In the wake of the heartbreaking shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary, parents, school administrators, teachers and communities everywhere are left wondering how to keep our children safe when they are at school, and how to prevent future tragedies.
What are the answers to safer schools? Government and community leaders are looking at options that include armed guards and teachers, stronger gun control, regulation of the video game industry and identifying better mental health initiatives, among others.
In January, President Obama took action and put gun control on the national agenda when he issued his Gun Violence Reduction Executive Actions. Unfortunately, even with this increased spotlight and presidential executive orders, there is no simple or foolproof way to protect schools from violence.
While there’s no way to predict or prevent school massacres, experts do agree there are best practices that schools can adopt to be more aware and prepared when these incidents occur. These protective measures can include procedures, personnel and equipment designed to mitigate the effects of an attack.
Fortunately for cash- and resource-strapped schools, the issuance of the president’s Jan. 16 Gun Violence Executive Actions will help facilitate and fund security programs for schools nationwide. For the full list of President Obama’s executive orders, go to www.whitehouse.gov/sites/default/files/docs/wh_now_is_the_time_full.pdf.
Here’s an outline of best practices to mitigate shootings and other violent events on school grounds:
Planning and Training
School shootings are unpredictable and evolve quickly. Preparedness is critical in any school incident, whether an active shooter, a bomb threat or other terrorist activity. Typically, it takes 10 to 15 minutes before law enforcement arrives on scene to stop the shooter and mitigate harm to victims. This means everyone on campus must be prepared mentally and physically to deal with such situations.
Preparation: While 84 percent of schools had a written response plan for a shooting in 2010, only 52 percent had drilled their students in the past year, according to the White House. This spring, a set of model plans will be made available, and $30 million in grants is proposed to help districts develop their own plans.
Here are some ways schools and students can be more prepared:
• Develop model emergency response plans – this is one of President Obama’s Gun Violence Reduction Executive Actions required for schools, houses of worship and institutions of higher education.
• Hire a security director or appoint an employee who will be responsible for creating and implementing these emergency response plans, and coordinating all security activities for the school.
• Establish a command and control center to mobilize, deploy and report information regularly to local law enforcement and emergency responders.
• Designate individuals familiar with the campus to serve as liaisons with responding emergency personnel.
• Provide floor plans and schematics to emergency personnel beforehand, or have them available digitally for quick access when an emergency occurs.
• Post evacuation routes in conspicuous locations throughout a facility and ensure the facility has at least two main evacuation routes.
• Create and assemble crisis kits containing radios, floor plans, keys, staff roster and staff emergency contact numbers, first aid kits and flashlights. Distribute them to appropriate staff and employees.
• Place removable floor plans near entrances and exits for emergency responders.
• Conduct security audits on a regular and continuing basis.
Training: There is no better way to prepare for emergencies than training and education. Knowing what to do can save lives and reduce injury of staff and students. One of President Obama’s recent executive orders was to “provide law enforcement, first responders and school officials with proper training for active shooter situations.” This should help raise awareness and funding for school emergency training and response programs. Education training practices that should be followed include:
• Train staff to know and follow standardized procedures in an emergency and incorporate security into employee training programs.
• Provide security information and training to all students.
• Conduct regular exercises for active shooters. For years children have been exposed to fire, earthquake, and even bomb drills. The most effective way to train your staff to respond to an active shooter situation is to conduct mock active shooter training.
• Include local law enforcement and first responders during your training exercises and encourage law enforcement and emergency responders to train for an active shooter scenario at your location.
Large concentrations of students gathering inside and around school buildings on a regular schedule make schools vulnerable to child predators, as well as shooters and terrorists. So it is critical for schools today to conduct diligent and thorough background checks and fingerprinting of all school personnel.
Vendors and service providers that have access to school grounds, such as janitors, landscapers and other maintenance workers, should have the same stringent background checks and fingerprinting as every teacher and administrator.
