2013: School safety in review
January 13, 2014 *
The year 2013 was one of the most turbulent years for the school safety field since the Columbine era. Some of the highs and lows in our opinion include:
- Political Special Interest Groups Hijack School Safety – The attack upon Sandy Hook Elementary School on December 14, 2012, set the tone for the school safety field in 2013. While many responses were highly emotional, our political leaders and special interest groups hit a new low by hijacking the Sandy Hook shootings to advance special interest agendas.Gun control and gun rights special interests used Sandy Hook throughout 2013 to lobby for their particular agendas. Gun control groups repeatedly pointed to Sandy Hook in their calls for new laws to promote bans on certain types of guns and tighter controls on gun sales. Meanwhile, gun rights special interests took extreme positions by using Sandy Hook as a backdrop to call for arming teachers, school support staff and volunteers.
The end result was that neither special interest agenda advanced very far. The bad news is that these groups created a distraction and, unlike the coming together by opposing political parties after the 1999 Columbine school shootings to put resources into new school safety programs, in 2013 our politicians — especially at the federal level — did not move the needle forward an inch. Congress and the Obama Administration failed to restore the many school safety prevention, security, policing and emergency preparedness programs that they had cut in years prior to the Sandy Hook shootings.
The bottom line for 2013: No restored federal programs, continued political hijacking of school safety to advance gun politics, another useless federal guide (despite one already in place from the post-Columbine era), and a national embarrassment of no meaningful federal efforts to improve school safety policy and funding. Don’t expect to see previously eliminated federal programs restored or funded anywhere close to prior levels in 2014 either.
- Arming Teachers and School Support Staff – As a slight variation to item #1 above, several states capitalized on the raw emotions and the political leanings of some of their members to advance legislation, and/or to tweak or promote existing laws, to allow the arming of teachers and/or school support staff. In some states this brought to light some discussion, and even some action, in a few school districts. By and large, this concept flopped with the vast majority of schools nationwide, even when the idea had the support of the legislative majority in select states. We support armed, commissioned, and certified active police officers in schools (School Resource Officers/SROs). But while the state laws allowing the arming of school staff serve symbolism and political interests, the vast majority of school districts are saying, “Thanks, but no thanks.” We agree.
- Teaching School Staff and Children to Throw Things at, and to Attack, Armed Gunmen; Running and Fighting; and Related Ideas – Some law enforcement officials and trainers marginalized and minimized the effectiveness of lockdowns after the Sandy Hook. Their answer: Teach educators and children to run. Teach educators and children to throw things at, and to attack, heavily armed gunmen. While some schools have adopted these approaches, the vast majority in our experience have not done so. We have outlined many implementation questions and concerns. A number of experienced school safety professionals have expressed concerns and objections to these ideas. Ultimately, schools must make their own decisions. We do encourage school leaders to get written opinions from their school attorneys and insurance carriers as a part of their decision process.
- Fad Products Captured Too Much Media Attention While Vendors Ramp Up Product Marketing to PreK-12 Schools – Bulletproof backpacks, ballistic whiteboards, and other questionable products garnered way too much media attention and chatter, again distracting the focus away from best practices in school safety and emergency preparedness. Some naïve school administrators and parents jumped on these types of products to provide themselves and their children with a false sense of security. Fortunately, the stories along these lines eventually faded as did any serious consideration of such products by the vast majority of parents and educators who, after thinking about the associated implementation issues, realized the absurdity of some of the fad ideas.
- Some State Legislatures Put Out One-Time Grants for School Security Equipment or School Resource Officers (SROs) – Feeling heat from parents and the media attention, some state legislators seized upon the post-Sandy Hook anxiety to put out one-time grants, largely focused on security equipment grants. Some partially funded SROs, but typically not in full and not for a lengthy period of time. Schools seized upon the opportunity to apply as the grants provided money the districts would not have to use school funds for to get desired equipment. Perhaps equally important was that local schools could easily point to the equipment when talking with parents and the media to show visible, tangible efforts they were making to beef up school security.Interesting enough, around November several investigative news stories around the country pointed out something our team has known and talked about for years: Schools throwing up security equipment in response to high-profile incidents, only to leave the equipment without repairs or replacements for months and even years once they break down. The message to parents: Some schools throw up security equipment and create the appearance they are doing something to improve school safety, but the devil rests in the details of implementation and in some cases, schools failed miserably to keep up the equipment working properly and effectively due to inadequate maintenance, repair, and replacement. Expect to see more stories like this in 2014.
- Myths of Sandy Hook School Shootings are Dispelled and the Lessons of Columbine Prevail – The final reports in November and December of 2013 on the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings, released by the District Attorney and Connecticut State Police, revealed facts that dispelled myths and misinformation circulated in the year after the shootings. The reports indicated that there were no signs that the doors of the classrooms where the shootings occurred had been locked and there were no signs of forced entry into those rooms. For whatever reasons, it appears those rooms were never locked down. The rooms on both sides of those classrooms, and elsewhere throughout the school, were locked down. In the rooms where students and staff locked down, they lived. Contrary to some who, after the Sandy Hook shootings, marginalized and minimized the value of lockdowns, even at Sandy Hook, lockdowns worked where implemented.At Sandy Hook, police arriving on scene appear delayed in entering the building due to individuals who had left the building and were outside upon police arrival, forcing police to examine them as potential suspects. This illustrated how theories suggesting that people self-evacuating and running during a school active shooter situation could actually hinder timely and effective police response.
A December, 2013, shooting at Arapahoe High School in Colorado ended with the county sheriff indicating that lockdowns there saved lives and that the lessons from Columbine were implemented and lives saved accordingly. Elsewhere around the nation, bomb and death threats, thwarted plots, and other information reinforced that threat assessments and the other lessons learned from the 1999 Columbine High School attacks still apply today.
A look ahead at 2014
We believe a lot of time was lost in 2013 as some schools, first responders, parents, media, and others focused their discussions on emotionally-driven, knee-jerk, fad, and/or questionable ideas after Sandy Hook. We tackled those ideas by raising implementation issues and advocating for what we believe is the best interests of the safety of school children and staff. In 2014, our focus will be on strengthening the conversations and efforts on moving forward with the proven and tested best practices in school safety and emergency preparedness that were learned from Columbine and that have been demonstrated to work in prek12-schools across the nation.
*This review was originally drafted in mid-January 2014, but was not immediately published due to our web site and blog redesign.
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