As classes resumed at schools across the country this fall, the issue of school safety is once again at the forefront of the national debate. How best to address school safety, both at the K-12 and higher education levels, is a weighty issue with no easy answers.
Simply trying to assess the level of school and university preparedness is challenging.
“As a country, we don’t have a good handle on where schools stand today because there is no good evidence of how safe schools really are,” said Amanda Klinger, director of operations for the Educator’s School Safety Network, a nonprofit that works with K-12 schools and institutions of higher education. “Save the Children did a report on what states require of schools, but we don’t know how many schools are meeting those requirements. From the research we do here, we generally find that schools are sorely underprepared, but we can’t say that in a quantified way.”
“Overall, we find that both K-12 and colleges are lacking in planning and preparedness,” said Daniel Pascale, senior director of security and emergency management services at Margolis Healy, a professional services firm based in Burlington, Vt., that specializes in campus safety, security and regulatory compliance for higher education and K-12. “And there is no one-size-fits-all solution. School safety initiatives are often put into a box that’s tied to state or federal funding and requires them to produce some sort of document or program that fits a certain criteria. But schools vary greatly and they all have unique needs, threats and resources.”
Given the pervasiveness of a wide range of low-cost, low-impact technologies today, some school safety advocates are pushing for tech-based approaches to school safety. In July, the Burlington Community School District in Iowa generated media attention when it announced it was equipping its principals and assistant principals with body-worn cameras. The move was the result of a complaint against one principal that was later disproved, according to a story in The Des Moines Register.
The district’s superintendent said he felt the cameras provide “personal accountability.” But Ken Trump, president of National School Safety and Security Services, a Cleveland-based national school safety consulting firm, believes equipping educators with body cams is “more like swatting flies with a sledgehammer than providing accountability.”
Technology, Trump and other school safety experts say, is a great tool, but he cautioned schools against leaning on it as the primary answer to school safety.
“There are gadgets and services that can meet every security wish list a school could develop,” Trump said. “The questions are whether schools have the budgets to purchase such technology and, more importantly, does the available technology have realistic applicability to a pre-K-12 school setting that meshes with school climate, culture and community-relations aspects of how schools operate? In most cases, the answer is no to both questions.”
Pascale, who recently contributed a chapter to this year’s Emerging Issues in K-12 Campus Security: Leading Lawyers and School Security Experts on Creating an Emergency Response Plan, Training Staff and Observing Warning Signs, agrees that technologies such as security cameras can be effective in school safety investigations, or even as a deterrent to criminal behavior. But like Trump, Pascale believes schools should consider all the angles before investing limited budgets in technology.
A police detective debriefs participants after a lockdown exercise at Milford High School in Milford, Mass. Photo by APImages.com
“Schools should be cautious not to add devices just for ‘security theater’ — creating an illusion of security to make people feel safer,” he said. “That may be appropriate at times, but with limited resources available, schools need to make sure they are getting the best value for the community.”
Technology solutions also don’t always consider the long term.
“We are seeing far too many school districts throw thousands of dollars in security equipment such as cameras based upon one-time grants or other budget allocations, only to have no budgets for maintenance and replacement in the months and years ahead,” Trump said.
The result: cameras that are not functioning, not being repaired, and presenting a false sense of security, along with a potential liability risk, to school districts.
To address safety, schools tend to take one of two approaches — they either rely on their own staff or they hire professional school safety consultants to help.
“Professional school safety consultants who understand school climate, culture and community relations recognize the unique nature of schools and provide recommendations that are balanced and realistic for an educational setting,” Trump said. “An experienced school security consultant will provide schools with a report that tells them what they’re doing well and recommendations that can be used as a strategic plan for school safety for three to five years forward.”
Klinger said there are pros and cons to both internal and external approaches, but she believes that relying on the type of “train the trainer” approach schools often use for other types of training is not an appropriate choice when it comes to school safety.
“The train-the-trainer model doesn’t work for safety, and frankly I think it’s a dangerous approach,” she said. “We believe in empowering all the educators, and some of that comes out of the sad reality that the principal at Sandy Hook was killed in the first few minutes of that event. In that case, the principal was the person that had the most training, the most resources and had been empowered the most. We’re doing a real disservice to educators to put them in the classroom every day and not prepare them firsthand to deal with all kinds of safety situations.”
Superintendents, principals and school boards must invest as much, if not more, in their people and in dedicating time to safety and preparedness planning as they do in physical security enhancements, agreed Trump.
“Too often we see well-intended school leaders who will be quick to drop some dollars for physical security equipment they can point to when talking with parents, but they are much more guarded in releasing time for training school staff, diversifying their lockdown or evacuation drills, and doing meaningful, detailed planning with their first responders,” he said.
Staff training should also focus on a wide variety of school safety issues, not just “active shooter” types of situations, stressed Klinger.
“The safety training offered to schools is often rooted in law enforcement training, and that’s important, but it can’t be the only thing that drives the training,” she said. “It has to be a larger approach. We also have to talk about climate and culture and how to prevent violence and reunify students after a traumatic event.”
Trump said when working with schools, his organization spends much time not only focusing on the potential for an active shooter, but also about day-to-day student supervision techniques that many school leaders mistakenly take for granted that their teachers and support staff already know.
