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Critical Care

Keeping up to keep students safe

Del Stover

Should teachers be equipped with bulletproof whiteboards? Is it time to monitor students’ Facebook and Twitter accounts for posts about bullying, bombs, or guns?

Are you prepared for angry parents to file a million-dollar lawsuit because of your so-called “unsafe” schools?

On the issue of school safety, there is always a new threat, a new technology, or a new strategy to take into consideration.

With that in mind, ASBJ decided to examine the latest trends in school safety and chat with security experts—and put together a list of cutting-edge issues worthy of your attention. This isn’t the last word in school safety, but this list should provide fodder for your school board’s next conversation on protecting students and staff.

LITIGATION TARGETS STAFF MISTAKES

Ken Trump, president of National School Safety and Security Services, takes many telephone calls from school officials seeking advice on how to make their schools safer.

Yet, in the past year, he’s received a growing number of calls from attorneys who seek an expert witness in court cases alleging that school personnel failed to keep a child safe.

“I’ve seen a dramatic increase in school security litigation by parents who feel aggrieved because their child is injured or there is some security concern,” he says.

There are no hard and fast numbers to quantify the scope of this trend, but it should come as no surprise that our litigious society has turned its attention to school safety. Indeed, a quick search of the internet reveals dozens of school systems currently targeted by lawsuits seeking damages for incidents of assault, bullying, and wrongful death.

It’s an issue that’s worrisome beyond the potential six- and seven-figure payouts of such litigation, Trump says. “Whether an allegation is unfounded or not, when an issue moves from the schoolhouse to the courthouse … as well as facing the court system, you face the court of public opinion as the issue ends up on social media and in the local media.”

So, how do you deal with this trend? Take note of why parents are suing, Trump advises.

“The one common thread is that the allegations are focused on the failure of school personnel who failed to follow [district] procedures,” Trump says. “It’s not about the failures of security equipment or hardware.”

ESSENTIAL TRAINING

This observation leads to the next burning issue in school safety: training. How your staff is prepared to respond to a threat or incident in school is not just a perennial issue; it remains the premiere issue for district leaders wanting to keep schools safe.

Yet evidence suggests many schools still fall short in providing this essential training. Patrick Fiel, founder of PVF Security Consulting and former chief of security for the Washington, D.C., school system, has observed this problem firsthand.

For example, school personnel have been told repeatedly of the importance of limiting outsider access to schools, he says. Yet, in conducting security audits at schools, “we find that we can still walk through side doors, back doors, cafeteria doors, gym doors”—school entrances that are unlocked, not closed properly, or propped open.

To avoid such security lapses, it’s essential that district leaders insist upon a well-conceived schedule of professional development on school safety practices, with that training reinforced by regular drills and brief refresher courses. These courses can be as simple as a five-minute “what if” role-playing exercise during staff meetings.

District leaders also need to recognize why schools shortchange training: School administrators are overworked, funding and time are in short supply, and there’s a lack of urgency in schools that have had the good fortune to avoid a serious incident. School boards need to make sure these obstacles are overcome.

“School people make up excuses,” Fiel says. “They say their budgets have been cut—or their schools are in good neighborhoods. But one of the things I say when I’m in front of a school board is that they’ve got to make security training a top priority—period.”

SMART TECHNOLOGY CHOICES

Technology plays a pivotal role in school safety. Metal detectors may serve as a deterrent to students bringing a gun to schools, and surveillance cameras can help identify those involved in vandalism, fights, or other incidents.

If school officials are looking for technology to keep schools safe, Fiel suggests they start with one piece of technology that’s decidedly old-school: a good classroom door lock.

The Sandy Hook Advisory Commission, which looked for lessons in the 2012 school shooting that left 26 dead, noted that, in its research, “there has never been an event in which an active shooter breached a locked classroom door.”

