School security often involves response tools, from mass notification to surveillance to reporting. However, experts note that trends are moving away from technology as a single solution to prevention-based programs centered around information sharing, all-hazards training, and public-private partnerships.
Preventing a tragedy often starts with getting critical information into the right hands.
Take the case of two teens in Spotsylvania County, Virginia, who were arrested and charged with conspiracy to commit murder in October 2015. The two had plans to phone in a bomb threat to their school, then shoot people as they evacuated, CNN reported. A school resource officer discovered that one of the boys had threatened violence on the Internet, and the resulting investigation uncovered the plot.
In December 2015, an anonymous tip was sent to a Denver school district’s “Text-a-Tip” threat reporting hotline. Based on that information, two 16-year-old girls were found with plans to commit a mass killing at Mountain Vista High School. They were arrested and charged with conspiracy to commit first-degree murder, reported Reuters.
These stories, and many like them, have a common thread throughout: critical information was reported and acted upon in a timely manner, stopping any plans to commit harm. While some security experts do not like to classify tragedies as preventable, they say there are key threat indicators that pointed to the mass shootings and other attacks before they occurred. If communities, schools, and law enforcement work together to identify and connect these dots, future threats could be stopped.
Security Management speaks to experts about their experience conducting threat assessments in schools and communities.
Connecting the Dots
After the December 2012 Sandy Hook shooting that killed 20 elementary-age children and six educators, Connecticut Governor Dannel Malloy created a 16-member panel to review policies pertaining to school safety, gun-violence prevention, and mental health. The panel recommended in a 277-page report that all schools create safety committees that include police, first responders, administrators, and custodians. The report also urged each school to take an “all-hazards” approach to safety and security training for faculty, staff, and students.
Furthermore, the panel recommended that schools form threat assessment teams that “gather information from multiple sources in response to indications that a student, colleague, or other person’s behavior has raised alarms.” The report cites the U.S. Secret Service’s behavioral threat assessment model, which has been adopted for educational institutions, the workplace, and military settings.
“Once a team has identified someone who appears to be on a pathway to violence, the team ideally becomes a resource connecting the troubled child, adolescent, or adult to the help they need to address their underlying problems,” states the report, which goes on to say that such multidisciplinary teams can conduct risk assessments when questionable behaviors arise. “These would not only identify students at risk for committing violence, but also serve as a resource for children and families facing multiple stressors.”
As outlined in the Sandy Hook report, it is critical for organizations, schools, and communities to take an all-hazards approach to assessing and preparing for threats. If there is a dedicated platform or channel where they know they can report pertinent information, those dots can be connected in a meaningful way to prevent tragedy.
Two security experts share best practices with Security Management based on their experiences with threat assessments. These programs were bolstered by building partnerships with law enforcement and the community.
Working with stakeholders. Sometimes a threat assessment reveals an obvious problem that needs fixing, while other issues are uncovered only by working and communicating with stakeholders. Such was the case for school security professional Gary Sigrist, Jr., CEO and president at Safeguard Risk Solutions.
He tells Security Management that when he first started working at the South-Western City School district in Ohio, there were some obvious changes that needed to be made. “We had building principals who told their staff members they weren’t allowed to call 911 [in an emergency], that they have to call the office first,” he says. “We changed that.”
There was one building principal who told the cafeteria cooks that if there was a fire in the kitchen, not to pull the fire alarm until they had notified him first. “I brought the fire marshal in, and we had a conversation about that,” he notes.
Sigrist explains that working with law enforcement isn’t always a seamless process; sometimes schools and police in his district differed on their vision for a safe and secure environment.
“It’s not that the police were wrong, it’s just that some of their goals and objectives didn’t sync with the goals and objectives of the school,” according to Sigrist. But establishing regular meetings with law enforcement and other first responders was key to successful collaboration. “The police would say, ‘we think you should do this,’ and the school could say, ‘that’s not a bad idea, but let’s look at it from the point of view of the school,’” he notes. “Fire drills became better because we involved the fire department in the planning of our drills, where our command posts would be, and how we were going to check students in.”
He adds that first responder collaboration should go beyond just police and fire; schools rely on medical professionals when faced with health epidemics, for example. “When the Avian Flu and H1N1 sprang into effect, we worked with our county and state boards of health, and were able to develop a pandemic plan,” he says. “We had those subject matter experts.”
Over the course of his career at SouthWestern City Schools, Sigrist twice helped secure the Readiness and Emergency Management for Schools (REMS) Grant, in 2008 and 2010, from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. These funds helped him establish many safety programs around the district. “Those are things people say, ‘wow, you must be a wonderful person to be able to get all of this done’–no, we had grant money,” he says. “It’s amazing what you can do with half a million dollars in grant money, and also the right support from the superintendents.”
