In the wake of heartbreaking acts of violence at schools across the country, parents, school administrators, teachers and communities everywhere are left wondering how we can keep our children safe when they are at school, and how we can prevent future tragedies.
Security in schools has always been a top priority, but recently it has moved to a necessity. Active shooters in schools have increased the level of awareness and concern for overall campus safety. In 2002, the Secret Service completed the Safe School Initiative during which they analyzed 37 incidents involving 41 student attackers. The focus of the study was to develop information about pre-attack behavior and communications. The study determined that most of these acts were not impulsive but rather thought out and planned in advance. Most importantly, it was determined that fellow classmates of the attacker had reason to believe that a catastrophic event could occur.
The findings of this study indicate that some of the attacks potentially could have been prevented and emphasizes the importance of schools creating safe campus programs. Safety awareness programs, which students can and do participate in, could help improve the overall safe campus perception and encourage students to report activities which they may otherwise ignore.
In 2013, President Obama took action and put gun control on the national agenda when he issued his Gun Violence Reduction Executive Actions. Unfortunately, despite this spotlight and his executive orders, there is no simple or foolproof way to protect schools from violence. And, according to many education security experts, school shootings such as those at Sandy Hook, Virginia Tech, and Columbine are destined to happen again and again.
While there’s no way to predict or prevent school massacres, experts do agree there are best practices that schools can adopt to be more aware and prepared when these incidents occur:
Identifying Potential Threats
While it is understood that only a school psychologist or other mental health practitioner can truly determine and/or identify potential threats, it is important to develop guidelines so that other people know what to report. A threat could be an expression of violence in writing, or drawing. It might be patterns of impulsive or chronic intimidation or bullying of others or it may simply be social withdrawal. When someone notices these characteristics the proper persons should be promptly notified. It is possible that reporting these early warning signs may serve to help those troubled individuals and should be a part of any plan for prevention/intervention which may take place on the campus.
A few of the outward indicators of behavior which might be reported by a teacher, student, parent, or other concerned individual were developed by the National School Safety Center and are listed below:
- Has a history of tantrums and uncontrollable angry outbursts;
- Characteristically resorts to name calling, cursing or abusive language;
- Habitually makes violent threats when angry;
- Has previously brought a weapon to school;
- Has a background of serious disciplinary problems at school and in the community;
- Has a background of drug, alcohol or other substance abuse or dependency;
- Is on the fringe of his/her peer group with few or no close friends;
- Is preoccupied with weapons, explosives or other incendiary devices;
- Has previously been truant, suspended or expelled from school;
- Displays cruelty to animals;
- Has little or no supervision and support from parents or a caring adult;
- Has witnessed or been a victim of abuse or neglect in the home;
- Has been bullied and/or bullies or intimidates peers or younger children;
- Tends to blame others for difficulties and problems s/he causes her/himself;
- Consistently prefers TV shows, movies or music expressing violent themes and acts;
- Prefers reading materials dealing with violent themes, rituals and abuse;
- Reflects anger, frustration and the dark side of life in school essays or writing projects;
- Is involved with a gang or an antisocial group on the fringe of peer acceptance;
- Is often depressed and/or has significant mood swings; and/or
- Has threatened or attempted suicide.
Planning and Training
School shootings are unpredictable and evolve quickly. Preparedness is critical in any type of school incident, whether an active shooter, a bomb threat, or other terrorist activity. Typically it takes 10 to 15 minutes before law enforcement arrives on scene to stop the shooter and mitigate harm to victims. This means everyone on campus must be prepared mentally and physically to deal with such situations.
Expert security service providers take into consideration the research and recommendations on this critical topic made by many different federal agencies including but not limited to the U.S. Departments of Homeland Security, Justice, Education and the Health and Human Services on this critical topic. Research shows that prevention through communication and identifying early warning signs is one of the most critical parts of any campus security program.
Targeted violence in a school is defined as “any incident of violence where a known or knowable attacker selects a particular target prior to the violent attack taking place.” Taking this into consideration, the U.S. Secret Service published a guide titled Threat Assessment in Schools. This guide explains how to manage threatening situations and create safe school climates. By building assets which are integrated into the school, family and community, responsive decision-making can be developed.
- Prepare - Here are some ways schools and students can be more prepared:
- Hire a security director or appoint an employee who will be responsible for creating and implementing these emergency response plans, and coordinating all security activities for the school;
- Establish a command and control center to mobilize, deploy, and report information regularly to local law enforcement and emergency responders;
- Designate individuals familiar with the campus to serve as liaisons with responding emergency personnel;
- Provide floor plans and schematics to emergency personnel beforehand, or have them available digitally for quick access when an emergency occurs;
- Post evacuation routes in conspicuous locations throughout a facility and ensure the facility has at least two main evacuation routes;
- Create and assemble crisis kits containing radios, floor plans, keys, staff roster and staff emergency contact numbers, first aid kits, and flashlights. Distribute them to appropriate staff and employees;
- Place removable floor plans near entrances and exits for emergency responders; and
- Conduct security audits on a regular and continuing basis.
