Trends in School Security and Emergency Preparedness Planning: Keeping School Administrators "In the Know" and Out of the Spotlight

Proactive school security practices and emergency preparedness planning are key leadership issues in today’s education communities. Parents will hold teachers, principals, superintendents and board members accountable“by name” if their children are the victims of life-threatening crime, violence and other safety hazards that could be prevented by basic risk reduction and emergency preparedness measures. School officials not only face potential legal liability, but also the possibility of damage to their school-community relations that could last years after the lawsuits have ended.

Many of the prevention and preparedness measures that need to be taken in our schools are common sense, yet our safety assessments of school districts across the nation find that they are often not common practice. The enormous pressure upon school administrators to meet mandated test score standards has pushed school safety to the back burner in many school districts. While educators care about the safety of students and staff, the competition for time is often greater than the competition for money, and school safety often loses the battle among these competing interests as long as there are no current crisis situations unfolding in the school district or in the current headline news. What current trends and issues should be on your radar screen?

School Terrorism Preparedness

Although a terrorist attack upon a school in your community may be improbable, the first step toward preparedness is admitting that it is at least possible that terrorists could strike a school in our country. Unfortunately, many school leaders and public officials at all levels of government are afraid to discuss this issue with their school community out of a fear of creating panic. As a result, we risk having Ostrich-Syndrome (the ancient political skill of putting one’s head in the sand and ignoring a critical matter) guide our public policy on school terrorism preparedness, instead of a sound, balanced and candid discussion of the subject within our school communities.

Fear is best managed by education, community and preparation — not denial. School and public safety officials should educate school staff, parents, students and the school community on terrorism, homeland security and school preparedness measures. School leaders should also communicate to their school community that they are taking steps to reduce security risks and to prepare for managing crises that cannot be prevented. Most importantly, school officials should be engaged in genuine and meaningful emergency preparedness planning activities with police, fire, emergency medical and emergency management agencies so that working relationships and basic guidelines are in place for dealing with an emergency before the crisis actually occurs.

The key to successfully preparing school communities without creating panic is for school and public safety officials to be candid with their school communities about the possibility that schools can be impacted by terrorism. Success also requires that officials communicate terrorism issues in context and educate their school communities on the roles that everyone plays in keeping schools and communities safe. Denial and inconsistent messages exacerbate, not reduce, fear and panic.

School emergency preparedness measures should also be balanced and developed in the context of an“all hazards” approach. Emergency guidelines should focus on issues ranging from weather and natural disasters, to man-made acts of crime and violence. Effective emergency guidelines may not necessarily have the word “terrorism” under the “T” tab of the document, but they will address issues related to responding to a terrorist attack, such as handling bombs and bomb threats, hostage situations, shootings, lockdowns and evacuations, shelter-in-place, emergency ventilation system shut down, emergency communications with parents and the media and a host of other associated strategies.

“Heightened Security” for Schools

Many school leaders have reported facing pressures from parents and others in their school communities about increasing security during times of heightened national security alerts. “How can I demonstrate heightened security to parents without creating a prison-like environment for our schools?” one superintendent asked in a workshop. This school leader and others were relieved when we actually started outlining specific practical, cost-effective things schools can do to heighten security without going overboard.

A sample of suggested measures schools can take to heighten security include the following.

    • Remove school floor plans, school bus route details and other sensitive information from your school district’s web site. National attention was recently drawn to reports of an Iraqi man caught by the U.S. military with a disk containing floor plans and other security-related information obtained from school web sites. One Midwest school district actually put the names of each student, their bus stop location, pick-up times and bus numbers on the school district’s web site, leaving students vulnerable to those with potentially ill-intentions, such as non-custodial parents or molesters who might want to abduct a student. While the intentions of school officials in posting such information usually revolve around being user-friendly, we must educate school administrators so that they look at what they do not only from the perspective of parental and staff convenience, but also from a security and emergency preparedness perspective.

    • Educate staff on maintaining a heightened visibility and awareness for unusual activity inside schools and on school grounds. Staff should be alert for suspicious persons, such as individuals asking unusual questions or taking pictures, as well as suspicious packages or cars observed on school property.

    • Identify vendors and contractors visiting schools, check and verify identification, and document their names, vehicle information, company, dates and times of arrival and departure, and purpose of their visit on school logs.

    • Secure school transportation facilities and train school bus drivers in emergency preparedness measures. Buses have been the targets of terrorism in the Middle East for many years. School officials should actively involve school transportation personnel in training and emergency planning efforts.

