School violence has become a widespread problem across the country, prompting district decision-makers and administrators to discuss strategies for preventing crime from occurring in the first place.
Take the Los Angeles School Police Department (LASPD) -- the largest school police department in the country, serving many of the 1,200 Los Angeles Unified School District campuses. Four years ago, the officer in charge of LASPD, Sgt. Stephen Mayoral, shared his idea to implement vulnerability assessments similar to a strategy he had experienced during his time as a military policeman in the Army.
“I thought it would be good to do assessments as a school police department to support our mission,” he said. “The mission of LASPD says we assist in providing a safe environment for the educational process.”
At the time, the department was performing evaluations on paper.
“We’d have approximately 40 pages in handwriting of everything we captured on the campuses,” Mayoral said. “We thought that there has to be a better way of doing this electronically.”
LASPD worked with software security company Haystax Technology to create a mobile assessment form tailored specifically to the kinds of safety and security issues facing schools. The result is a custom school assessment that is applicable to K-12 campuses nationwide. And through a program called the California Common Operating Picture, there was no cost to LASPD to implement its risk assessment program.
“We worked collaboratively,” Mayoral said. “During the first couple of versions, officers would use the application in the field, and they would come back with suggestions. Haystax made changes within the program, and the officers are very happy with the final version. It was field tested and ultimately tailored to what the officers wanted.”
In October 2014, the application, called Mobile Assessor, was officially launched, and implementation was a cinch. Officers download the free application to an iPad, which is then used to complete the assessment.
In a typical evaluation, LASPD sends the school's principal a pre-questionnaire prior to conducting a full-day field assessment. When the officers arrive on campus, they begin by observing and recording how the children arrive. For example, if a school has four gates open during arrival and some gates aren't supervised by an adult, LASPD may suggest reducing the number of open gates to one or two, and having an administrator present to greet students and monitor arrivals. After observing arrivals, the officers conduct a briefing with school staff to inform them about how the evaluation will be organized throughout the day.
The officers work from the outside inward. They start examining the neighborhoods surrounding the schools. They speak with the Los Angeles Police Department and ask about any crime or major incidents they may need to know about.
“Our supporting agencies always do a good job at communicating with schools,” Mayoral said. “But sometimes information is missed, so we act as a liaison and communicate any kind of concerns.”
Once the officers have examined the school’s neighborhoods, they move inward toward the school's surroundings, eventually assessing potential vulnerabilities inside school buildings, taking notes and photos of their observations. Last, they watch the process of students leaving for the day. Following their on-campus visit, LASPD sends a briefing to the principal that includes suggestions based on what was observed.
“The reason behind this whole concept is to reduce vulnerabilities in schools,” Mayoral said. “All the reports from very high visibility school violence incidents recommend that institutions conduct a risk assessment. Adversaries will always strike the more vulnerable targets. We can’t eliminate them all, but as many as possible.”