The Interconnectivity Needed to Keep Kids Safe in School

School administrations, mental health workers and law enforcement are often siloed.

by Jim McKay / February 22, 2018

Lots of people saw warnings signs that Nikolas Cruz could be a danger to others. It may have been worse than anyone could imagine — 14 students and three teachers killed at Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla. — but the signs of trouble were there.

Several students noted after the shooting the antisocial tendencies exhibited by Cruz and that police had been to his house on numerous occasions. Obviously there was no system in which that information could get processed and help, in the form of counseling, restraining order or whatever appropriate, could be dispensed.

This is typical, say experts on school safety, and needs to change. There are other viable ways of protecting students as well, including centralized entry, where the students are greeted and perhaps even move through a metal detector.

“There’s certainly value in security measures like access control and securing areas in the school and so on,” said Amy Klinger, director of programs and co-founder of Educator’s School Safety Network. “The problem is we’ve spent a lot of time and energy on stuff — access control systems, and metal detectors, and visitor sign-ins and all this — but have not spent equal time and money on training people, and education is a people business.”

Klinger said the teachers and administrators on campus are the first responders and are being asked to deal with situations that they are not equipped or trained to deal with. What’s needed, along with training, is a system or “coordinated, collaborative” response to the signs that were so evident in the Cruz case and other cases.

The school does one thing, mental health does another and law enforcement does another. They are silos and not connected in terms of communication and cooperation and should be.

“Clearly there is a role for law enforcement but one of my concerns and ongoing frustrations is that law enforcement is the only entity you hear from,” Klinger said. “You don’t hear [the media talking] about the educators, the mental health people. We still have this notion that it’s a law enforcement problem, and it’s not.”

Klinger said every school needs an active, well-trained, interdisciplinary threat assessment team and many don’t have one. The team should have the ability to identify individuals who may be at risk and be able do something about it.

“You can come at it from many different angles, trying to get counseling, mental health intervention, pressing charges, restraining order or support and intervention in the school,” Klinger said. “Not just, ‘We tossed the kid and got afraid of what might happen,’ not that that happened in [with Cruz] but it’s typical.”

Most of the training educators get, if any, is Run, Hide, Fight, which is a program for reacting to an active shooter scenario.

Klinger said that’s fine but it’s not preventive, and it’s putting all the eggs in one basket. “Now you have people who are trained in Run, Hide, Fight, but don’t know what to do in a medical emergency, a bus accident or an intruder with a knife.”

She said school resource officers (SRO) are great too, but you can’t deploy enough of them to be everywhere, and she noted that there was an SRO on the Stoneman Douglas campus as well as one on the Columbine and the Arapahoe High School campuses during those Colorado shootings.

President Trump seems to have advocated training and arming six or eight teachers on campus to thwart the threat. Experts say even well-trained police officers have difficulty in the moment identifying what a target is and isn’t, and having that many guns on campus is inviting an accident.
Klinger said that just in February, two schools with campus police officers had an accidental discharge of a police firearm. “And that’s a trained officer,” she said.

“Here’s the issue with arming teachers. I can put together a list of probably 100 things that can make your school safer and when you’re done and at No. 101, we can talk about arming teachers,” Klinger said.

Dan Pascale, vice president at Margolis Healy (a school security provider), said that centralizing entry is a good security practice for schools or businesses. “The battle is fought and won at the point of entry; the other 5 percent is already in the building.”

The idea is having an entry place or a few entrances where students are greeted by faculty, and only those who should be in the school are allowed in the school.

There are difficulties, such as a school with 3,000 students and a single point of entry, so flexibility is needed, but all entries need to be treated the same.

“That means if we have access control systems in place or we are using people to vet visitors or using cameras, whatever we’re using at the main entrance has to be used at all other entrances,” Pascale said.

He said SROs are a great asset but echoed what Klinger said about not being in all places at the same time. “Many of our schools are a five-minute run from one place to another. They could be in an office, talking with a student and might be two, three, four, five minutes away from a suspect.”
Pascale said having faculty at the point of entry to greet students when they enter is important.

These are the folks who can recognize patterns in advance or very early identify a problem and take appropriate action. Some institutions do this well and some don’t, but it’s an invaluable part of the school experience but you’re also gaining intelligence at the same time.”

Pascale said students also need a place to get help, someone to call and that the “interconnectivity” of school administrators, mental health professionals and counselors is critical.
“It’s really that interconnectivity,” Pascale said. “Everyone needs to play a role.”