How Safe are Our Schools? A Potentially Uncomfortable Self-Assessment

Expert Institute Expert

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— Updated on June 23, 2020

How Safe are Our Schools? A Potentially Uncomfortable Self-Assessment

School Safety Expert WitnessIt has been more than four years since the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School in which 20 children and 6 adults were killed by an outside attacker. Given the scope of this event as well as the national and worldwide attention focused on school safety in its wake, one would assume that the years that followed have afforded schools the opportunity to solve the school safety crises facing our most precious and vulnerable citizens. The disappointing truth is that most American schools have not made substantive changes toward a comprehensive, all-hazards approach to school safety that is based in evidence, best practices, and a truly pro-active commitment to prevent violence and make our schools safe and supportive for all learners.

Although this work must be championed and led by educators, attorneys, insurance companies and others that provide guidance to educators in the realm of school safety have a critical role to play in moving school safety improvement efforts forward.

Such an expansive and wide-ranging notion of school safety is a big “ask” of educators who are inundated with significant concerns about improving student performance, upgrading curriculum, evaluating teacher effectiveness, operating with minimal financial support – the list goes on and on. The failure point for school safety is not always a lack of time, priority, money, or commitment (although that is true in many situations). The main reason that our schools generally have not made great safety progress since the Sandy Hook incident is because we are undertaking school safety in a way that is wholly reactionary. Any attorney or risk-management professional will agree that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound (or more) of cure, but educators who are already over-burdened, under-resourced, and assessed within a inch of their lives, often cannot space even half of an ounce.

A Lack of Planning: Proactiveness is Reactiveness in Disguise

School leaders pride themselves on being “proactive” when it comes to academic, financial, or community relations concerns, yet when it comes to the life and death issues of school safety, leaders find themselves immersed in what organizational leadership expert, Peter Senge calls “the illusion of taking charge” (Senge, 1994, p. 20). The emphasis on preparing a response to a violent event while virtually ignoring a variety of highly effective prevention and intervention strategies, such as threat assessment management, truly embodies what Senge defines as proactiveness being reactiveness in disguise.

While preparing for what should be done after the destruction starts, and ignoring what could be done to prevent or minimize the impact of the event in the first place, we continue to react but not act. Senge maintains that “true proactiveness comes from seeing how we contribute to our own problems…”(1994, p. 21) – in this case, looking critically at a school’s daily practices, procedures, and training rather than buying things like surveillance cameras or door barricades that we hope will help once the violence occurs.

This reactiveness disguised as proactiveness presents another fatal flaw: schools spend their time and resources, preparing for an event that is extremely unlikely (statistically speaking) such as an active shooter, while less “dangerous” but much more likely events like severe weather, bomb threats, or assaults are totally ignored.

The legal requirements for crisis planning vary widely from state to state, and what is required of public schools is different from what is required of independent or private schools. Broadly speaking however, courts require that the conduct and policies of the school must be ‘reasonable’ under the circumstances. It is clearly unreasonable for a school or school district to neglect to plan for the crisis events that we know will occur.

Well-reasoned policies that make a good faith attempt to keep kids safe at school, will not only have a positive impact on school safety, but will diminish a school’s legal liability. Therefore, improvement in the area of emergency operations planning serves these twin aims. Neglecting, or delaying addressing these obligations can leave a school open to incredible levels of legal liability. It is important that the ‘perfect’  not become the enemy of the ‘good – ’ a crisis plan can be incrementally improved and updated- it need not be perfect to protect life and diminish liability.

Hey Big Spender

While most schools boast some security measures such as door locking mechanisms, buzzer systems, or surveillance cameras, the real million-dollar question is whether even a dime has been spent on training school stakeholders on how to effectively use the hardware that is purchased. Could at least some of the money being spent on buying “stuff” be better spent on training staff and students?  Wouldn’t this serve as a preventive measure for upcoming threats and a fruitful investment to save their lives in the event of a potential crisis?

The Biggest Bang for The Safety Buck

Ensuring the safety of students is the primary mission of all educators. Yet sadly, it is also an area where educators feel largely unprepared or have received little training.  Past violent events indicate that teachers and students will be the ones who will need to know how to respond to crisis incidents. Research shows that “civilians often [had] to make life and death decisions…” (Blair, 2014, p.8). This report by the Federal Bureau of Investigation then went on to recommend that school stakeholders “should be engaged in training and discussions on decisions they may face” (Blair, 2014, p.8). To what extent is this occurring appropriately in

schools? While having a law enforcement or security presence in schools or adding enhancements to the facility itself is a great supplementary measure, adequate resources of time and money should be allocated first and foremost for the training and empowerment of school stakeholders. For just a fraction of the cost of any of these reactive measures, every staff member, student, and parent in a school or district could be trained and empowered in proactive prevention and response measures for responding to threats ranging from an active shooter, to a severe weather event, to a medical emergency.

