From the Director: Staying Safe, Living in This Moment

Our approach to safety and security continues to evolve.
Surely these can be troubling, anxious times. Stories of violence, and particularly gun violence in and around schools, leave many of us wondering what we'll hear next and how best to set our steps from here forward. What hasn't changed is that safety stands as a guiding priority for USN, in a way that continues to evolve.

There was a time, not so long ago, when doors across campus offered unsupervised access all day, a time when security staff only appeared at occasional evening events, a time before cameras recorded events in our parking lots. By my count, that was when our current seniors were about two years old.

Then what happened? On reflection, we started making changes as our school calendar carried more and more events, over a longer run of days. As we noticed the number and range of people visiting campus, it made more sense to add formal staffing, partly to welcome, partly to keep an eye on things. So we created an evening shift for Operations, and we added two security positions, keeping watch by day and by night. And all that was only about 15 years ago, while we were en route to being a seven days a week, 16 hours a day kind of campus.

From there, and as the building's size grew, with new library and arts and fitness centers, correspondingly new opportunities to automate and customize access came along. As our Centennial approached, early in the 2010s, those conversations grew and matured, with the 19th Avenue entrance a visible, direct architectural response. Remember also the Sandy Hook tragedy in 2012 and understand why a main, formal greeter desk made sense as we broke ground on the big restoration/renovation/addition project in 2014.

The commitment to safety that informed our staffing and access and construction decisions extended further as we gated the After-School area and added card/code access to the three doors now available to enter the building. Step by step, things have changed. Most recently, the focus has been on installing and improving communication technology in every classroom, office, and gathering space at school, in addition to web-based tools to reach families and other USN constituents.

Maybe most significant on the list of measures providing incrementally more security on campus is a formal institutional partnership formed a few years ago with our Vanderbilt neighbors. It's the most tangible example of our broader shared commitment to combine for mutual benefit, with Vanderbilt University Police Department Community Service officers now a familiar presence whenever we are open, River Campus included. Each shift change for those dedicated people brings an up-to-the-minute briefing for us. They regularly use USN facilities to train, and we regularly ask for their supervision when we conduct drills. Our exterior cameras even stream to their monitoring facility. We're seconds away by radio to support from VUPD cruisers circling the campus—an incomparable asset.

Which takes us to the question of how best to respond to the school safety worries spiking in recent months. Fundamentally, we've been working this issue quite intentionally for more than a decade, always seeking to be proactive and not reactive—there's a clear through line to the present day. At the same time, it feels different now. Just look at the two dozen or so High School students and families who marched in Washington, D.C during Spring Break, or the scores who marched here in Nashville, or the debrief meeting for HS students and parents set for 6:30 p.m. Monday, April 16 in the Auditorium. Much of the country is on high alert, even knowing the remote risk any one school faces, even knowing that schools are often the safest place children ever go, depending on the community. The feelings are real and they matter.

Our efforts this year, preceding the Florida tragedy and extending to include a briefing for our late start Wednesday, April 18, have been focused on drills preparing faculty and staff to respond to the inherently wide range of possible security scenarios. This strategy follows the advice of security professionals who remind us that these awful events, extremely rare though they are, call for decision making far more complex than a tornado or fire drill requires. So rather than ask students to envision a host of differing terrible circumstances and the appropriate action for each, we're investing in the capacity of the grownups at USN to provide that guidance for the young people in our care.

As with all our protocols, this approach is under regular review. It may be best to bring our older students in particular into conversations about staying safe at school, just as we ask them to think about staying safe in the neighborhood, in the city, or when they travel. It could all be framed, actually, as another kind of civic engagement, as they heard this week from the Rev. Naomi Tutu in our annual Buhl Lecture.

We're worrying more to help them worry less, or such is our aim. We'll keep listening, keep planning, keep improving where we can, knowing that the best work we can do is in building community, focusing on relationships, paying attention to the little things as we live out our foundational commitment to care for one another.

Thanks for reading and thanks for joining in the effort, at home and at 2000 Edgehill Ave.
    • Director Vince Durnan as coach during the Homecoming students vs. faculty basketball game.

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