School Security and Safety Issues

April, 2007: Today is the day after the Virginia Tech tragedy. Our thoughts and prayers are with the victims, families, students and staff of Virginia Tech.

Early lessons that can be learned by all schools may include:

- Security and Safety will be a significant topic of discussion in most schools now, but every effort should be made to keep that concern and awareness at a high level over the long term. For too many organizations and industries, security and safety only becomes a high priority after a serious incident. For example, security consultants like me often don’t get called in until after a major incident has occurred.

- There can be a “copy-cat” effect following an incident of such magnitude, and all schools should be on a higher alert level for the next several months.

- Every school should carefully consider how emergencies and crises can be promptly and effectively communicated to all key audiences, including all students, staff and emergency responders. As opposed to high schools, for example, it is much more of a challenge to communicate within a large, spread out, commuter college such as Virginia Tech, but it can be accomplished.

- Students and staff must be trained on how to recognize the early warning signs of potential violent behavior and should be made to understand and appreciate the importance of raising the issue to the administration. Just stating that there is a duty to report in a policy or handbook won’t motivate people to overcome their natural resistance to be a “squealer” or “snitch.” At Virginia Tech, for example, it appears that some students and at least one professor were aware that the future assailant was writing disturbing work that indicated to them a potential for violence. Just telling him to, “go get counseling,” may not be sufficient.

- In most school and workplace violence incidents, in addition to the fact that there were early warning signs displayed, there often were early threats or acts that should be cause for concern and threat management. Although we don’t now know if the earlier two bomb threats at Virginia Tech were related, it would not be surprising if they were. There is a continuum of escalating violence that should be understood and addressed.

November, 2006: Recent publicized incidents of actual and potential school violence raise several key issues of school safety and emergency response planning.

Awareness: A tragic incident at the Green Bay, WI High School was narrowly averted due to a concerned student speaking up. In every major incident of student on student/staff school violence, it was later learned that some students were aware that another student, or group of students, was discussing revenge and attacks, making threats, and/or otherwise clearly demonstrating the early warning signs or indicators of potential violence. It is not enough to just state that students, as well as staff and parents, have a responsibility to report threatening or potentially violent behavior, for most children and teens fear being perceived as “squealers” or “snitches.” They must be made to understand the importance of speaking up, that it is the right thing to do, and that they are essential parts of the safety and security process. They should also understand what the early warning signs and indicators are.

Respect: Schools and workplaces where an atmosphere of civility and respect has been established tend to be safer places. Where people manage, teach and relate according to the Golden Rule and where people treat each other with respect, feelings of isolation, resentment and revenge are less likely to build and fester. This is especially true during situations that are stressful and could intensify feelings of resentment, often called triggering or precipitating events. Such events could include discipline, suspensions, expulsions, terminations, etc. It is critical that the dignity of all involved be preserved, even during those difficult experiences. After all, if some perceive they have lost their dignity they may perceive they have nothing left to lose. It should be noted that respect and civility is, to a degree, a matter of perception and often needs to be taught. For example, often the bully who treats others with little respect perceives that he or she is the victim of unfair or disrespectful treatment.

Access Control: The tragedies in Bailey, CO, Lancaster County, PA and Racine, WI demonstrated that the threat may not always come from the inside from students or staff, but may come in the form of an outside intruder. I have often found schools unduly accessible because the main office is distant from or out of sight of the main entry, office staff aren’t paying attention, other doors are left open or propped for ventilation, persons “tailgate” behind others at access points, students open doors to strangers, entries aren’t supervised during the morning arrival of students, doors are old and don’t always latch, etc. While the process will differ depending upon the layout and logistics of the school, there should be an access control process by which no person can enter the facility, especially before and during class hours, without being somehow screened and controlled. This should apply to all staff, visitors, parents, contractors and any other persons with legitimate reasons to be in the school.

Emergency and Crisis Planning: I have found that, while districts and schools usually have some level of emergency and crisis plans in place, often the focus is mostly upon accidental incidents such as fire, medical emergencies and natural disasters (e.g. tornado, snowstorm, hurricane, flood, etc.) with less that addresses purposeful or man-made incidents such as the intruder, bomb threats, violence prevention and response, sabotage, civil disturbance, labor disruption, heightened DHS Alert Levels, etc. For example, I will usually ask the school receptionist what she or he will do if they receive a bomb threat, and I often get a response that they don’t know what their response should be. Likewise, there should be a bomb threat assessment and response process that provides guidelines as to making the evacuation decision, searches, etc. Intruder alert and response processes are often inconsistent and not fully understood by all. I don’t always find a process for threat mitigation, management and response to address threats and violence, or even a violence prevention process that would include relevant policies, procedures, training and communications.

Communications and Perception: During this school year I’ve noticed a disturbing trend of relatively minor incidents such as small fights and bomb threats (proven to be pranks) escalating, often fed by student use of cell phones, into major crises. Teens, who can be dramatic and exaggerate, communicate their perceptions of the incident with each other and their parents who, in turn, may embellish the story a bit further. Soon parents might be swarming to the school expecting to retrieve their children, the local news media are recklessly speculating on what might have happened, and even fire and police are responding to the non-existent crisis. The long-term effect of such a situation can be diminished confidence by parents and the community in the school’s and administration’s ability to protect their children.

There is a heightened concern and an elevated awareness of school safety among the public, fed to a large degree by aggressive coverage by national and local news media. Even though schools are still among the safest places children can be, perceptions that risks are high must be understood. School and district administrations need to take these perceptions into account in their crisis planning and carefully measure and track perceptions and reactions after even minor incidents.

Understanding the effects of such misperceptions and over-reactions; recognizing and mitigating escalating crises; training staff, students and parents on awareness and their duties; and properly communicating with all stakeholders and audiences should be considered in school emergency and crisis planning as well as in safety and security planning and assessments.