Cross-train every person who is employed on the campus — including vendors and contractors — to develop safety and security awareness protocols that provide support to and enhance existing security programs.
Look for vendors with “safe campus” programs. These vendors consult with administration and other school vendors to create a culture of safety awareness that includes every person on campus, and becomes part of the security/safety solution by increasing the number of people continually surveying the campus for potential suspicious activities and expanding the eyes and ears of campus security staff.
Improve School Facilities
Because schools are relatively open access, it can be difficult to control access to schools without new technology and improved facilities maintenance. While these protective measures can be expensive, President Obama has earmarked $150 million for Comprehensive School Safety grants that will provide schools with funding for buying safety equipment, conducting threat assessments, and training crisis-intervention teams.
Best practices for maintaining access control to better protect students while on school grounds include:
- Define the facility perimeter and areas within the facility that require access control. Maintain building access points to the minimum needed.
- Photo IDs for all employees and students.
- Provide visitors with school-issued identification badges when on school grounds and require visitor check-in with the front office upon arrival and departure.
- Control vehicle access to school parking lots.
- Design a video monitoring, surveillance, and inspection program.
- Continuously monitor people entering and leaving the facility and establish protocols identifying suspicious behavior.
- Deploy personnel assigned to security duty to regularly inspect sensitive or critical areas.
- Vary security rounds and schedules to avoid predictability.
- Improve lighting across the campus and maintain the grounds.
- Make sure the school has enough utility service capacity to meet normal and emergency needs and provide adequate physical security.
- Make sure employees are familiar with how to shut off utility services, etc.
Good communication is critical in emergency situations to increase response times and reduce confusion, panic, misinformation, and possible injuries. All schools should have a communication plan in place. Schools should establish a liaison and regular communication with local law enforcement and community leaders. They should install systems that provide communication with all people at the school including employees, students, visitors, and emergency response teams; and establish protocol and systems — such as email and text messaging — that provide alerts and to communicate with parents in emergency situations.
Good communication strategies also include procedures for communicating with the public and the media regarding security issues, breaches and threats.
Resource and Security Officers
Whether the threat is vandalism, student violence, terrorist threats or an active shooter, having a law enforcement officer or trained/armed security guard on campus can be a strong potential deterrent. Schools can work with local police to establish a school resource officer program. Or, schools can turn to private security companies to provide a trained and armed security guard to fulfill the role of school resource officer.
A school resource officer (SRO) is a law enforcement officer assigned to a school. Their main goal is to prevent juvenile delinquency by promoting positive relations between youth and law enforcement. SROs are not just “cops on campus” — they become part of the staff.
They educate students by teaching law-related classes, and counsel students and parents as well. The SRO becomes involved in the students’ lives as a trusted figure and positive role model. The intent is that the officer becomes part of the school community, making the students feel safer, and provide another trained set of eyes and ears among students to help identify potential issues and vulnerabilities, and reduce juvenile crime.
SRO programs are not new — many schools have used them successfully in the past; however, the economic downturn slashed school budgets and stretched law enforcement resources extremely thin. With not enough officers to spare and schools not being able to afford them, most SRO programs have been cut. President Obama’s new executive orders have provided incentives for schools to hire school resource officers once again.
An economical and effective alternative to an SRO is a fully trained, armed security officer. Many security officers are former law enforcement officers who can be employed through a security company for almost half the cost of the sworn officer.
Kent C. Jurney, CPP, is Vice President of Client Services at ABM Security Services. He has been developing and delivering security protocol and training to schools and private industry for more than 40 years and developed the security curriculum for community colleges which is still part of the academic program in many colleges in Florida. For more information about ABM, visit www.abm.com.
Chief Steve Cader is branch manager for ABM Security Services in Northern Calif. He is in his 40th year as a California Peace Officer and is a retired Chief of Police for the town of Atherton, Calif. In addition to his responsibilities with ABM, he also works part time as a police officer, as well as an advisor to a homeland security contractor in bioterrorism and emergency notifications.