But the right lock is needed—one that is easily locked from inside the classroom without a key or, even better, locks automatically when closed. Campus Safety magazine has reported that, after asking teachers to react to a scenario where they hear gunfire, “we often see that it takes the employee between 30 and 40 seconds to find their key and lock the door.”

EAR TO THE GROUND

Security personnel have long understood the value of building relationships with students to monitor gossip about threatened suicides, bullying, or a student threat to bring a gun or bomb to school.

The latest twist on this practice, however, is found in Florida’s Orange County Public Schools, which is using software to monitor student posts on social media.

The district pays $18,000 annually for software that allows officers to scan for social media keywords associated with cyberbullying, suicidal thinking, or criminal activity. The software flags worrisome student posts for officers to examine for a real threat.

Such monitoring is potentially controversial, so school officials took time before the program began to explain their intentions and the scope of monitoring to the community, says Michael Eugene, chief operations officer for the district.

Only a handful of officers are authorized to monitor social media, and only public postings are examined, Eugene says. Private communications are not accessed.

“Not everyone is in favor of school districts monitoring social media,” he says. “So this is an important conversation to have clearly with parents so they understand why it’s important to utilize a tool like this.”

The district’s protocol is to respond immediately to troubling posts, Eugene says. So, it’s not uncommon for school police to visit a student’s home at night to investigate a suspected problem.

“It changes how you think about the day,” he says. “You don’t wait until the next morning to deal with an issue. You hit it first thing, as we don’t want the issue to come back to school.”

UNDERSTANDING THE ROLE OF SROS

You’ve seen newscasts of school-based police throwing students to the floor or handcuffing students so young that the restraints slip off their tiny wrists.

Such incidents have fueled one of the most significant recent trends in school safety: a rethinking of the role of school-based police.

According to the National Association of School Resource Officers (NASRO), the goal of school-based police or school resource officers (SROs) is to ensure school safety—not school discipline.

“Being a SRO is about community-based policing, not about how many kids you can arrest or how many crimes you can solve,” says NASRO Executive Director Mo Canady.

In addition to looking out for potential safety issues, SROs should be getting to know the students they seek to protect, he adds.

“By building relationships, you begin to collect information. It’s not about kids becoming a snitch, but it’s about good relationships where young people get concerned about some issue or something they saw on social media and they come talk to the SRO.”

For district leaders, one of the most important steps they can take is to ensure that SROs are properly trained, understand their role, and have the skills and temperament to interact with young people and de-escalate conflict, Canady says.

While SROs will respond to criminal activity, if asked to intercede in a disciplinary issue, they should know to refuse—and to point out correctly that student misbehavior is not a law enforcement issue, he adds.

“SROs are not there to mete out school discipline. If SROs are writing tickets to students for being late to class, that’s insane.”

WATCH THE FRONT DOOR

When a gunman was unable to open the locked front doors at Sandy Hook Elementary School, he shot his way through a glass panel at the entrance to gain entry.

The incident highlights an issue much on the minds of school safety experts: How do you screen—and contain—arriving visitors before they gain access to school hallways?

We’ve already talked about keeping school doors locked. So, let’s focus on where you want visitors to enter: the main entrance.

The thinking today is that, if possible, this entrance should have a vestibule with two door entrances: one to the school, the other to the front office. Both should be locked. (Some schools are going the extra mile and installing ballistic plastic over glass panels to make them more difficult for a gunman to shoot his way through.)

The entrance also should be equipped with an intercom and camera so school staff can visually verify a visitor’s identity before granting entrance to the school. Some schools opt for a visitor management system to check identification to determine if a visitor is a registered sex offender, has a criminal record, or is otherwise barred from the campus.

Nobody should be permitted inside until screened.

No one wants to turn a school into a fortress, but it’s important that staff and students understand the importance of access control, Trump says. He’s seen instances where visitors hit the intercom at an entrance and are granted entry without being asked to identify themselves—or a student is buzzed in and holds the door for a nearby adult.

