Safety & Security

The Power of the Brain

There has been a tremendous increase in the use of access control technologies since the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School. Far more schools have been equipped with security technologies in long overdue efforts to improve school access control and visitor management. When properly utilized and supported by other security measures this will enhance school security. As with other forms of school security technology, access control systems are highly dependent upon positive human support. Fortunately, we know that the properly trained and empowered human brain can be robust in its ability to protect as well. There is an impressive and growing body of research that can help empower school employees to detect and react to potential danger when screening visitors.

Simple steps can often dramatically improve the reliability of school security technologies, like access control systems. For example, training staff on pattern matching and recognition can provide staff with clarity on how they should screen visitors. Simply teaching staff to look and listen for behavioral cues that can indicate danger can provide an increased comfort level among school staff, administrators and parents. This can also significantly increase the chances that a dangerous person will be stopped or delayed at the door. For example, we can train school staff to look for tangible indications of potential trouble when they have video and voice communications with a visitor such as:

  • indications that the person(s) are angry;
  • indications that the person(s) are intoxicated;
  • indications of possible mental illness;
  • possession of a possible weapon such as a hammer or baseball bat; and
  • cues that a person may be carrying a concealed weapon.

In addition to these tangible indicators that a visitor may pose a problem, we can train staff to use pattern matching and recognition. By being vigilant to patterns of behavior and/or statements that are incongruent with the situation and the screening staff member’s experience with other visitors, school staff can detect subtle but important indications that further screening is needed. There is a considerable body of research that indicates that this aspect of visitor screening can be as important to the detection of danger as the more tangible indicators listed above.

Respected authorities like Gavin DeBecker, Dr. Michael Roberto, Lt. Col. Dave Grossman, Dr. Gary Klein and others have found the human brain is a powerful survival tool. In fact, as Lt. Col. Dave Grossman points out in “Safe Topics - The First 30 Seconds,” “The human brain is the most powerful survival mechanism known to man.” As Dr. Gary Klein points out in “Sources of Power – How People Make Decisions,” extensive research has shown that for some situations, the human brain works much faster and with a higher degree of accuracy in making life and death situations than our most robust computer systems. In his book, “Know What You Don’t Know – How Great Leaders Prevent Problems Before They Happen,” Dr. Michael Roberto points out, that cardiac care units have been able to reduce patient mortality by as much as 50 percent by training and empowering nurses to act on what at first glance could be seen as intuition. Roberto relates that, in reality, nurses and other experts who are properly empowered are able to note subtle changes in human behavior based on their years of experience working with patients. Noting and acting on these observations has helped to dramatically increase patient survivability. In his landmark book, “The Gift of Fear – And Other Survival Signals that Protect us From Danger,” Gavin De Becker makes an articulate, convincing and logical case for the power of the human brain to detect cues that warn us of danger in time to take life-saving action.

Using the research of these incredible people combined with our own evaluations and field experience, Dr. Sonayia Shepherd, Steve Satterly, Chris Dorn, research lead Phuong Nguyen and I are writing a new book for Barron’s for release in Spring 2014. This book will break these and other powerful research-based concepts down into plain English to enable the average person to learn and apply them. Our hope is that we can identify even more ways to prepare and empower school employees to more reliably detect and react to danger.

This article originally appeared in the School Planning & Management August 2013 issue of Spaces4Learning.

About the Author

Michael S. Dorn has helped conduct security assessments for more than 6,000 K-12 schools, keynotes conferences internationally and has published 27 books including Staying Alive – How to Act Fast and Survive Deadly Encounters. He can be reached at