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School Health and Safety

It’s Time to Explore Lessons of School Security and Safety, 20 Years After Columbine

As we head back to school this fall, schools are still challenged to effectively safeguard students, faculty, staff, and visitors at our nation’s educational institutions. In the 20 years since the tragic shooting at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado, there have been many other incidents at schools across the United States, including recent shootings at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte and at STEM School Highlands Ranch in Douglas County Colorado.

As a school security professional for more than 30 years, I have responded to many kinds of emergencies and situations. School districts must be prepared to address a full range of situations that pose risks to students and staff. These include everyday occurrences, like weather emergencies, as well as the most serious “active threats,” including active shooter attacks, suicides, and threats of violence made against the schools. So, 20 years after Columbine, what have we learned that can help us better protect our schools?

Starting from the district level

District leadership at the superintendent and board levels must participate in building holistic safety programs. Coordination with executive management at the district level is integral to the successful development and adoption of school safety processes, plans, technologies, and procedures, and for ensuring these measures are updated with consistency with evolving best practices. 

School districts that are well prepared for individual emergencies involving students or staff are more likely to be prepared for complex events like community disasters or active shooter incidents.

Safety from multiple angles

Districts must strike an effective balance between physical security measures and human behavioral prevention approaches. A recent National Police Foundation studymakes it clear that different types of attacks pose different prevention challenges. 

With threats coming from insiders, like current or past students or employees, schools “have the chance to pick up on warning signs and intervene;” but when an attacker has no connection to the school, facility security measures and other efforts become more critical to protection, mitigation, and response. 

School security planning teams should have multiple stakeholders, including security directors, school administrators (across functions like operations, mental health, and HR), local police and fire officials, security integrators or consultants, and IT directors.

A layered security

The security profession has always recognized that a layered approach is essential to addressing a broad range of threats, as each successive layer provides specific components to deter, detect, or delay adversarial behaviors if previous layers are bypassed or breached. 

With a school, for example, there are five physical layers of protection: districtwide, the property perimeter, the parking lot perimeter, the building perimeter, and the classroom/interior perimeter, each with its own security needs and components. 

Radio communications 

Radio communication technology is an essential element of a school’s emergency preparedness needs, as localized radios allow for constant communication on school grounds even more than phones. Unlike traditional two-way radio systems, 800mhz — or “trunked” radio systems — enable communication between a school district and law enforcement and other emergency responders. 

Trunked radio systems are the most reliable communication tool, as cellular networks can become easily overwhelmed during emergencies. Having the ability to communicate and coordinate in the major emergencies in my school district was critical to our response in those situations, and any district that does not have the capability for radio interoperability with law enforcement and fire departments should explore implementing this technology. 

Preparation and training

Equipping and empowering staff and students to make response decisions is the most important factor in mitigating active threats. During an active shooter attack on one of the schools in my district, I saw firsthand that immediate actions by staff and students had a direct limiting effect on the ability of the perpetrator to cause further harm after an initial attack. 

Staff and students should receive age-appropriate training and drills that emphasize survival skills and decision options. Additionally, responders should be trained and ready to work through the shock and pressure of an active threat situation; staff should be trained to provide, or direct people to the appropriate programs and interventions that can provide, support following an incident.

Nip in the bud

School districts should leverage available tools and technology to empower students and community members to anonymously report potential threats and other concerns. Students often know long before adults do what is occurring in their schools and communities (fighting, bullying, concerning behaviors, threats, etc.), and use of communications tools for making anonymous reports has proven successful in preventing potential violence. Tip reporting processes should provide community members with a simple, safe way to report information about any issues that concern their or others’ safety.

Schools should leverage security and safety standards

The Partner Alliance for Safer SchoolsSafety and Security Guidelines for K – 12 schools is the most comprehensive report available on best practices for securing school facilities. The guidelines were developed to provide administrators with a means to effectively evaluate existing security infrastructure, prioritize investments, and maximize security by leveraging available resources. 

The fourth edition— issued in December 2018 — has been greatly expanded to address the growing range of complex security challenges facing today’s K – 12 schools. It provides a resource for school officials and solutions providers to help achieve and deploy the most appropriate and cost-effective security solutions.

A critical legislative priority

To foster a safe learning environment for every student, it’s important for policymakers to increase federal assistance to schools struggling with the cost of meeting security needs, promote adoption of successful state school security assistance programs and initiatives, and promote nationwide use of best practices for school security. Funding should be dedicated to all areas of protecting schools, including physical security improvements, behavioral support, training, and more.

So, as we return to school, let’s keep security and safety at the forefront of conversations at dinner tables, in administrator conferences, and at school board meetings. For more detailed guidance on protecting your school, district and community, see the full PASS Guidelines.

Guy M. Grace, Jr., Chairman, Partner Alliance for Safer Schools; Director of Security and Emergency Planning, Littleton Public Schools, [email protected]

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