School safety post-Sandy Hook: Proven, tested strategies prevail

Posted by on September 29, 2013

For the past nine months, our team of school security and communications consultants have maintained a steady approach and methodical voice of reason while serving as an anchor to superintendents, boards and principals who are facing a tidal wave of school-community emotion on safety issues.

We have focused on proven prevention, preparedness, response and communications best practices that did not suddenly become obsolete, irrelevant or unworthy of implementation for making schools safer even after the attack at Sandy Hook. The vast majority of school leaders want proven, tested, reliable and evidence-based safety practices that help them strike a balance of safety with welcoming and supportive environments.

For example, we know:

  • Reconfiguring school main entrances and improving visitor access and management are best practices. But we have also seen schools rush to spend millions of dollars on fortifying front entrances with some buying bulletproof glass in response to what they believe occurred at Sandy Hook. Yet while many have tunnel vision focus on the front entrance,  we have worked with schools to look at all possible entranceways, the role of people and not just hardware, where technology can logically reduce risks during normal school day activities, and other measures beyond a narrow focus on front entranceways. Plus we look at relatively simple ways to enhance main entrance access and monitoring, such as placing a fixed surveillance camera to better monitor persons approaching the front entranceway or planning to piggyback legitimate visitors into the school, versus only having a buzzer-camera-intercom that only shows a partial image of the person standing in front of it.
  • While there sadly was not an opportunity for everyone at Sandy Hook to lockdown their classrooms, lockdowns did work for many that were able to do so and saved lives even at Sandy Hook Elementary School. Unlike some current fads that downplay lockdowns and propose approaches with no documented history of success in preK-12 schools, we know there are many examples where they have worked to protect and to reduce risks to students and staff. We have worked to help schools improve  implementation of drills, including diversifying them by drilling under various times and conditions. We recently evaluated an active shooter in-service, facilitated a panel discussion on active shooters, worked to help school crisis teams better prepare for local police response to active shooters, and more.
  • Schools have long been encouraged to have evacuation plans, yet we find many plans lacking detail and depth in planning and practice. We have worked to help schools improve their evacuation planning with walking distance and distant evacuation sites, plans for mobilizing transportation mid-day, and detailed by-name roles for staff during such evacuations.
  • School Resource Officers (SROs), police in schools, are first-line prevention programs with the right officer, properly defined roles, good supervision with police and school administration collaboration, and proper Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) agreements.  Sandy Hook generated a call for more police in schools. At the same time, special interest political groups have pressured schools to minimize  or eliminate the roles of police in schools. We have worked with school  administrators to evaluate school police roles, functions organization,  and student arrest concerns so schools may keep police program in place and functioning in the best interests of all.
  • School climate, relationships, prevention and intervention services, and community connections do matter. In our school safety assessments we look closely at how security and preparedness measures balance out with the climate and prevention part of the school safety equation. And we have beefed up our training to address best  practices in student supervision, bullying and other behavior management issues, including by teaming up with Dr. Scott Poland, internationally-renowned expert in school psychology.
  • Facebook threats, text messaged rumors and other viral social media messages and videos have sent school administrators scurrying to catch-up with communications to parents, the media and the school-community on school security and crisis incidents. We added a veteran TV news director and social media strategist to our team and now include a communications evaluations and consultation component to our safety assessments to help school leaders proactively communicate about school safety issues and to develop crisis communications plan for if a disaster strikes.

The pending Connecticut State Police report on the Sandy Hook shootings will detail the attack of December 14, 2012.  There will likely be a few new lessons learned and many lessons from past incidents reinforced.  But it is highly unlikely that we will need to discard the proven, tested and reliable strategies for school safety, security and preparedness.

We must, however, realize that we have a new generation of students, teachers, principals, superintendents, school board members, and support staff who were not in their current positions more than 14 years ago at the time of the Columbine High School attack. Memories have faded, resources have been cut and the competition for time is greater now than ever. We must reach this new generation to impart the “why” and “how to” of proven strategies, nudge and encourage them to take ownership and leadership of school safety and preparedness planning, and empower them to be their own school-community’s voice of reason and anchor when the emotional tidal wave around school safety hits their local communities.

Ken Trump

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