“It’s easy to point to more cameras or additional police at a school (neither of which on their own are bad things),” he said. “But it’s harder to point to adults building relationships with kids; improved counseling and mental health support; regular planning and cross-training with first responders; diversified lockdown, evacuation, fire and other drills; and proactive communications strategy with parents and the community — all of which truly make schools safer.”
School safety experts also stress the importance of getting the community involved.
“No one is an island,” said Pascale. “Schools need to be sure to reach beyond their walls to the greater community. Collaboration is key. We all need to share resources, so schools must include other stakeholders in their area.”
Addressing safety on college and university campuses is a different animal than K-12, experts say, and requires different approaches. Although K-12 school safety is very much about access control and protecting those who may not be able to protect themselves, college safety is more about supervising the environment. Most colleges promote an open and inclusive environment, which also means students’ personal lives become part of the picture, as do challenges like underage drinking.
And although colleges that have dedicated safety groups such as a university police force may give the illusion of being safer, that isn’t necessarily the case, Klinger said.
“When a college has a dedicated safety group, it’s easy for campus faculty and staff to say that safety on campus is ‘someone else’s job,’” she said. “It’s not a matter of being lazy, it’s more that they are trained to believe that.”
But colleges that provide safety training and awareness to faculty and staff can empower them to take responsibility for school safety too. And at the college level, students can also play a part.
“Everyone who is part of the campus should help by being the eyes and ears,” said Klinger. “And letting them know that safety is their responsibility too encourages them to take ownership. Shifting that orientation can be very powerful for a college. After all, if we don’t tell students, faculty and staff what we need, how can we be upset that they are not doing what we asked them to do?”
School safety experts also stress the importance of schools planning ahead, rather than waiting for a safety issue to arise before jumping on the bandwagon.
“There are lots of knee-jerk reactions after major tragedies,” said Klinger. “Schools need to plan instead of just reacting.”
Owen Kenny, 5, says a lunchtime prayer at the St. Bernard School in New Washington, Ohio. The school holds lockdown drills on the 14th of each month. Photo by APImages.com
“We like to see school boards and superintendents sustain a level of interest and activities when there is not a crisis in the forefront of everyone’s minds and parents demanding to know what their schools are doing to strengthen safety,” Trump said. “Smart superintendents, principals and school boards recognize that proactive security and preparedness efforts are not only the right thing to do, but also a strong tool for strengthening school-community trust and confidence in their leadership.”
Experts agree that conducting a vulnerability assessment is a valuable, low-cost starting point that can enable a K-12 school or college to better understand its unique situation and challenges, and prioritize needs. For example, a K-12 school in rural Wyoming that’s located an hour away from the nearest hospital may want to focus first on how to handle potential medical issues.
Schools can conduct vulnerability assessments using myriad online, publicly available tools, or enlist a school safety consultant to help.
“Vulnerability studies are a great way to assess a school’s needs, what they should tackle first, and how they can use best practices to fit their needs,” said Klinger. “When we conduct a vulnerability assessment, we look first at physical stuff — what’s locked, what’s not, what’s dangerous, etc. The next thing we look at, which is often overlooked, are discrepancies between policies and procedures and actual processes.”
Teachers can conduct mini vulnerability assessments in their own classrooms too, Klinger suggests. For example, if an angry parent comes into the classroom to talk about a student, has the teacher set up the classroom in a way that he or she can easily exit?
“Simple things like that are powerful tools for educators to have in their toolbox,” she said.
Simply identifying who will be responsible for what and ensuring everyone knows what role they play is another great way to start. Assigning roles to various staff gets them involved and empowers them to take part in school safety.
Pascale suggests schools first determine what the respective outcomes of a plan are going to be, set goals and objectives, and then conduct exercises and drills to ensure that what they have come up with will actually work.
“Schools can conduct tabletop exercises at little to no cost,” he said. “There are lots of resources online, or they can enlist the help of local emergency managers or consulting firms. You don’t necessarily need dollars. Resolve and commitment can go a long way.”
Trump said when it comes to school safety, he’s heard of some schools considering ridiculous extremes such as bulletproof backpacks for students, bulletproof white boards for classrooms, bulletproof blankets to protect against shooters and tornadoes, barricade devices to attach to classroom doors to keep out potential shooters, and teaching students and school staff to throw things at, and to attack, armed shooters. But many of the security and preparedness measures schools really need to improve security are less flashy and fad-driven, and sometimes more discreet or even invisible, he said.
“Employing CPTED [Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design] concepts in new school construction and renovations can make substantial improvements, ranging from reconfiguring main entranceways to funnel visitors into the office to enhancing hallway supervision with improved line-of-sight, and reducing bullying by putting restroom sinks in a common area on the outer portion of the bathrooms so adults can better supervise kids washing their hands after using the facilities,” he said. “Simply adapting main entrance surveillance from a single, one-person-view buzzer-camera-intercom device at the front doorway to also having a camera or two that show the entire front door area can help monitor for piggybackers who sneak in behind legitimate visitors or persons with ill intentions who are approaching the building.”
Overall, addressing school safety is not easy. But the important thing, say experts, is that schools do something.
“It’s tough work to determine the school’s needs, how they can meet those needs, how they can have a plan that’s comprehensive and that’s constantly being updated, and how to train people and empower them to be able to respond appropriately,” said Klinger. “There are a lot of moving parts, and to address it well is not just about buying a plan — it’s about figuring out what works best for your school, owning it and getting buy-in for it.”