The State of School Security: Preparing for school violence spikes, terrorism, and new safety threats

The nationwide spate of school shootings in the late 1990s raised the bar for school safety and crisis planning practices. The 9/11 terrorist attacks upon America set yet a higher threshold for school security and emergency planning expectations. Have your schools kept pace with changing school safety threats and preparedness strategies?

School Safety Threat Trends

Today’s school administrators face school safety threats ranging from bullying and aggressive behavior, to the worst-case scenario of a potential school shooting or an act of terrorism. Knowing the current threat trends facing schools, will help administrators keep pace and, hopefully, one step ahead of the curve.

School Violence Spikes

A spike in school-related deaths and other serious incidents has marked the first three months of the 2003-2004 school year. As of early November, the author has tallied 22 school-associated deaths nationwide, compared to a total of 16 deaths for the entire 2002-2003 school year and a total of 17 deaths for the 2001-2002 school year.

The U.S. Department of Education also released its report,“Indicators of School Crime and Safety: 2003,” in late October, which suggests a trend of declining school crime. The report primarily focuses upon data up to the 2000 school year, and does not actually reflect school crime trends for 2003 as suggested by the title. While the overall report suggests a decline in school crime up to 2000, a table toward the end of the report documents a 25 percent increase in serious violent crime, and an increase of more than 9 percent in overall violent crime from 2000 to 2001.

When confronted with the current spike in deaths, one federal education official suggested that educators simply wait until the end of the school year to see if school deaths“level off.” Most experienced professionals in touch with the “front-lines” of school safety know that school violence tends to spike the highest in spring months. Prudent school administrators may wish to seek “real-time” information on school safety trends from outside of the DC beltway, and be aware of the potential for more violence as the current school year progresses, so that they can strengthen their school safety strategies accordingly. (See for an ongoing listing of current school violence incidents.)

Terrorist Threat to Schools

A 2003 survey of more than 725 school-based police officers conducted for the National Association of School Resource Officers (NASRO) reports that more than 90 percent of the officers stated that schools are “soft targets” for potential terrorist attacks, and that more than 76 percent felt that their schools are not adequately prepared to respond to a terrorist attack.

Terrorists strive to conduct their strikes with the highest visibility and greatest psychological impact. Terrorist attacks upon schools and school buses have occurred in the Middle East for decades. An attack upon a school in the United States would easily meet terrorist objectives to produce mass fear and instill a lack of confidence in government leadership.

While on a day-to-day basis school officials must focus on common threats like bullying and aggressive behavior, educators cannot ignore the possibility of terrorism striking their school community. A June 2003 report from the National Commission on Children and Terrorism reminds us that, including students and staff, one-fifth of the U.S. population can be found in schools on any given weekday. Teachers, administrators, school resource officers, security personnel and support staff must be properly trained and prepared as the “first responders” to acts of school-based crime, violence and even terrorism.

Obstacles and Impediments

Today’s threats to school safety are also created by our own bureaucratic and political systems, and our tendency to have a complacent mindset on safety issues.

Preparedness Gaps

School security and crisis planning improved after the spate of school shootings in the late 1990’s. Schools are now balancing their traditional emergency plans, focused on natural, weather and operational emergencies, with guidelines for responding to acts of crime and violence. At the same time, school and law enforcement relationships are also improved.

Nationwide, our school safety assessments reveal the following gaps in school preparedness.

1. Many schools have rushed to create plans for the sake of creating plans largely in response to parental and media pressure.

2. School emergency guidelines often have questionable content. For example, one 3,500-student high school’s plan for handling a suspected bomb was to place mattresses and padding around the device until the police or fire chief came to remove it.

3. While school crisis teams often exist on paper, many do not meet regularly, nor have they received adequate, if any, training. In some schools, crisis teams still do not exist.

4. Far too many emergency plans are setting upon shelves collecting dust. The majority of plans have not been exercised, even using one-day “tabletop exercises,” to see if the plan on paper would work in an actual emergency.

Budgetary Gaps

School safety budgets are also being slashed, leaving our schools more vulnerable at a time when they need to be better prepared. The NASRO 2003 survey found that 41 percent of school-based police officers reported their school safety budgets decreased during the past school year. The 2004 proposed federal budget, currently before Congress, also calls for a 35 percent cut ($50 million) in state allocations for Safe and Drug Free School program funding.

School safety administrators whose budgets are cut have nowhere else to turn for funding within their districts. Ironically, our nation’s “leaders” are increasing resources to protect bridges, monuments and their own governmental offices, while simultaneously planning to cut money to keep our children and teachers safe.

As a result of these cutbacks, schools have fewer resources to provide staff with professional development training, to support safety personnel staffing and to conduct other emergency planning and violence prevention programming. Schools that want to look to technology for emergency communications, surveillance cameras, access control systems and other equipment-oriented resources to supplement their broader school safety plans, are increasingly unable to purchase such resources.

Budgetary gaps also threaten safety features that could be built into school design. Limited funding often leaves school officials and contractors more focused on building schools cheaply, rather than with features that could improve safety. For example, simple considerations, such as window updates that protect from flying glass in the event of an explosives incident, could be disregarded.

Mindset and Complacency Gaps

Budget cuts are not the only systemic threat to school safety. School leaders, under pressure from state and federal education laws, are increasingly locked into a tunnel-vision focus on meeting academic test score standards. Other issues, such as school safety, often get pushed to the back burner in many schools.

A number of administrators have also adopted a “been there, done that” mentality about school safety after their initial security implementations following the Columbine school tragedy. Far too many officials falsely believe that once they name a crisis team and have a written crisis plan, they can move on to other issues and be finished with safe schools planning.

Future School Security and Emergency Preparedness

Following are steps in creating “prepared schools.”

1. Train teachers and support staff on security and emergency planning issues, as well as topics related to bully prevention, mental health support for students, prevention and intervention strategies, and related areas.

2. Evaluate and refine security measures to adapt to the ever-changing threats to school security.

3. Exercise and modify emergency plans to make sure what is written on paper would actually work in a real crisis.

Experts generally agree that school emergency plans should adopt an “all-hazards” approach, by preparing for both natural disasters as well as man-made acts of violence. Focusing on all-hazards will help school officials be prepared for a variety of emergency situations, and acts ranging from dangerous weather conditions to bomb threats, explosions, shootings and other manmade crises.

While specific terrorist acts should be addressed in the all-hazards planning approach, educators cannot ignore the broader context of the threat of terrorism. Unfortunately, there appears to be a mindset of denial and minimization of the terrorist threat to schools by many federal, state and local education officials. This appears to be largely driven by their fear of creating fear and panic among parents and educators.

Fear is best managed, however, through education, communication and preparation. The “Ostrich Syndrome” (keeping our heads in the sand with a “just wait and see” attitude) will lead to more fear and panic, should a catastrophic incident occur. Fear can be reduced and preparedness increased by balanced, rational education and preparation programs communicated effectively to the school community.

School safety funding must also be sustained on an ongoing basis and increased incrementally over time as we heighten security for other areas of our national infrastructure. Ignoring our nation’s most valuable resources, its education system, will make schools more viable “soft targets” for acts of school violence and terrorism.

Most importantly, school security and emergency planning must be institutionalized as an ongoing process. It will not work if it is a one-time event, such as sponsoring one training session or the writing of a particular document.

Only when it has reached that level of importance can we reach our goal of being aware and prepared, but not scared.

Kenneth S. Trump, MPA, is president of National School Safety and Security Services , a Cleveland-based national consulting firm.