At the Frontline: Former N.Y. Homeland Security Advisor Michael Balboni

Terrorism expert weighs in school security strategies in wake of Newtown tragedy

Michael Balboni is a former New York state senator and deputy secretary of public safety under two governors. Following the tragic events of Sept. 11, Balboni was appointed as the first chairman of the Senate Homeland Security Committee. During his tenure, he wrote nearly all of the major laws relating to homeland security for New York, many of which became models for national legislation. In 2007, he left the state senate (1998-2007) to become deputy secretary for public safety and homeland security advisor for the state, where he managed an agency of 63,000 employees with a $5 billion budget. He has also served on transition teams for President Barack Obama and Governor Andrew Cuomo. Balboni serves on several homeland security think tanks and is a regular contributor as a terrorism expert on national and local television and print media. He currently is the president and managing director of RedLand Strategies, Inc., a consulting firm that provides expertise to help schools, government agencies and corporations position themselves to get through a crisis.

We recently caught up with Balboni following the 2013 School Safety Forum last week in Melville, N.Y., and spent a few minutes asking for his thoughts on a number of subjects relevant to school security issues in the wake of the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn.

SIW: In crises such as the Newtown tragedy, are mass media and local media more help than hindrance?

Balboni: This was a real time crisis with real time information coming out. I had some law enforcement sources updating me with what was going on. As soon as they told me, it was on television. With the proliferation of social media, Twitter, cell phones, the challenge is three-fold; you have the Mumbai potential – CNN was showing the commandos coming through the roof of the hotel, and the bad guys were able to get this information. Second, the information could simply be wrong – there’s speculation, observations that are not accurate, and now the media takes it and runs with it and they’re wrong. The third, of course is the most sensitive aspect – there’s no privacy for the victims’ families. Some people may post clips on the Internet of victims who have been shot. There are some strategies coming from the security world involving placing an electronic blanket over an area to prevent cell phone transmissions, which would also help prevent the triggering of explosive devices by cell communication. Restricting cell phone use in an area can also provide some degree of informational security.

SIW: What school security and crisis prevention and response issues can be best addressed by legislation?

Balboni: Initially, the ability to establish requirements for assessing current operating systems, training, protocols, and that takes money. But legislation is an imperfect answer to a lot of the problems here. This is a local problem, a local security issue and it really takes administrators, parents and students to understand what is going on and to get involved in the community.

SIW: How can parents, students and community members help prevent some of these incidents from occurring?

Balboni: Everybody has the skill sets already. Take a look at bullying, dysfunctional families and certain Internet issues – parents are involved in varying degrees. But there should be the opportunity to develop the proper protocols for sharing this information, develop the right response evaluations and mechanisms. Lastly, awareness. You don’t want to overreact – you don’t want to see an active shooter behind every tree – but at the same time there are indicators that should be paid attention to, and hopefully they lead to nothing. But if they are responded to in an appropriate manner, they can make everybody a lot safer.

SIW: At Sandy Hook, it seemed like all the prescribed security precautions were taken, but it still wasn’t enough. Was there a failure in policy or technology?

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