The majority of these measures and other recommended considerations cost more time than money. But they do offer school administrators concrete, cost-effective measures for heightening security and meaningful steps to point to when questioned by parents and the community about school heightened preparedness during times of national security alerts. A host of other practical recommendations for heightened security are online at .

School Violence Trends

School-associated violent deaths spiked at 49 in the 2003-2004 school year, more than the two previous school year combined and more than any single year since before the Columbine tragedy. While school deaths tend to capture media and public attention, school officials need to also be aware of the non-fatal school shootings and other high-profile incidents of crime and violence that typically does not make the national news.

School leaders need to know that school violence is alive and active nationwide. Increases in gang activity, spikes in violence at athletic events and a rise in Internet and technology-related crimes are among the new threats challenging school leaders. Educators need to be proactively attending to violence prevention and security issues as an ongoing process, not just in reaction when higher-profile incidents hit the headlines.

Comprehensive safe school planning should include the following.

    • School climate strategies

    • Firm, fair and consistent discipline applied with good common sense

    • Intervention and prevention programming, including mental health support services

    • Strong academic and extracurricular programming

    • Student ownership and community involvement in schools

    • School partnerships with public safety and social service officials

    • Proactive school security measures

    • Emergency preparedness planning

School safety planning must be balanced and comprehensive. A “prevention alone” or “security alone” strategy is destined to fail.

Gaps in Security Assessments and Emergency Planning

Following the spate of school shootings in the late 1990s, many schools rushed to name crisis teams and create crisis plans on paper. However, in the five-plus years since that time, many school safety teams are not meeting regularly, crisis teams have not been training and emergency plans are collecting dust upon a shelf. Our safety assessments nationwide find questionable content in school emergency plans and far too many school officials who falsely believe they are fully-prepared and need to do no more to improve their safety posture.

Perhaps the greatest threat to school safety is not student violence or the influence of outside threats, but our own haphazard planning and complacency. Time and distance breed complacency and fuel denial. School leaders must ensure that school security and emergency planning are ongoing processes, not one-time events.

Selecting School Security Consultants

The rise in attention to terrorism impacting our schools has created yet another wave over overnight school security experts. The school safety profession experienced a similar wave of questionable consultants pop up after the Columbine High School tragedy in 1999. Several years later, the majority of overnight experts disappeared as school officials increasingly recognized the potential liability created by hiring consultants who had little to no real experience in working with K-12 school safety issues.

While some school safety consultants and trainers may be overly alarming on the issue of terrorism and schools, some downplay or dismiss the topic as a non-issue. Meanwhile, others ride the “politically correct” fence of talking about it when it serves their political benefit, while downplaying it at other times in an effort to please the official nay-sayers who provide grants and other funding to keep their revenue streams flowing. School administrators need to educate themselves on the issues and seek out consultants who offer a balanced, rational perspective and long-term school safety consulting experience specifically with K-12 schools.

School safety consultants should bring credibility, experience and cutting-edge knowledge to their school consultancy. Former federal and state law enforcement officers, military officials, emergency managers and others may bring great credentials in their respective fields, but their absence of experience in working with K-12 schools could pose potential complications and liabilities for educators seeking security and emergency planning consultation for their unique environment. Educators should also exercise caution when getting “free” consultation from security product vendors whose primary purpose is to sell their security products.

Plan, Prepare and Practice

Whether the threat involves a natural disaster or catastrophic act of manmade violence, the message to school officials is the same — PLAN, PREPARE, and PRACTICE. Schools that are better prepared in security and emergency preparedness tend to do three things.

1. Train their staff, including support personnel such as bus drivers, secretaries and custodians, on school violence prevention, security and emergency preparedness issues. Training should be ongoing, not simply a one-time workshop. School crisis teams and their public safety officials should receive even more intense, specialized training.

2. Evaluate and refine security measures over a period of time. Security fails when people fail to recognize when they are vulnerable and fail to recognize change.

3. Test and exercise emergency plans. A written plan that has not been exercised provides little more than a document collecting dust upon a shelf. Educators and their public safety partners who cannot conduct a full-scale should at least be performing tabletop exercises to work through hypothetical scenarios so they know that what works on paper will work in a real emergency. Tabletops can be done in a half or full day of professional development training and are important in identifying gaps in emergency guidelines.

Today’s school official must be prepared to deal with the threat of bullying and aggressive behavior on a day-to-day basis, all the way to a potential school shooting or act of terrorism on the other end of improbable, but possible, scenarios. Academic achievement is directly tied to school safety and the two must go hand-in-hand. Our students, educators and parents deserve nothing less.

BY KENNETH S. TRUMP, MPA, president of National School Safety and Security Services , a national school safety consulting firm. He may be reached by email at .