Tackling Mission Creep in School Operations

School Tragedy

On Tuesday, January 26, Susan Jordan was struck and killed by a school bus.  The Principal of Amy Beverland Elementary School in Lawrence, IN, was supervising her students as they boarded buses at the end of the school day.  The school bus reportedly jumped a curb, and Mrs. Jordan was pushing students out of the way when she was struck and killed.  Two students were taken to the hospital with serious, but not life-threatening injuries.

This information is still developing, so the the purpose here is NOT to be critical of anyone.  After a traumatic incident such as this, it is very easy to act on our emotions.  Terror Management Theory tells us that feelings of vulnerability are normal, as are our desires to change things so that we can avoid a similar trauma.  Making this change should be done in a thoughtful, systematic manner.  As always in emergency management, the first step is identifying risk.

In the report, Relative Risks of Death in K-12 Schools, the number one cause of school-related fatalities was found to be school transportation-related incidents.  Buses weigh around 33,000 pounds each, and drop off and pick up times has a large number of students and staff near these behemoths.  A slight lapse of supervision or care can have tragic consequences.

Mission Creep in School Operations

This chart compares various causes of fatalities. Note that school transportation-related fatalities make 40% of the total.

Schools have developed procedures for getting kids off of, and onto their buses.  These procedures were made for a reason, hopefully to meet a goal of student and staff safety.  Therefore we do not want to change procedures related to school transportation based on the emotions of the moment.  Experience tells us that such decisions often have unintended consequences.  We need to make our decision-making deliberate and contemplative.  That leaves you with the un-answered question, “What can I do?”  One thing you can do is look for ‘mission creep’.

Mission Creep

‘Mission creep’ is, “The gradual broadening of the original objectives of a mission or organization.” Each school has in place various procedures, each with their own goals.  As time goes on, things happen which may alter those goals, or cause goals to be forgotten altogether.  This is ‘mission creep’ in action.  For example, a dismissal procedure may call for parents to park in a certain area to get their children, to keep them away from the buses. Over time, a parent may request to get closer for some particular reason, then another, then another, and before you know it, cars are interfering with bus traffic.

So what can you do to combat mission creep?
1) Assess what you are currently doing.
2) Gather information.  Without having all the information, it is hard to change what your doing, and know that you are doing the right thing.
3) Re-identify your goals, then assess whether you are meeting them or not.  Has mission creep occurred?  Take care of what you should be doing, then you can address whether you should be adding a level of complexity to the current procedure.
4) Identify whether what happened was a system failure, or a failure of application.
a) A systems failure, where what you are doing is not meeting your stated goals, can be fixed by amending, or replacing
the procedure.
b) Application failure requires training and practice to correct, but does not necessarily require a change in procedure.

Has mission creep occurred in your procedures?  If what you are doing is not meeting your original goals, plan on how to change them.  Do so in a deliberate, thoughtful way.  Reassure yourself, your staff, your parents and your students that you are doing the right thing.  That can help allay their fears.

Be wary of ‘knee-jerk’ responses leading to changes that have not been properly vetted.  There is much at stake.



Are you missing school safety incidents?

Safe Havens Analyst Found Story of successful school lockdown

A Safe Havens analyst found this story of a successful school lockdown in 1900 while conducting research for a school security assessment for a Connecticut school district.

A couple of weeks ago, I was running school crisis scenarios as part of a large school security assessment project for faith-based schools. A teacher who was participating in the scenarios told us that he had been taken hostage in his school in the early 1990’s. After we finished with the scenario evaluation, our team had an extended conversation with the teacher. We found this to be extremely helpful, learning important details of the case. For example, the teacher had responded to the classroom because he was part of the school’s crisis team. Not being aware that a student was holding a room full of students hostage, he walked into the room. Once he realized that the student was holding a handgun, he moved towards the student in an attempt to disarm him. He told us that the student quickly produced a second handgun and pointed both firearms at him. Realizing that he had made a serious mistake, the teacher began talking to the student and was able to get him to release all of the students in the classroom. With the assistance of an administrator, the teacher was able to persuade the student to put down both guns and surrender. A Safe Havens analyst found this story of a successful school lockdown in 1900 while conducting research for a school security assessment for a Connecticut school district.

The 24 hour news cycle and school safety

Prior to the active shooter event at Pearl High School in Mississippi, school active shooter incidents rarely garnered extensive national media coverage. Media coverage relating to school shootings is now extensive. However, we regularly learn of major school safety incidents that have previously gone unnoticed outside the communities where they occur. As but one example, last year David Woodward from the Indiana School Safety Specialist’s Academy forwarded a copy of a newspaper article about a 1960 shooting rampage in his state. In this case, an elementary school principal opened fire in his school with a shotgun. Even though two teachers were killed, we have never before seen this incident listed in any report on school shootings. Had a School Safety Specialist from Indiana not tripped up on the event and passed it on to Director Woodward, few people outside the community would be aware of this tragedy.

Myths can kill

There are now many myths about school safety that result in ineffective strategies, dangerous experimental approaches and other negative outcomes. These often reduce the actual level of safety in schools. The dangerous claim that school lockdowns are ineffective combined with the significant number of injuries and pending litigation relating to one popular options-based active shooter training program demonstrate this concern. Since myths can and do result in injuries and deaths, educators and public safety officials should work diligently to address the range of school violence issues, not just those that garner the most media coverage.

Active Shooter Obsession – A Deadly Trend

Active Shooter Obsession deadly trend.

The active shooter obsession is a deadly trend.

Obsession with Active Shooter Scenarios Degrades School Safety

While running school crisis scenarios during a school security assessment this week, a teacher at a faith-based school attacked people during two of the six school crisis scenarios he was presented with. In both instances, the test subject failed to initiate a lockdown or prompt anyone to call 911. Instead, he attacked a suspicious person who is depicted as ignoring staff who ask him what he is doing in the building. In fact, neither scenario involved an active shooter incident. Later in the week, another employee at a school where a hostage situation had occurred also opted to use physical force in two scenarios where it would clearly increase danger to do so. These types of responses have become increasingly popular since the Sandy Hook attack. Prior to the Sandy Hook attack, such responses were exceedingly rare. Unfortunately, our nation’s obsession with active shooter events is having a significant and negative impact on how effectively school employees across the nation are prepared to make effective and prompt life-saving decisions.

Seeing is Believing

During a keynote presentation for the Tennessee Department of Education a couple of years ago, I asked a volunteer to come up to the stage and assist me in a demonstration. My volunteer turned out to be a very compassionate and deeply safety-conscious building principal for a faith-based high school. I asked him to respond in real-time fashion by verbalizing what he would do after he watched a video school crisis scenario. In the video, a student placed the muzzle of a 9mm semiautomatic pistol to his temple with his finger on the trigger and threatened to kill himself. The more than three hundred school administrators and law enforcement officer in attendance were shocked to hear his reply that he would attack the gunman. I was not shocked as I have seen this reply on numerous occasions during keynote presentations and during controlled simulations in schools across the nation.

Recognition Primed Decision-Making

Dr. Gary Klein has written extensively about the role of recognition-primed decision-making plays in the ability of people to make life and death decisions rapidly with limited information. He emphasizes the importance of providing people with a base of knowledge that will prepare them to recognize the situations they face more rapidly. Our analysts have observed indicators that school employees are becoming increasingly primed to anticipate active shooter situations as the most likely situations involving guns they will face. We increasingly see school employees responding to situations in a manner that would be more dangerous because of this type of inadvertent operant conditioning. We urge school and public safety officials to take great care to prepare school staff for the types of weapons incidents that result in the most injuries and deaths, not just those that garner the most media attention.