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An action plan for school safety

The most important thing law enforcement can teach the public is that school safety requires a layered defense

It’s disappointing that it took another school shooting for the greater public and our government representatives to get fully engaged in a dialogue about school safety, but there finally seems to be some critical mass behind reform, and that could be the most positive outcome from a horrible situation.

Unfortunately, some of the loudest voices in the room are those least qualified or suited to lead the discussion. Some are focused on political goals like reelection, or placing greater restrictions on gun ownership, some are straying beyond their expertise, and there’s some who are just too emotionally wrought to clearly add to the conversation.

This is a time when law enforcement professionals need to step up to the plate and be a guiding influence. We need to show leadership on an issue where we clearly have something important to contribute.

An early morning fog rises where 17 memorial crosses were placed, for the 17 deceased students and faculty from the Wednesday shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, in Parkland, Fla., Saturday, Feb. 17, 2018. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)
An early morning fog rises where 17 memorial crosses were placed, for the 17 deceased students and faculty from the Wednesday shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, in Parkland, Fla., Saturday, Feb. 17, 2018. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)

Stay in our lane

School safety is not a law enforcement problem, at its core. We are definitely part of the solution, but not the total solution.  As such, it is critical for law enforcement to approach the task of improving school security with a collaborative mindset.

Before we offer our assistance, we need to understand the limits of our expertise. As law enforcement officers, we have unique training and experience that qualify us to contribute to the solution, but there are many facets to this problem, and there’s room for a lot of hands to work on it.

For example, any serious discussion of school safety must incorporate the larger issue of mental health reform. As law enforcement officers, you know firsthand about the breakdown in mental health services in America, because you inherited the primary responsibility for dealing with the mentally ill after we deinstitutionalized the mental health system in the 1970s. However, our training and expertise don’t lie directly in this area, so we need to ensure that the trained professionals in this field are part of the team creating the solution.

Implementing a layered defense to school security

The area we can contribute the most is in the area of physical security, tactics and training. To that end, the most important thing we can teach the public is that school safety requires a layered defense. 

There’s no single magic bullet that will make a school safe from attack. Any proper school defense plan requires multiple layers of defenses and redundancies to ensure a failure in one area doesn’t doom the entire effort.

To that end, the task list for creating a solid school security plan must include a rigorous treatment of the following areas:

1. Create a robust safety culture 

Administrators, teachers and students must be trained to be mindful of safety and security at all times. For example, students and staff should be trained to actively look for unauthorized visitors, unsecured doors, strange activities, or signs of emotional or mental crisis in their fellow students and coworkers. There should be clearly established reporting mechanisms for the above, and particular attention paid to protocols for reporting concerns about emotional and mental well-being, ensuring that they comply with the law, but also don’t discourage participation.

Administrators must establish a culture in which staff and students feel free to share information about personal issues that might boil over into a security issue at school, such as threats to an individual, or an unhealthy and degenerating family situation;

2. Increase tactical options for teachers

Many American schools suffer from a limited menu of tactics for dealing with threats. The default position for the majority of schools is to lockdown at the first sign of violent attack, with no other alternative to consider. Using lockdown tactics may be appropriate for a given scenario, but in other circumstances it may increase the danger to staff and students. 

Schools should expand their options to include an evacuation option in response to violent attack or other emergencies, because in many circumstances, the best response is to move potential victims away from the threat.  It may be appropriate to use lockdown and evacuation tactics simultaneously, with those closest to the threat running lockdown procedures, while those farthest from the threat evacuate. 

Law enforcement officers must understand that while fleeing from a threat may seem like an obvious solution to people in our profession, it runs counter to the culture school administrators and teachers are raised in. School professionals work in a culture that demands strict accountability of the students, and requires them to keep their charges within the perimeter of the school grounds to ensure their control and safety.  Therefore, asking teachers to consider an evacuation option runs counter to their training, experience and sense of liability. Law enforcement officers can use their experience and training to help these school professionals understand that the tactical requirements of a crisis like an active shooter event may require them to take actions that conflict with ordinary school protocols.

