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School Safety Site Assessment: How Good is Good Enough?

No greater challenge exists for educators than to create a safe learning environment for students and staff. Without safe schools, teachers cannot teach and students cannot learn.  

Creating tranquil and safe places of learning requires a major strategic commitment. It involves placing school safety at the top of the educational agenda and implementing appropriate school safety site vulnerability guidelines. This responsibility does not end with educators. Parents, students and the community must be involved as well in finding the right balance between keeping schools safe and turning them into an armed camp.  

Safe but not too safe

Indeed, campuses can be made safer and the target can be hardened, but at what cost to the school climate? How far do you go without going too far?  How good is good enough? And are your proposed strategies supported by a compelling cause that will make a positive difference?

A happy medium

Armed with proper knowledge and preparation, it is possible to substantially reduce or prevent the potential of school violence by promoting a safe school climate. A school safety vulnerability assessment should be at the heart of your safe school plan. A vulnerability assessment is a strategic evaluation and planning tool used to determine the extent of a school safety problem. It includes a review of access control, crime prevention through environmental design, crisis and emergency plans, the supervision plan, mutual aid agreements, and threat assessment protocols among other critical issues.  

The site assessment may also address how a specific issue may affect school climate, school attendance, personal safety, and overall school security. The site assessment should include input from students, parents, law enforcers, mental health, business and community leaders, and other youth-serving professionals as an inclusive and cooperative activity. The assessment should be customized based upon the unique needs of the local community.

It is impossible to ensure that no student crime will ever happen. Many of the emerging school shooters have studied previous school shootings. They are looking for ways to make the crisis more lethal, more dramatic, and to garner greater public attention. The question is: What can schools and communities reasonably do to prevent and minimize a tragic incident. From a litigation standpoint, school officials do not have to be perfect, but they should attempt to do everything they can knowing they can’t do everything. Here are a few key strategies to consider:

  • Review your school safety plan: Every school administrator should review their safe school and crisis management plan in terms of prevention, preparation, management, and response. Look for potential weaknesses, risks, and threats. Make certain your plan is “up to date” and that individuals are assigned to various roles and responsibilities. These assignments should be coordinated with local law enforcement and clear protocols established that identify the incident command structure that will be used in a crisis. 
  • Minimize access control: Look at access control for both pedestrian and vehicular traffic. Take steps to minimize the school’s entrance and exit points. Schools that are 25 to 50 years old were designed to have multiple entrance and exit points with minimal street setbacks. You can’t be expected to totally rebuild and redesign your schools immediately, but you can begin to take appropriate steps in renovations and new school construction. 
  • Screen all visitors: Access control to the school should include robust visitor screening protocols.  This includes closely supervising and processing all campus visitors and guests. Do not allow guests to “self-process” and issue their own passes. This is risky and inappropriate. Many districts now require photo identification and also have an immediate online link with local law enforcement to make certain they are not allowing a convicted felon or pedophile on campus.
  • Create and enhance “threat assessment protocols:”Each school site should have its own threat assessment team to evaluate rumors, threats, and special situations that may pose harm or risk to others. As a minimum the team should consist of a school administrator, a mental health professional, and a law enforcement representative, including someone who has technological expertise with social media. Team members should be specifically trained in evaluating rumors or threats.  The team should be readily accessible, knowledgeable about policies and procedures, and be empowered to make decisions. Three primary questions drive the tasks of the assessment team: Is the violence imminent? How credible and serious is the threat? And, to what extent does the threatener appear to have the resources, intent and motivation to carry out the threat? Ultimately, the answers to these questions generate the ability to rate the threat level and identify a course of action and a timeline for response.  
  • Enhance formal supervision:Review the formal supervision plan for students for those periods of time before school, during school, and at after-school activities. Identify areas of the school that need special supervision, such as entrance and exit points, cafeterias, recess and recreation areas, student drop-off and pick up areas, and the like. Assign designated staff members to these areas. Establish general supervision areas for school administrators and other personnel.
  • Conduct a talent inventory of all staff: Find out who has emergency medical training, paramedic training, search and rescue, military, law enforcement, counseling, and the like. Oftentimes, school officials live beneath their privileges because they may not know the skills that their staff can bring in the event of a crisis. 
  • Provide staff training for every teacher and staff member: In some states, like California, all employees have been designated by state law as and crisis responder.  Under this scenario there is and compelling common sense argument to prepare and train each staff member.
  • Have multiple back-up options: When the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center took place, nine schools were within Ground Zero. The emergency plan for one elementary school called for evacuating to the next nearest school, which also was within Ground Zero. The second back-up plan also called for an evacuation to another school within Ground Zero.  The principal had the good judgment to abandon her entire evacuation plan and march her children toward the Brooklyn Bridge where she identified a new “parent reunification” site — a brilliant move. This situation suggests crisis plans should have multiple back-up options and provide the school administrator with an elasticity clause for response.  Staff should be cross trained so that, if one or more is not available in a crisis, others can step in and respond.
  • Enhance natural supervision:View crime prevention through environmental design. A significant focus should be placed on “natural supervision” — a design feature that emphasizes and encourages clear sight lines with minimal architectural barriers. Visual barriers may look impressive from a structural standpoint, yet they often create impediments to good supervision.
  • Create or update your mutual aid agreement:Contact your local law enforcement, paramedics, firefighter team, county and state emergency operations officials.  Invite them to come to your school and explain the procedures they will employ in and crisis.  Ask them to train your staff as to how they can best respond and support the crisis response effort.  This practice is developing as a reasonable standard of care.  
  • Develop a viable and user-friendly parent notification system: A viable staff and parent notification system is critical in a crisis.  Having the campus flooded with parents when the crisis is in full response mode is not a good option.  Systems should be in place that protect the crime scene as well as the students.  Having such strategies in place can help prevent further successive crises.  
  • Develop robust crisis response and safety plans that focus on self-reliance:A strong case can be made for schools to develop robust crisis response plans that are well thought through and user friendly.  Crisis plans should be not too long or formal.  Keep them simple and straight-forward and provide the administrator with reasonable flexibility.  Make certain the school nurse, local hospital and district transportation coordinators are part of your planning.  Have emergency supplies and support systems in place on each campus.  
  • Adopt an “all-hazards approach” to crisis planning:Having regular crisis drill training is important where various crisis options are practiced.  The all-hazards drill and practice training should include both natural and man-made disasters that address everything from weather emergencies to chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear disasters.  

