Beware the Snake Oil Sellers

School administrators are constantly seeking ways to improve school safety. There are some exceptionally skilled consultants who are willing and eager to assist in creating safer schools. Unfortunately, there are also many unscrupulous individuals who are exploiting the concerns of educators for personal gain. And often, these individuals do more harm than good.

There have been a number of sad situations where school districts used their limited funds to hire an“expert,” only to find that the necessary school services were lacking. In one instance, a school district paid a consultant more than $100,000 to develop crisis plans that turned out to be nothing more than a generic plan with the name of each school inserted. Fortunately, the district was later able to develop a viable plan by working with local emergency management and public safety personnel.

In another case, an“expert,” who only recently began working in the school safety field, told school officials at a training session (at $250 each) that they should never call in law enforcement officials when a student makes a threat — even when the threat involves a mass weapons assault and it is believed that the student is serious. Given the number of such assaults that have been successfully prevented through school/police cooperation, this advice is disturbing. Another consultant offers training for teachers to show them how to disarm individuals armed with handguns, shotguns and rifles — an incredibly reckless concept at best.

It is a sad fact that some in our society are focused on increasing their personal wealth with little real concern for improving safety in our schools. How do we determine which services will help to create the safe school environment that we all desire? While there are no easy answers to this question, there are some guidelines that may improve our odds of success. Following are some “red flags” that should cause skepticism.

Money is the main object. If a consultant is continually trying to sell you their services and seems more focused on billable hours than on your needs, beware. Sharp school safety consultants have more work than they can handle.

You hear what you want to hear instead of what you need to hear. Be alert for the “yes man” who is more interested in stroking your ego than in helping you.

Consultants who are new to the field. Consultants who have begun working in the area of school safety during the past several years have been popping up like dandelions, now that the demand for services has exploded. Many of these individuals are extremely limited in the quality and scope of services they provide. Consider whether the person’s background has prepared him or her to properly advise you in this complex area.

I did it wrong, but can tell you how to do it right. The consultant’s main credentials involve one or more experiences where he or she failed to provide a safe school environment. These individuals can offer valuable insight into what it is like to go through a crisis, but are rarely a good source of information on preventing and responding to school crises.

No experience. The consultant does not have practical experience that has proven to be effective in real-life situations, or has no solid base of research experience.

Copycat. The consultant relies heavily on the experiences of others and simply regurgitates their concepts. This type of individual can rarely provide the depth of information needed to deliver high-quality services. Unqualified consultants frequently use the materials of others without crediting them and, more importantly, without understanding the information that they are providing. If you observe this trait, RUN!

Imposters. The consultant does not have specific credentials or is reluctant to provide reasonable documentation of credentials. Beware of vague language such as: “Mr. Jones studied psychology,” instead of “Dr. Jones completed his Ph.D. in Psychology at Columbia in 1982, and is licensed as a psychologist by the state of Virginia.” One consultant has falsely alluded to being a former assistant district attorney and has conducted mental health debriefings of school staff after a crisis without being licensed to do so. Relying on this type of individual could result in significant civil liability.

Before hiring a consultant, be sure to check with local, state and federal government and private not-for-profit agencies to see if comparable services are available at no cost. There is a wide array of free services available to schools.

School violence can be reduced dramatically with professional guidance. By doing some careful research, checking available free resources and checking references, you can receive valuable assistance. A good school safety consultant is more than worth the investment. Unfortunately, school districts must use caution in seeking expert advice to avoid being victimized.

Michael S. Dorn is the School Safety Specialist for the Office of the Governor — Georgia Emergency Management Agency. He is one of the nation’s top school safety experts. His next book, School/Law Enforcement Partnerships: A Guide to Police Work in Schools, is due for publication this summer.

About the Author

Michael Dorn serves as the executive director for Safe Havens International, Inc., an IRS-approved, nonprofit safety center. He has authored and co-authored more than 20 books on campus safety. He can be reached through the Safe Havens website at