3. Improve teacher and student training

Faculty and students need better training in emergency response. Emergency drills must be executed with greater fidelity and realism for them to be useful, and they must also be discussed and practiced with greater frequency. Staff and students must be trained to adapt to circumstances, and not be preconditioned to blindly execute established plans. Consider the following to improve training:

  • If preplanned escape paths become unusable due to fire or the presence of an attacker, are students and staff practiced in switching to alternate routes? 
  • If preplanned rendezvous or rally points become unusable due to fire, an attacker, or the threat of an improvised explosive device, are students and staff trained to stand up alternate locations if a primary becomes unsuitable?
  • Are students and staff trained to evacuate from locations on campus other than the classroom as a starting point?
  • Do students and staff know how to effectively barricade? 
  • Do students and staff know what constitutes effective cover in their environment?

4. Improve emergency communication

What notification tools are used to transmit warnings or communicate vital information about threats in the school? A public address system is an important part of a communication plan, but cannot be the only tool. Social media, geographic area text alerts, and other methods must be part of a comprehensive emergency communication plan. Parents must also be part of the communication loop.

5. Stop bleeding with better training and equipment 

Staff and students must receive better training in the basics of hemorrhage control and casualty care, and every classroom, office area and multipurpose room should be stocked with appropriate first aid supplies to deal with a mass casualty incident.

6. Enhance law enforcement coverage on campus

Every school should have a trained law enforcement presence on site when students are present, including during after-school events. School resource officers are an invaluable asset in handling day-to-day behavior issues, medical emergencies, or other routine problems in a school. They also help to establish a good relationship between students and the law enforcement community as a whole. 

However, their presence becomes critically important during an active shooter event. Having a school resource officer on duty will help to shorten the response time for law enforcement in an event where time equals lives lost.

7. Arm teachers and staff with firearms

A school resource officer is an important layer of defense, but cannot be the only layer of armed defense in a school. We must allow vetted administrators and teachers to volunteer for training that will certify them to be armed in school, so they can protect themselves and the children in their charge. Consider that a school resource officer:

  • May have a delayed response if unaware an attack has been launched;
  • May have a delayed response if out of position and required to respond from a far corner of the school;
  • May not be able to catch up to a highly-mobile attacker if slowed by a panicked crowd;
  • May be overwhelmed by a team of attackers and require assistance;
  • May be the first target of a tactically astute attacker, and eliminated from the beginning, leaving the campus without an armed defense.

For these reasons and more, we cannot rely on a school resource officer to carry the full responsibility of neutralizing an attacker. We cannot, in a layered defense model, put all of our faith in a single point of failure. 

Armed and trained personnel will not replace a school resource officer or other first responders. They will merely complement these other resources and provide a means for an instantaneous response. 

Our administrators and teachers will always be at ground zero during an attack. They will always be present during the opening moments. We need to provide them the means to defend our children for that perilous interval between the time the attack is launched and law enforcement stops the killing. 

Current research indicates an average police response time in excess of 5 minutes and this clock only starts after the report is first received, so the attack has probably been ongoing for a period of time before this. We cannot expect our students and our school staffs to wait in excess of 5 minutes, while people are being killed, for law enforcement to show up and handle the situation. 

Research also indicates that only 25-30 percent of active shooter events are resolved by law enforcement.  In the other events, the shooter has either been subdued by citizens, or has surrendered, fled or committed suicide. We cannot put all of our faith in a solution that has a proven track record of failing to solve the problem three-quarters of the time.

The time has come for law enforcement to advocate for, and participate in, the training of selected volunteers to carry firearms at school. If we’re serious about wanting to save lives, then we can no longer hide from this option. We need to give the potential victims the tools and training necessary to defend themselves while they are waiting for the police to arrive.

In conclusion

We have a lot of work ahead of us if we’re going to improve school safety in America, but we have the knowledge, training, experience, communication skills, mindset and leadership skills necessary to guide our communities to a thoughtful solution.

We owe it our communities to take an active role in this process. Our duty is to serve and protect, and the best way we can do that is to prepare in advance for known threats, and empower our fellow citizens to protect themselves while they’re waiting for assistance to arrive.

Let’s get to work.

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