One Size Does Not Always Fit All

A few years ago, a newspaper article announced that the New York City Public School System was facing a $2-billion budget cut. That budget cut was larger than the total budget of many school systems. The headline painted a picture of a huge organization tasked with educating a diverse and urban population in more than 2,000 schools across the city. At the other end of the spectrum, a rural South Dakota school district might have 60 students in grades K-12. While these educational organizations must address some of the same risks, it is obvious that there would be significant differences in the way they should do so.

A customized approach for school safety is always required if meaningful results are desired. And while these statements may seem obvious, it is not uncommon for people to attempt to simply copy school safety concepts from elsewhere with little or no effort to tailor them to the size, structure and unique settings in which they will be implemented. While there is nothing wrong with looking to examples of successful measures, they should be viewed as more of a starting point than a finish line.

Although our society has moved away from customizing, and adopted a“one size fits all” view to many issues, schools should not. One common example is the“plan in the can” approach that has been used by companies who offer a ready-made emergency operations plan. Some of these plans cost a little more than $100, while others run more than $20,000. This approach is particularly dangerous as there are many very poorly developed emergency operations plans out there that look very impressive at first glance. One of the worst school emergency operations plans I have reviewed cost a large school district more than $1 million (the plastic binders alone cost more than $12,000). The biggest difference between some plans is how fanciful they are presented and how much money the buyer is throwing away on a plan that will likely fail during a major crisis.

Unless a plan’s contents can be easily modified to fit local needs and resources, it is not realistic to expect that it would work in various school settings. Some school safety consultants have been selling the same basic plan to schools for several years, making little effort to tailor the plans — they simply change the name of the school system or institution for each client. Even some government agencies have occasionally taken this path by providing generic flipcharts to schools with no attempt to encourage locally tailored plans. Another common problem is the tendency for some school officials to simply copy a plan from another organization without any meaningful effort to tailor the plan or even check the contents.

Similar problems arise in the prevention arena. Commonly, undue credit will be given to one particular aspect of an overall prevention strategy. For example, there have been a number of instances where a metal detection program has been credited with dramatic drops in weapons at a school. In reality, schools that have had significant success with metal detection programs have typically added other supporting programs at the same time. When used with other supporting efforts, metal detection programs have been extremely effective.

But like so many other strategies, such as school resource officers, crime prevention through environmental design, character education programs and metal detectors alone do not make safe schools. This is why attempts to copy proven prevention programs sometimes fail. Often, local officials have invested a lot of time and resources in a particular aspect of a broad school safety strategy. This can lead to an overemphasis on the “magic bullet” that is actually only one of numerous components that work so well together.

When reviewing prevention programs from other settings, be sure to look for any peripheral measures that may play an important role in supporting the more visible safety efforts. In addition, it is important to remember that even identical programs will result in varying amounts of success depending on the locale. For example, the use of citations to appear in court has resulted in dramatic reductions of problematic behaviors in communities where judges actively support the concept with significant consequences for violators. Only modest gains have resulted in other communities, where judges not agree with the concept.

Finally, a customized approach to school safety requires more initial effort than simply trying the “copycat” approach taken by many. In reality, many school officials have found the more complex and tedious route to a tailored approach to be much more time efficient in the long run and frequently report that it is significantly less expensive as well. Regardless of the side benefits, made-to-order school safety is more effective than the “one size fits all” approach any day of the week.

One of the nation’s best-known school safety experts, Michael S. Dorn has been a full-time campus safety practitioner for the past 22 years. He has authored and co-authored 14 books, lectures frequently around the nation and has provided consultation and technical assistance to more than 2,000 public safety agencies and learning institutions around the world. He can be reached at .

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