- Train – There is no better way to prepare for emergencies than training and education. Knowing what to do can save lives and reduce injury of staff and students. One of President Obama’s recent executive orders was to “provide law enforcement, first responders, and school officials with proper training for active shooter situations.” This should help raise awareness and funding for school emergency training and response programs. Education practices that should be followed include:
- Train staff to know and follow standardized procedures in an emergency and incorporate security into employee training programs;
- Provide security information and training to all students;
- Conduct regular exercises for active shooters. For years children have been exposed to fire, earthquake, and even bomb drills. The most effective way to train your staff to respond to an active shooter situation is to conduct mock active shooter training; and
- Include local law enforcement and first responders during your training exercises and encourage law enforcement and emergency responders to train for an active shooter scenario at your location.
Large concentrations of students gathering inside and around school buildings on a regular schedule make schools vulnerable to child predators, as well as shooters and terrorists. So, it is critical for schools today to conduct diligent and thorough background checks and fingerprinting of all school personnel. Other hiring best practices for schools include:
- Vendors and service providers that have access to school grounds -- such as janitors, landscapers, and other maintenance workers -- should have the same stringent background checks and fingerprinting as every teacher and administrator;
- Cross-train every person who is employed on the campus – including vendors -- to develop safety and security awareness protocols that provide support to, and enhance, existing security programs; and
- Look for vendors with “safe campus” programs; these vendors consult with administration and other school vendors to create a culture of safety awareness that includes every person on campus, and becomes part of the security/safety solution.
Improve School Facilities
Because schools are relatively open access, it can be difficult to control access to schools without new technology and improved facilities maintenance.
Ways to define and maintain access control and better protect students while on school grounds include:
- Define the facility perimeter and areas within the facility that require access control;
- Maintain building access points to the minimum needed;
- Issue photo IDs for all school employees and students;
- Provide visitors with school issued identification badges when on school grounds and require visitor check-in with the front office upon arrival and departure;
- Control vehicle access to school parking lots;
- Evaluate campus needs and design a video monitoring, surveillance, and inspection program;
- Continuously monitor people entering and leaving the facility and establish protocols identifying suspicious behavior;
- Deploy personnel assigned to security duty to regularly inspect sensitive or critical areas;
- Vary security rounds and schedules to avoid predictability;
- Improve lighting across the campus and maintain the grounds;
- Make sure the school has enough utility service capacity to meet normal and emergency needs and provide adequate physical security; and
- Make sure employees are familiar with how to shut off utility services, etc.
Good communication is critical in emergency situations to increase response times and reduce confusion, panic, misinformation, and possible injuries. All schools should have a communication plan in place. Here are some components of a good school communication program:
- Establish a liaison and regular communication with local law enforcement and community leaders;
- Install systems that provide communication with all people at the school including employees, students, visitors, and emergency response teams;
- Establish protocol and systems – such as email -- that provide alerts and to communicate with parents in emergency situations; and
- Develop a procedure for communicating with the public and the media regarding security issues.
Whether the threat is vandalism, student violence, terrorist threats, or an active shooter, having a law enforcement officer or trained/armed security guard on campus can be a strong potential deterrent. Schools can work with local police to establish a school resource officer program. Or, schools can turn to private security companies to provide a trained and armed security guard to fulfill the role of school resource officer.
- School Resource Officers - A school resource officer (SRO) is a law enforcement officer assigned to a school. Their main goal is to prevent juvenile delinquency by promoting positive relations between youth and law enforcement. SROs are not just "cops" on campus; they become part of the staff. They educate students by teaching law related classes, and counsel students and parents as well. The SRO becomes involved in the students' lives as a trusted figure to students and faculty, and a positive role model. The intent is that the officer becomes part of the school community, making the students feel safer, and provide another trained set of eyes and ears among students to help identify potential issues and vulnerabilities, and reduce juvenile crime.
- Trained and Armed Security Guards – An economical and effective alternative to an SRO is a fully trained, armed security officer. Many security officers are former law enforcement officers who can be employed through a security company for almost half the cost of the sworn officer.
The protective measures outlined in this article are just some of the things K-12 to higher education schools, both public and private, should implement today to decrease facility vulnerabilities, and help deter and minimize the effects of future school shootings.