No matter how prepared a school is for an emergency, those plans are truly put to the test when disaster strikes. Such was the case for South-Western City Schools when an explosion occurred at an elementary school.
“We had a building in a rural area, and the water table shifted, causing methane gas to build up in the basement. When it built up to a certain level with the right oxygen mix, there was an explosion,” Sigrist says. A custodian was injured, but everyone was able to evacuate the building safely as they had in many drills before.
The staff had been trained on how to function as a crisis team that was three members deep. Because the principal was not present at the time of the explosion, the building secretary assumed the role of incident commander, safely evacuating everyone from the building. “And it’s just evacuation training,” he says. “We never trained her on what to do when a building blew up.”
There were some key takeaways from the event that the district saw as areas of improvement. “Did we have lessons learned? Yes,” says Sigrist. “This happened almost right at dismissal, and we had school buses parked right in front of the building. Well–they didn’t move.”
These buses prevented fire trucks and other emergency vehicles from pulling right up to the scene. “And so one of our lessons learned is, if you have an incident, how are the buses going to pull out of the parking lot so the fire equipment can get in?”
Hometown security. Schools are a major focal point of the community, but they are not the only one. Societies are also made up of private businesses whose security is paramount to the overall environment of safety. Marianna Perry, CPP, a security consultant with Loss Prevention and Safety Management, LLC, explains that because about 85 percent of critical infrastructure in the United States is privately owned, “it makes sense that these businesses and communities partner with law enforcement to address problems.”
Perry has more than 20 years of experience in conducting threat assessments for private businesses, as well as communities, including school districts. She recounts examples of how these reviews helped strengthen those localities, businesses, and law enforcement alike.
While Perry was the director of the National Crime Prevention Institute, there was a particular community with high crime rates, homelessness, and drug problems, as well as health-related issues. “There were abandoned properties, rental properties in disrepair, homes that had been foreclosed,” she says. “We were looking for a solution to help fix this community.”
Perry helped form a team of key stakeholders and partners, including law enforcement, a local university, security consultants, area churches, and the local health department. The public housing authority was also a major partner, as well as some local residents and business representatives. Initially, everyone came together for a week-long training program. The goal was to involve all partners in helping to develop strategies to improve the overall condition of the neighborhood, which in turn would help prevent crime. She says that much of the training was centered on crime prevention through environmental design (CPTED), which predicates that the immediate environment can be designed in such a way that it deters criminal activity.
She adds that the training wasn’t just focused only on preventing crime, but on several aspects of the community. “The goal was to improve the overall quality of life for everyone who lived or worked in that neighborhood,” says Perry.
The training also helped the partners learn to speak a common language. “We had all of these different people from different professional backgrounds and business cultures, and we needed them all on the same page,” she says. “They needed to be able to communicate with each other.”
A critical outcome of the training program, she says, was facilitating interaction among stakeholders, as well as developing and building trust. “It was a really successful partnership, and a lot of good was done for that community because everyone worked together to achieve common goals.”
Businesses also benefit from such assessments. Perry recently conducted a security assessment for one organization that was located in an area with one of the highest violent crime rates in the city. “Management was very concerned about the safety of their employees,” she notes.
During the assessment, Perry recommended that the company install additional cameras on the perimeter of their property for added surveillance and employee safety. The company could also share camera footage with law enforcement by tying their camera system into the citywide surveillance program. Perry worked with a local vendor to install IP cameras to cover a 10-block area. A control center operator would then monitor the cameras, and if he or she saw suspicious activity, either a security officer would be dispatched to respond, or 911 would be called. “I think people are now embracing the concept of public-private partnerships because they’re beginning to realize that they work,” Perry says.
Training. Preventing and detecting threats, while challenging, is possible when stakeholders share critical information. Having a centralized place for reporting such information is key, as well as training students, employees, and the community on how to use those platforms.
However, if the threat remains undetected or cannot be stopped, organizations should conduct all-hazards training that covers a range of possible scenarios to ensure minimal damage and loss of life, says Kenneth Trump, president of National School Safety and Security Services.
“Active shooter is one concern, certainly, but it’s just that–one concern,” he says. “There’s a much greater likelihood that school employers are going to deal with a noncustodial parent issue multiple times during a school year than that they will ever deal—during their entire career working in the school—with an active shooter incident.”
Sigrist adds that having a laser-like focus on active shooter training can be a drawback for schools, because they lose sight of issues that have a greater likelihood of occurring.
“I asked one of my clients at a Head Start school how many times they have had a drunk parent show up to pick up a child, and they said, ‘it happens all the time,’” he says. “We still teach active shooter, but by teaching how to respond in an all-hazards approach, they will know how to take action.”