do is home visits and welfare checks on our students. And the good thing is we have social workers who deal with our students on a regular basis, and when they have issues or concerns about some of those students, we’ll send officers out to check on them. We have one example, where a student tried to commit suicide, we had a couple of examples, where students tried to commit suicide, we were able to get to their homes quickly, talk with the parents, talk with the students, get them evaluated, just to put them in the right place to make sure that they were okay.

So we’re having a pivot, I mean we’re also serving food every Monday. As a matter of fact, today we’ll be going out serving food to about 50,000 students today. So we do that, we take food to a central location so they can pick that up and have something to eat for the rest of the week. We have some students who introduce weapons in the Zoom classroom, and as a result of that, we would go out to the homes, and on a couple of occasions we actually had parents who were not aware that their kids were doing these things. In one case, it was a toy gun, but it looked like a real gun. Parents turned that over to us. In another case, there was a gun that the parents owned who decided to turn that weapon over to us also as a result of what those kids were doing, so we’re expanding… It is requiring us to do some things a little different. And we’re definitely making that shift to try to make sure we serve our students a program. We’re having to make some changes, we’re able to make some shifts in what we do and how we do and how we respond to our students, so that means welfare checks, home visits, we’re doing those, especially with students who have some challenges, some mental health challenges, that our social workers are following.

The children are our future. And we have to really think about how we impact them today, whether we’re motivating them, are we gonna motivate them, are we gonna police them and turn them into criminals way on down the line? We have to be willing to change. As police officers, we have to be willing to make adjustments to make a change. We can’t continue to police like we do, we have to make adjustments. We’ve always adjusted over the years, now is a time for us to do that, so when we’re dealing with just people in general, not just students, I think we need to look at things a little bit differently the way we have so far. We have to be willing to change. We have to focus on, not the tools around our belt but the tools in our head. We have to give officers more options outside of, they have enough tasers, we have guns, we have a baton, we have OC. But what do we have up here? What are we giving officers up here to deal with situations? And I feel like we’re really missing an opportunity to connect with our public by not focusing on those tools here, by placing more focus on the tools around our belt than we do to focus on the tools on our heads.

BM: That was Ron Applin, the chief of police for Atlanta Public Schools. Chris Melde is a professor in the School of Criminal Justice at Michigan State University. We discussed how school coordination with law enforcement has changed because of the pandemic, and what some challenges may be as students return to in-person schooling.

CM: Yes. So one thing in coordinating with law enforcement and safety at schools, there are things that law enforcement does to prepare for critical events. And so to the extent that schools have not been functioning as normal, I think it’s important for law enforcement to also realize and understand what they’ve been doing in the meantime to prepare. So even reviewing action plans, reviewing response plans, things like that, and coordinating those with the school so that the school and law enforcement have this open form of communication. That might be something that during the pandemic was pushed to the back burner because it wasn’t critical, you didn’t have large crowds within particular schools, that’s something to consider as we get back to what hopefully is normal by the fall 2021 semester is making sure that everybody is up to speed on exactly what’s occurring. Even if there’s been physical changes in some schools, things like construction, stuff like that, that’s been ongoing, is really to open up those lines of communication between law enforcement at schools. It’s also to consider even daily operations, whether law enforcement is gonna be there at the front door each morning or each afternoon as people come and go.

So many of those plans again need to be refreshed, updated, and there needs to be some conscious effort that way. I think within schools too, this notion of conflict and school safety and perceived school safety is gonna take on an added dimension as students return to the classroom, as teachers return to the classroom. For many of these students, for many of the other school staff, they have not been around others for a very long period of time, and just the anxieties of gathering back in large crowds with that notion of the pandemic in the back of their mind, might be anxiety inducing. And there may be conflicts, there may be people who are on edge that the pandemic really has exacerbated and may lead to certain conflicts or certain reactions that are atypical. And I think keeping that in mind and having kind of an action plan would be wise.

And whether there’s even trainings available, so for instance, SAMHSA offers Youth Mental Health First Aid training, things like that, those might be valuable resources, especially valuable resources as we re-introduce students and teachers into the school environment is to really understand and be aware of when people may have these increased rates of anxiety and things like that. And law enforcement needs to be aware as well, if there are increases in conflict, if there are increases in different types of scenarios as people re-enter so that people have a plan for how they’re gonna respond to that.

BM: Is there anything else that you’d like to share about what… either you think will be different than it was before the pandemic, or maybe that you hope will be different?

CM: As we respond to a crisis, one of the things that can happen is it can bring people closer together, we can appreciate people more, we can appreciate our relationships more. And so that is on the hopeful side, and so I’m really looking forward to improve school climate across the country for that very reason of knowing exactly what we have and all the blessings that we have to come together. On the flip side of that, and kind of leading from what I just discussed before, is getting used to being in those environments again, even personal space. The notion of personal space after a year and a half of people talking about social distancing. Social distancing is gonna be difficult in some schools and difficult in certain scenarios, the notion of CPTED, Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design.

One of the things about a CPTED evaluation is the flow of people from one place to the next. Simple planning of the flow of people can reduce conflicts. It reduces the opportunity for conflicts to be there, especially in particular areas of a school, we’re distancing and really bringing people together in small constrained spaces leads to conflict, and I can give an example. After school is over, many schools have things like the car line and the bus line, and you herd all of these students together to prepare to get into their parents’ cars or to get on the bus, and what you’ll notice is, is that’s a period of time where you have a lot of conflict.

Well, how can we plan and how can we space those scenarios in such a way to reduce the episodes of conflict and to reduce that. And that might be, again, exacerbated post-COVID, at least for a short period of time, as you have so many people in that small area. It can induce more anxiety than before, and we already know that’s a time where conflicts occur as people are trying to get to the front of the line, as people are trying to get where they’re supposed to be in a very congested area.

BM: That was Chris Melde, a professor in the School of Criminal Justice at Michigan State University. Our guests in this episode discussed the role that law enforcement can play in the distance learning environment and shared some important considerations for returning to in-person learning. If you’d like to learn more, that may help in your context, you can check out the following freely available resources from the National Center for School Safety. The video, School Safety Success Stories: Atlanta Public Schools Case Study, features more from Chief Ron Applin we heard from today about his school’s police department. The on-demand webinar series, Improving School Climate & Safety Through Inter-Professional Collaboration, offers resources for teachers, administrators, researchers, and law enforcement to help them work together in creating safe and engaging schools.

Thank you for tuning into this episode. For more information about the National Center for School Safety, visit our website, nc2s.org. You can also check us out on Twitter and Facebook. This episode of Progress Report was produced by the National Center for School Safety at the University of Michigan School of Public Health. Additional resources and information can be found in the show notes and music is thanks to Makaih Beats.

This project was supported by cooperative agreement number 2019-YS-BX-K001 awarded by the Bureau Of Justice Assistance. The Bureau Of Justice Assistance is a component of the US Department of Justice’s Office of Justice Programs, which also includes the Bureau of Justice Statistics, the National Institute of Justice, the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, the Office for Victims of Crime, and the Office of Sex Offender Sentencing, Monitoring, Apprehending, Registering, and Tracking. Points of view or opinions in this document are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the official position or policies of the US Department of Justice.

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18 min.

Topic Areas

Comprehensive School Safety Plans


Law Enforcement & First Responders, Parents & Families, School Personnel