How police agencies and schools can make campuses safer

Here are some of the programs schools have implemented and law enforcement's role within them


With the third anniversary of the Sandy Hook Elementary massacre upon us, it’s important to consider what steps schools have taken – and should take – to help keep their students safer. Here are some of the programs schools have implemented and what law enforcement's role within them should be.

Armed Security
Well before the Umpqua Community College (UCC) shooting in Roseburg (Ore.), one of the biggest debates on campus was whether the school should have armed security officers. Since the school had only one unarmed security officer on duty at the time of this incident, we know what the outcome of that discussion was.

Will an armed school security staff keep schoolchildren safe? A private school in California thought so and contracted with a local executive protection firm to bring plainclothes armed guards onto their campus. Unfortunately, they neglected to notify local law enforcement, which found out by accident. If there had been an incident, it might not have ended well if law enforcement thought that the security officers were a threat.

It’s vital that school staff and law enforcement have a common response and crisis management plan. Collaboration and communication are key to avoiding hiccups such as the one mentioned above.

LE Fire Marshals
From Sandy Hook until now, most school shooters have been students and therefore know the building layout, students, and staff. This gives them a tactical advantage over responding officers that must be reduced or eliminated.

In a previous article, I discussed creating the equivalent of a fire marshal for law enforcement. Just like a fire marshal walks every commercial building in his or her district to evaluate the risks and make recommendations, the LE equivalent should be doing the same.

Fire marshals have books of rules, lists of  building exits, know what kind of automatic extinguishing systems are required and where fire extinguishers should be placed in each building, and so on. Firemen also practice constantly with the most realistic live fire scenarios possible.

You can clear a building and address the threat much more quickly if:

  • You know the layout of the building and any lurking dangers
  • You can get through locked doors without having to breach them
  • You have photos of school staff and know if they are armed
  • You can communicate with school staff while you are on the move
  • You can make contact with the perpetrator if you have a hostage situation

Pre-planning with local school staff can help you understand not only the possible situations you might face, but also how to work with them when seconds count.

Go Bags
Part of the planning process should be building one or more crisis go bags. Like your own bug-out bag, it should contain the items that you will need in a threat situation at a specific school and should be kept at that school where you can get to it quickly when needed. The bag should be a backpack so that it can be grabbed and carried on the run, leaving your hands free for other things.

In 2000, the California Attorney General’s Crime and Violence Prevention Center and the California Department of Education’s Safe Schools and Violence Prevention Office published their go bag guidelines for school administrators, but didn’t include recommendations for law enforcement. Here are the items that should be included in a go bag for responding cops:

  • Laminated aerial photos and maps of the school in multiple sizes (a large map for the incident commander and smaller maps for officers on the move). The smaller maps can be accordion-folded if necessary, but they must be able to fit into pockets so that officers can keep their hands free. These maps should be clearly marked to show:
    • The location of shut offs for gas, water, electricity, telephone, alarm, sprinkler, and cable TV systems along with the instructions to disable them. Responders may need to access or shut down communications, especially in a hostage situation.
    • Hazardous areas such as chemistry labs and locations where pesticides, paints, bottled gasses and other toxic chemicals are stored or used. It will not end well if someone turns on a flashlight or takes a shot in a chem lab if the gas has been turned on.
  • Painter’s “blue” tape that can be used for marking.
  • Permanent markers in wide and fine point sizes (like Sharpies) that can be used to write on the maps or anything else. Don’t worry about erasing markings that you make on the map so that you can re-use them. The maps should be used in the hot wash and archived.
  • If the school has a CCTV system, a list of camera locations.
  • Photos of key staff and school security guards.
  • Emergency point of contact lists including school staff who will be working with your staff as part of the Incident Command System.
    • Recommend that key school staff have a unique, easy-to-identify marking on their badges so that your staff can identify them by sight. The school does issue ID badges to staff, right? If not, that is another recommendation.
  • A phone book listing classrooms, break rooms, offices, the loading dock, and other places where people may gather. Both internal and external numbers should be included.
  • An HT on the school’s radio system if they have one. Batteries should be separate and if they are rechargeable should be in a charger close to the bag.
  • Master physical keys and card keys that will open every door in the building. If the master keys don’t open everything, then keys should be color-coded to the locks they fit so an officer doesn’t need to fumble through the keys when seconds count. There should be multiple sets on a brightly colored lanyard.
  • Knowing the locations where utilities enter the premises can be very important in a fire or hazmat incident. This should include both above and underground utilities.

At Columbine, the sprinklers were triggered and no one knew how to turn them off. Hallways quickly filled with water, making it difficult to escape. In some places, water got dangerously close to electrical equipment. The emergency responder might be the only person who can safely gain access to the shut off point.

Further Collaboration
There is a lot more that LE and school staff can do together well before an incident. Remember, no matter what steps are ultimately taken, collaboration and communication between the school and the local police department is key:

  • See if schools in your jurisdiction will allow you to use them for law enforcement and hazmat training.
  • Make it easy for an officer standing in a hallway to determine which way they should orient the map of the school by coloring or striping the walls and echoing those on the map. This also makes it easy for LE to communicate their position should they need backup.
  • Number all building doors, including entry doors. It’s much easier to call out a number than describe where a door is located. Ensure that numbers are visible whether the doors are open or closed.
  • Outline classroom and office walls by painting lines on the roof of the building. Doing this might assist if you need to insert video or listening devices from above.

And if the worst happens, you should already know where these would be located:

  • Internal command post
  • Staging area for law enforcement and other first responders
  • Media staging area well away from the above staging area that can accommodate a large number of vehicles
  • Family Center away from any other staging areas where family members can stay informed and pick up their loved ones. You really don’t want family and media to be in the same place at the same time.

Please add your own recommendations in the comments. Stay safe everyone!

About the author

Ron LaPedis has been a business continuity and security professional for over 25 years and founded Seacliff Partners International, LLC in 2009. Seacliff melds technical expertise and business sense to consult on business continuity, cybersecurity, physical security, and public safety topics.

Ron is an NRA Life Patron member, NRA-certified Range Safety Officer (RSO) and pistol instructor, member of the International Law Enforcement Educators and Trainers Association (ILEETA) and is licensed to carry in the state of California and dozens of other states. He is a Master Business Continuity Professional, an Associate Fellow of the Business Continuity Institute, a Fellow of the Ponemon Institute, and a Certified Information Systems Security Professional.

Contact Ron LaPedis

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