Balancing Conflicting Concerns

A continuing concern among many schools across the U.S centers on finding an appropriate balance between creating safe schools while avoiding the appearance of an armed camp. The ultimate factors in its resolution must focus on school safety needs, professional discretion and community will.  

These strategies should be carefully considered for each school.  If a strategy is warranted, adopt it. If the strategy is not warranted, do not adopt it. Often, school safety strategies are implemented merely because other schools have done similar things.  Education is a federal concern, a state function and a local responsibility.  Local school districts have the “lions share” of discretion and flexibility.

Despite all of the high tech strategies that may be considered to make schools safe, the research shows that the single most effective strategy for making schools safe is the physical presence of a responsible adult in the immediate vicinity. This means that for those school campuses where there may be a reluctance to install additional fencing or controls, extra efforts should be considered for enhancing formal supervision of the campus.  Formal supervision may include more campus supervisors, school resource officers or a cadre of parent volunteers who have been appropriately screened and trained to supervise young people. 

Creating safe schools strikes at the heart of the democratic governing process and the ultimate decisions should reflect the resolve and will of the local school system. School districts are not insurers of school safety nor can they insure that school crime will not happen.  Only an insurance company can insure against such a loss.  

The insurance carrier cannot prevent the crime either when there are determined perpetrators.  The insurance carrier can only compensate victims for its effects.  In 2017, Lloyds of London began to underwrite insurance policies that provide for compensation to school districts and victims for personal injury or loss as a result of a school shooting.  School officials have never been required to deter or stop all crime but they have been held accountable by the courts for failing to take “reasonable steps” to prevent injury, loss or death.  

Each school community must develop a crisis plan and safe school plan that is adapted to their unique needs.  The crisis plan and quick reference guide that is ultimately created should be a living document that is regularly reviewed and revised to meet your changing needs.  Drill and practice is particularly important.  Invite your local police department, fire, paramedics and other first responders to work with you in the crisis prevention, crisis preparation, crisis management and crisis recovery process.  They should be a key part of your drill and practice activities.  

School crisis response plans must be more than words on paper that memorialize a planning process.  They must become a set of viable response options that are internalized through training and testing.  Most experts believe that it is the “process” of developing, refining and practicing the plan and not the written plan itself that prepares schools and communities to respond to a crisis.  By applying these strategies, schools and communities can be made safer for all of America’s children.

Ronald D. Stephens, Executive Director, National School Safety Center, [email protected]

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