Experts: More security awareness training needed in schools

An incident earlier this week at a metro Atlanta area elementary school in which a gunman was able to tailgate his way into the building proves that there is still a need for better security awareness training at our nation’s schools, according to experts.

On Tuesday, authorities say 20-year-old Michael Brandon Hill, armed with an AK 47-style assault rifle and up to 500 rounds of ammunition, slipped in behind someone entering Ronald E. McNair Discovery Learning Academy and held two staff members in the front office hostage before eventually surrendering to police. Though Hill reportedly exchanged gunfire with police, no students or staff members were injured during the incident.

 “They had what we call a ‘threat outside lockdown’ in place in which they limit access to their school and they have an access control system. Reports are that this suspect was able to piggyback in past the access control system by simply following somebody in who had access,” said Vaughn Baker, president of security training and consulting firm Strategos International. “The lesson to be learned here is training our staff and our personnel, from a standpoint of awareness, people that are loitering around entryways that appear to not belong to watch for that behavior.”

Paul Timm, president of school security consulting firm RETA Security, echoed Baker’s sentiments about the breakdown in access control at the school.

“Anytime you’re permitting people to tailgate in means that you have just defeated the very system you have in place to control access,” Timm said. “If it’s true that he was able to get in because someone in front of him had a credential, that is a major training problem as far as I’m concerned. We have all of these systems and products now and the value of them is determined by the people that operate them.”   

According to Baker, school teachers and staff need to have a heightened sense of awareness about their surroundings.

“This is an elementary school and the suspect was in his early 20s, so he probably wouldn’t fall under the category of a student or a parent which would be a clue that maybe he was up to no good,” Baker explained. “(School personnel) should be taught what suspicious activity looks like and alternatives from going ahead and opening a door that essentially provides access to an armed intruder. I think it’s fair to say that this incident could have been much worse if he had of decided he wanted to harm children.”

Both Timm and Baker lauded the actions of bookkeeper Antoinette Tuff, who managed to remain calm throughout the ordeal, continually reassuring and empathizing with Hill.

“It’s not a response we would train, however, it was a very noble and heroic response and judging on the outcome, it was a tremendous success. It could have been much worse if you didn’t have somebody there that had the right people skills and the ability to relate and communicate effectively with this person on their level,” Baker said.   

Timm said that Tuff essentially acted as a negotiator between Hill and law enforcement. “You’ve got to give kudos to someone who is willing and able to remain calm under duress,” he said.

Timm also praised the steps that authorities took in evacuating the students from the building.

“To get the kids out when there was the guess that there could be an explosive device in the (suspect’s) vehicle… obviously that required some decision making to be able to do that and keep them potentially out of harm’s way,” Timm explained. “I also like the fact that they were able to do reunification at the Wal-Mart (parking lot) because I would say there are many places that would simply not be ready do reunification offsite because they have not yet identified all site locations for reunification.”  

Baker believes that schools should implement layers of protection to mitigate against the threat of active shooters.

“Knowing that 82 percent of these active shooter incidents (are perpetrated) by people that already have access to the school and are committed by these people; we can create a Fort Knox, but we’re still not going to prevent everything,” Baker added. “We have to have layers and the first would be access control, which is what this school had and then a very comprehensive plan for what to do when lockdown fails. Most of the mass casualty incidents that have occurred across the country where we have loss of life is because of one of two things: Either there was a lockdown failure and they didn’t know what to do or they just never recognized that lockdown was failing. Sandy Hook would be an example of lockdown failure.”

In addition, Timm said that schools need focus on improving access control and emergency communications. “I think if we’re focusing on those two areas… we can’t help but improve,” he said

Both Timm and Baker emphasized the importance of training teachers and administrators about what they can do to better protect themselves and their students.

“We have to do security awareness training. Many people have started this school year, there will be some new measures in place because of initiatives over the summer, but what we don’t do in schools is a good job of communicating what we now have in place and why it’s going to make the building safer and how to implement it in a fashion that will make the building safer,” said Timm. “For example, I see schools all the time that have electronic access control and all they did with the staff was give them a card and say, ‘you’re now only able to come in between 6 a.m. and 10 p.m.’ But we didn’t tell them we shouldn’t hold the door open for somebody else, we didn’t tell them if they lose their card they have to let us know immediately because it’s like having a key in the community. We didn’t tell them all kinds of things like this and until we work on security awareness training, we’re going to have gaps.”

Baker said that it’s more important than ever for schools to remain vigilant about the security protocols they have in place.

“It’s been eight months now since Sandy Hook and we’re already seeing people start to get lax again,” Baker said. “It seems like it takes an incident like this to get people thinking about these issues and to remain with that consistent vigilance towards never being satisfied with what your plans are and having that focus to continually look at what the trends are by attackers.”

Loading