Even the most rigorous of security precautions won’t guarantee that a threat can be kept out of a school, but there is evidence that a properly designed front entrance—responsibly monitored by staff—can slow down a gunman and possibly save lives

“We’re not likely to stop a determined individual,” Fiel says. The goal is to buy time for staff to be notified of the threat, the school to go into lockdown, and police to arrive. “We want to delay the individual.”

EVALUATE LIKELY RISKS

Nearly two-thirds of U.S. schools regularly conduct some form of “active shooter” drill to teach students and teachers how to react to an armed intruder.

Unfortunately, far fewer schools prepare for the more common scenario: the appearance of a parent, intoxicated or without custodial rights, who wants to pick up his child and becomes agitated and disruptive when the request is refused.

“The key thing is to understand what your security needs are,” Fiel says. “You must do a risk assessment. That’s the key to starting everything.”

Statistics put the risks in some perspective. For every school-related shooting, there are nearly 10,000 violent assaults, including rape, assault with a knife, sexual assault and violent harassment, beatings, fights, and robberies.

This doesn’t include the millions of students who are bullied each year.

“There’s been a tunnel vision focused on active shooters,” Trump notes. “That’s taken the eye off the ball for more common, day-to-day school security issues. Not enough conversations on school safety are talking about the rape that could happen under the stairwell or the importance of supervision during class changes to prevent violence.”

A risk assessment, conducted in consultation with security professionals, is designed to identify the potential safety risks of a campus, analyze the campus’ vulnerabilities, and point to strategies to improve safety, Fiel says.

What may result are decisions as obvious as expanding the presence of teachers and other adults to monitor hallways, restrooms, and stairwells during class changes, a simple step that can have a greater day-to-day impact on safety than anything else school leaders do.

“Sometimes it’s the simple tools, a focus on the basic safety risks, that work,” Fiel says.

In the end, the lesson for district leaders to learn is that—if school safety is a true priority, not just a nicely worded goal—they can make their schools safer.

“We reduced [school-based] crime while I was in Washington, D.C., and we had something like 200 gangs we dealt with every day,” Fiel says. “If you pay attention to the basics, the fundamentals, and you carry through with them, you’ll have safer schools.”

RESOURCES

To Protect & Educate: The School Resource Officer and the Prevention of Violence in Schools—A report by the National Association of School Resource Officers (NASRO) that examines the appropriate role of school-based policing.

https://nasro.org/cms/wp-content/uploads/2013/11/NASRO-To-Protect-and-Educate-nosecurity.pdf

NASRO Position Statement on Police Involvement in Student Discipline—A brief outline of best practices for school-based policing.

https://nasro.org/news/nasro-updates/nasro-position-statement-police-involvement-student-discipline/

Planning for and Managing the School Crisis You Hope Never Comes—Advice for leaders to respond to school safety issues. Sponsored by the National School Boards Association’s Office of General Counsel and Council of School Attorneys (COSA).

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o4qDyOL5F_I&feature=youtu.be

The Final Report and Findings of the Safe School Initiative: Implications for the Prevention of School Attacks in the United States—This 2004 report was a collaboration of the U.S. Secret Service and U.S. Department of Education, which examined 37 acts of school violence to identify lessons and strategies that policymakers could use to make schools safer.

https://www2.ed.gov/admins/lead/safety/preventingattacksreport.pdf

Indicators of School Crime and Safety: 2016—Survey data of students, teachers, principals, and the general population, collected from various sources by the National Center for Education Statistics and the Bureau of Justice Statistics.

https://nces.ed.gov/pubsearch/pubsinfo.asp?pubid=2017064

Rethinking School Safety: Communities and Schools Working Together—A policy paper of the National Association of School Psychologists that summarizes the importance of meeting students’ mental health needs, the need to respond to the psychological impact of violence, and the importance of engaging families and community in keeping schools safe.


Del Stover (dstover@nsba.org) is senior editor of American School Board Journal.

 

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