As school districts intensify their focus on campus safety and security, the role of local law enforcement is changing. From providing real-time access to surveillance videos to shared trainings, messaging systems, two-way chat dialogs and providing school resource officers, an intense collaboration is emerging. Police are no longer just responders. They’re increasingly becoming partners.
“There’s no way [a school district] can do it alone,” said Gary Sigrist, CEO of Safeguard Risk Solutions, a security consultant. “Nor can you let law enforcement come in and say, ‘This is how you’ll do it.’ Both are bad ideas.”
After the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting that killed 26 in 2012 in Connecticut, the departments of Homeland Security and Education published a report about the importance of collaboration between first responders and schools.
The report said schools should develop Emergency Operation Plans with the help of the local first responder and emergency management community. “There is a need to help ensure that our schools’ emergency planning efforts are aligned with the emergency planning practices at the national, state and local levels,” the report reads.
That approach seems to have been placed on a fast track, at least in some jurisdictions, after the shooting that killed 17 at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., in February.
“Parkland hit home for a lot of school districts,” said Sgt. Kynrick Koralewski, with the Fort Worth, Texas, Police Department, assigned to the School Resource Unit. “There’s definitely been more change than anything else I’ve seen.”
This year, the Moses Lake School District in Washington state deployed a SafeSchools Alert website where district officials can get anonymous tips reporting threats, harassment or other safety concerns. The city of Brewer, Maine, is deploying a desktop and mobile application allowing two-way chat between police and school administrators and teachers; and in Fort Worth, schools and law enforcement are ramping up shared surveillance, and law enforcement has started following up on leads with home visits.
The Fort Worth Police Department School Resource Unit consists of 67 officers and monitors five school districts, including the Fort Worth District’s 143 schools. Each district has its own contract with the resource unit that can include training, officer access to video surveillance cameras and off-hour response to problems like social media threats.
There are up to 10 officers who are ready to respond at any time, even during the middle of the night if there is a threat, such as on social media. Officers take all social media threats seriously and begin investigating immediately, contacting the school district and parents. A home visit and a chat with the parents and the student may lead to a search of the home where any weapons may be confiscated, and other appropriate action can be taken to eliminate the threat.
The Fort Worth Police Department has access to video feeds at its Real Time Crime Center and officers can view live video from their phones and laptops. Any information gleaned from video feeds can be immediately transmitted to officers on the street, along with floor plans and other intelligence about many of the schools. The police department is already talking about incorporating facial recognition into the surveillance systems as well.
“Since Parkland, we’ve gotten a lot better at working with the school districts in terms of security, and that’s sparked interest from the districts as far as what they can do to harden targets and make schools safer,” Koralewski said.
He said the districts understand that they need local law enforcement and are more readily coming to the table for help. That has also led to more continuity in response protocol and language used across districts and counties.
The police are more than willing to accommodate the districts when they ask for help. School administrators have started accompanying officers to the police academy to take part in simulation training. “We have a judge and a video screen that displays different scenarios,” Koralewski said. “It puts the administrators in certain situations where they would have to make a call.”
The districts are also allowing police to use school buildings for training, like in active shooter scenarios, that let police get familiar with the settings.
Probably the most important outcome of the increased collaboration between the districts and police is a familiarity and trust between the two. The attitude, from both police and school administrators, has changed dramatically over the years. Sigrist, whose career includes years as both a school administrator and police officer, shared an encounter he had when he first took a job as a project director for readiness and emergency management for an Ohio school district in 2008.
“I ran into the sergeant in charge of community relations with the police department. He shook my hand and said, ‘If something bad ever happens in one of your schools, I’m going to help the parents sue you because you guys aren’t doing [anything] to protect these kids.’”
That led Sigrist to contact all the first responders, emergency managers and anyone remotely connected to school safety. He started conducting joint meetings to build relationships. Though he is retired from that position, the meetings continue today.
In Ohio, where Sigrist is based, schools do tabletop, functional and full-scale exercises that include first responders and school administrators. The biggest benefit that comes from the exercises is the “familiarity” that’s built among everyone involved. “The same officers you train with are the ones that are going to show up when something goes wrong,” he said. “You can’t do this alone.”
After the Parkland shooting, Sigrist saw a big spike in clients. The first question he has for them is about their law enforcement partners. “Where is police and fire?” he asks.
“One of the schools wanted me to do a security and vulnerability assessment and make recommendations for their district,” he said. He agreed, but only if he could do so alongside the local police and fire departments. “We wrote our recommendations, but they didn’t come from me — police and fire signed off on it.”
It’s no different in Fort Worth, where the police department, even during the summer, is intent on building relationships with kids and families.
“When I was in the unit in 2010 and 2011, our main focus was security,” Koralewski said. “Then we went into relationship building, and now we have to do both.”
Jim McKay is the editor of Emergency Management magazine. He lives in Orangevale, Calif., with his daughter, Ellie, and son, Ronan. He relaxes by fly fishing on the Truckee River for big, wild trout.