Driving a school bus is a tough job on a “normal” school day. Imagine how tough the job was for Hillsborough County Schools’ bus drivers who had to drive in the security footprint for the Republican National Convention last week in Tampa.
National School Safety and Security Services had the privilege of being selected by John Franklin, the district’s transportation general manager, to provide specialized security training for more than 100 drivers including those drivers transporting children through the security footprint of the Republican National Convention.
Political convention brings tourists, money, international attention — and security risks
Law enforcement officials expected up to 10,000 demonstrators to protest during the convention. While most were expected to be orderly in their protests, a small percentage posed the potential to be anarchists and others posing a higher security risk.
What type of risks might a high-profile event bring in terms of highly disruptive protesters or even lone wolf actors who might capitalize on a national security special event with international attention? Well, just about anything from acid-filled balloons being thrown to bus hijackings and more.
And it didn’t help that the night before our training, two school buses had been stolen off of a school lot.
I forgot to mention that the convention was also being held less than one week after the school year started. So drivers were just resuming their routes, meeting new students, and gearing up for the start of another school year.
Training focused on empowering drivers, fundamentals of heightened awareness and security
Our approach to the training, regardless of these multiple dynamics and challenges, was to empower the school bus drivers. I wanted them to leave the training recognizing that they know their buses, students, routes, and environment better than anyone else.
It was also important for them to appreciate the valuable asset they have with their school police department, which provided officers on board units driving in the convention security footprint to help drivers through Secret Service checkpoints and with communications on safety matters that might arise during their trips.
Reducing the fear of the unknown contributes to reducing the anxiety that comes along with high-profile, intense circumstances. So our discussion included the potential motivations of the small percent of possible disruptive demonstrators, the importance of balancing heightened awareness of outside threats with the day-to-day student behavior issues that might arise, specific security threats and preparedness, and the fundamentals of heightened awareness, security procedures, and emergency response.
National special security event provides lessons for other communities
This experience was also a learning experience for others. A number of “lessons learned” quickly came to light:
- There is never enough communication among parties involved in a major special security event. There are always small details that arise and evolve that can determine the overall success of a major event. Ongoing planning and communications can make or break the effectiveness of large event security.
- Issues that would normally be minor issues can be major issues in a special event. For example, driving with windows down on a hot Tampa day might not be a big issue under normal circumstances. But with protesters in an area who could throw acid-filled balloons or explosives into the bus through an open window, driving with the windows up while inside the security footprint of a major event may become mandatory.
- Redundancy in planning is a good thing. Training all of the regular drivers for routes in the footprint of a major event is important. But also training potential sub-drivers and having them available should a regular driver be sick or injured is smart planning.
- School support staff, teachers, and administrators understand education protocols. Law enforcement understands law enforcement protocols. The priority concerns of each group involved in the same major event may be very different. Talking through these concerns, working together, and remembering that safety is the number one priority must occur.
There are numerous other training points and lessons learned from this event.
Perhaps the biggest lesson is that with good security comes inconvenience. If you don’t have inconveniences, you don’t have real security.
The school police department’s genuine concern about working with the drivers to minimize their inconveniences while adhering to certain procedures that had to occur in order to reduce potential safety risks was commendable.
The seriousness and attentiveness of the bus drivers was also appreciated. But I was not surprised as back around 2004, my colleague Chuck Hibbert and I trained the district’s bus drivers then. I recall the group to have been a very serious, but fun, group at that time, too.
Would your district be prepared to tackle security issues and extensive planning if a major, high-profile national security event came to your community?
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