Not all Training is Created Equal

The type and quality of the training is also crucial. School safety training should empower, not intimidate. It should come from an educational perspective rather than law enforcement. If we are asking staff and students to make life or death decisions, it is critical that the training we give them understands and acknowledges the unique characteristics, constraints, and developmental needs of an educational setting. A “one size fits all” training, focusing only on an active shooter or violent intruder response, from a purely law enforcement perspective, does not meet these needs.

Students, staff, and parents will have greater peace of mind if they have been appropriately empowered, trained, and practiced in evacuation, barricade, and a host of other response procedures that will assist them in saving their own lives, rather than relying on a piece of hardware sitting in a classroom or a security officer standing in the hallway. Let’s spend money on training people and equipping them with skills and competencies rather than buying equipment.

So What Should we be Doing?

Becoming proactive rather than reactive requires that schools engage in an uncomfortable self-assessment of several problematic areas, the first of which centers around schools that are still utilizing a traditional lockdown procedure for active shooter response (lock the door, hide out, wait for law enforcement). In June 2013, the Department of Education and FEMA released updated guidelines for best practices in schools that incorporate rapid evacuation and barricading as response capabilities. Unfortunately in many schools, a lack of awareness and training has resulted in staff and students who do not how to use these options, incurring additional liability for the district.

Another problem is the lack of threat assessment procedures in the vast majority of schools. According to the U.S. Department of Education, one of the most useful tools a school can develop is a multidisciplinary threat assessment team. Threat assessment is a means by which educators can identify students who are at risk for violence against themselves or others, assess the level of risk, and develop appropriate supports and interventions. Most importantly, threat assessment is an effective violence prevention measure that examines threats of all kinds, not just an active shooter situation.

Many school districts do not have an accurate picture of the current level of safety and security within each building. A vulnerability assessment identifies potential deficiencies and generates recommendations for improvement. An effective vulnerability assessment comes from multiple perspectives – educational, legal, emergency response – not just a security point of view – and should include an intruder assessment, a policy review, a mitigation plan, and a leadership team de-briefing.

Finally, there is the “step-child” of school safety  – a formalized, updated plan for parent reunification. In the immediate aftermath of a crisis event, the primary responsibility of the school is to ensure the safe and timely return of students to their parents. A plan for parent reunification cannot be developed “on the fly” in the emotional post-crisis chaos.

Proactive best practices serve important functions in addition to the preservation of life and property. School decision-makers have a legal obligation to ensure adequate disaster safety planning and precautions. Neglecting this obligation leaves school leaders open to personal and systemic liability for damages, injuries, and deaths that occur at the school. However, meeting state minimum legal requirements often isn’t enough to adequately shield a district from liability, and certainly isn’t enough to fulfill the moral and ethical obligation that educators have to the students in their care. Engaging in proactive crisis planning and training increases legal protections from liability and can be used to defend the district if litigation follows a crisis event. Perhaps most importantly, the school has a moral and legal responsibility to care for students in a crisis event when parents cannot.

Expert Witness Bio E-008468

E-008468This qualified expert has over 20 years of experience in school safety and administration. She holds a BE in Secondary Education, an ME in Curriculum and Instruction, and an EdD, in Educational Administration from the University of Toledo. Her previous positions include directing curricula as well as consulting on school safety issues. With over 10 years of experience as a School Principal, she is very familiar with managing a school along with the policies. As a specialist in school safety, she has been invited many times to present. She works as Associate Professor of Educational Administration at a university in Ohio.

Location: OH
BE, Secondary Education, University of Toledo
ME, Curriculum and Instruction, University of Toledo
EdD, Education Administration, University of Toledo
Certified: Superintendent, 7-12 Principal, Instructor (Homeland Security and FEMA)
Publications: Various peer-reviewed publications on school safety and administration
Former, Curriculum Director, Oregon City Schools
Former, Elementary Principal, Wynn Elementary School
Former, Middle School Principal, Northwood Middle School
Current, Associate Professor of Educational Administration, An Ohio-based university

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