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

Jan. 14, 2013
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?

Balboni: From everything I’ve read, from all the testimony and anecdotal information, the school did everything and more. The teachers and administrators did everything they could. They kept their cool, utilized their training and truly sacrificed their lives to save the children. There was really nothing more they couldn’t have anticipated. You can’t make a school an armed camp. Some say if they had an armed guard, then it wouldn’t have happened. That’s not the way it works. A person comes through the front door, the first person they shoot is the armed guard. There’s no perfect security solution. In the case of Sandy Hook, there was no policy or technology fault. Any security protocol that can be created can also be defeated.

SIW: So an armed guard is not an effective strategy?

Balboni: It’s part of a solution in many scenarios, such as an airport, a nuclear power plant for example. It’s part of a defense in depth system, no single point of failure, multiple elements combined to make the best possible security system. It’s about pushing out the perimeter and access control. License plate recognition systems in parking lots and video surveillance. Signage that notifies potential wrongdoers that they are under video surveillance can be a very effective deterrent on its own.

SIW: What are some of the elements that work together in a well-designed security system?

Balboni: In addition to all of the above in the previous question, an effective security system includes the ability to train people to practice security on an everyday basis. Communication is key, with teachers, local law enforcement and other public safety officials. These are all things that don’t necessarily cost a lot of money but are very effective if you include them in the daily process of running the school.

SIW: To what degree can the banning of assault weapons and related accessories prevent these tragedies?

Balboni: New York already has strong laws in place. We’ve adopted the Federal Assault Weapons Ban that was repealed on the national level. But you don’t really need an assault weapon to cause mayhem. The Virginia Tech shooter used a handgun. The Long Island Railroad shooter also used a handgun. Plenty of devastation in a confined place can be accomplished with a handgun. So, assault weapons are part of the debate, but there are a lot more elements of that debate. In the end, it all comes down to the parents of the individual school districts and the community.

SIW: In what ways would increased access to mental health counseling improve the situation?

Balboni: In a perfect world you wave the magic wand and suddenly everybody who has mental health issues and their families have access, motivation and opportunity to get the right kind of counseling and medication. There would be plenty of support groups and no social stigmatizing of mental health issues. We would treat mental health issues like we treat colds, heart disease and other physical problems. Unfortunately, we’re a long way from that. It’s because of the subjective nature of mental illness that makes it so hard to fund. Everybody has anxiety, and there are those suffering from depression and paranoia but to what degree does it require treatment? That’s the challenge of funding mental health care. With rapid rises in the cost of health care, in the mental health world it becomes that much harder to determine a defined benefit plan for mental illness.

SIW: What new technologies are becoming available and/or more affordable that will help improve school security systems?

Balboni: Schools are becoming more aware of the nature of video surveillance technology and the ways in which it can be utilized. There are three aspects of video. One is operational – what’s going on in your hallways? Is there smoke, is there a fight? The next aspect is forensic – when something happens, what happened? Forensic video provides clues and evidence for prosecution, litigation and police investigations. Third, though, is preventative, offering predictive analytics. For example, video captures a license plate attached to an order of protection, and an incident is stopped before it happens. All of this is making video smart. Another example of making video more useful is making it searchable. There’s a company in San Francisco, 3VR, that uses face recognition software to locate certain people in video records, saving hours and hours of viewing time in many cases. License plate recognition technology is another example of how video can be made analytic to empower and drive the process of making video intelligent.

SIW: For all the technology, though, is it really dedicated and well-trained people that make the difference?

Balboni: It’s that, and layered response. Perimeter security, internal security, locked doors, entryways, cameras, response capability both internally and externally with the police, it’s all part of the awareness and cooperation that you need to have. Security is not a destination, it’s a journey. There’s no such thing as being completely safe.

About the Author

Mark Hawver

Mark Hawver is a freelance journalist based in Long Island, N.Y.