Suicide at School

Bibb_County_Bloomfield_MS_MG_8525Student Suicides at School Require Our Attention

According to Campus Safety Magazine, an 18-year-old student committed suicide with a firearm at Corona del Sol High School in Tempe, Arizona in May. Two of our clients have experienced multiple on-campus suicides. Suicides on school property rarely garner national media attention unless they follow an active shooter situation. The reality is that there have been far more deaths from suicides on K12 campuses than from active shooter incidents.

School Suicides Result in More Deaths than Active Shooter Events

Steve Satterly’s 2014 report Relative Risks of Death in U.S. Schools  indicates that individual schools are eight times more likely to experience an on-campus suicide than an active shooter incident. His report also reveals that twice as many deaths resulted from suicides on campus than from active shooter incidents during a recent fifteen year time period. Suicide prevention measures take on even greater importance when we also consider that many active shooter incidents have ended with suicide by the aggressor. These incidents are extremely painful. They leave a lasting and very negative impact on families and the school community.

School Suicides Demand Appropriate Resource Allocation

Our analysts have seen a number of instances where school staff have received extensive training on active shooter response while staff development on evidence-based suicide prevention concepts has not been provided. While the very real threat of active shooter incidents should not be ignored, failure to address a far more common type of event that has caused twice as many deaths is not advisable.

With many on-campus K12 suicide attempts being public in nature, these types of incidents may are beginning to receive more media coverage. A number of mental health experts feel this may in turn increase the risk of on-campus suicide by students and staff. Graphic and public suicide attempts such as those where students have lit themselves on fire in schools could easily result in a sudden shift in media exposure just as we have seen with K12 active shooter incidents. Active shooter incidents were largely ignored by the national media until the deadly shooting at Pearl High School received unprecedented media coverage. A number of school shootings have received similar intensive national media coverage since that time.

With evidence-based approaches to suicide prevention available today, it makes sense to devote time, energy and fiscal resources to prevention strategies that have been validated as effective before schools tie up precious resources on questionable and perhaps even dangerous measures for less common threats. Fortunately, a number of school districts and non-public schools have done excellent work in this area. We urge school officials to take a close look at their suicide prevention measures.

Best Practices in School Safety and Liability Exposure

School officials, vendors, associations and other organizations should use the term best practices carefully when referring to school safety efforts.  Inaccurate use of the term can create legal and public relations problems that can be avoided with more thoughtful and defensible terminology.

School officials, vendors, associations and other organizations should use the term “best practices” carefully when referring to school safety efforts. Inaccurate use of the term can create legal and public relations problems that can be avoided with more thoughtful and defensible terminology.

School Safety Best Practices and Litigation

The term “best practices” is used often in school safety field.   I think the term is sometimes used too loosely. I caution clients to be cautious about referring to any school safety measures they have implemented as a best practice. While there are several reasons for this, one of the most compelling is that school organizations may be required to prove in court that a particular approach was a best practice if they are litigated. Many of the approaches that are described as best practices will not survive this level of scrutiny. Using the term “best practice” to describe a strategy that does not really meet the definition for a best practice can open a literal Pandora’s Box. Used inappropriately, this term could turn a reasonably defensible position into an ordeal for the defendant organization.

Misuse of the term best practices in school safety is common

I have seen numerous vendors, state agencies, and non-profit organizations claim that planning approaches, training, products and services they provide are best practices without a valid basis for the use of this term. I have now seen at least two training programs that have failed badly under actual field conditions described as best practices. In both cases, there is no independent validation that the approaches are effective, reliable or safe let alone the best practice in the field. One of these training programs is about to be tested via a civil action by a school employee who alleges they were seriously injured as a result of the training program.

Sage advice from an old hand

School safety expert Bill Modzeleski first brought this concern to my attention many years ago when he served as the point man for the U.S. Department of Education’s safety efforts. He provided a rational and thoughtful explanation of why school and government officials should take great care in using the term “best practice” to describe school safety strategies. Bill made a good case and I think his sage advice is just as applicable today as it was then.

How to avoid creation of a best practice trap

I advise my clients to ask themselves how they would defend the use of the term “best practice” in front of a jury during a major civil action or in an interview with a major news organization. I tell them to imagine that a child had died in spite of the particular strategy when performing this mental exercise.   If you do not feel that you could easily provide evidence that the strategy meets this definition, it would be a good idea to find a more defensible yet positive way to describe the practice.

Lawsuit Filed by School Employee Injured in ALICE training

ALICE Training Injury Lawsuit Filed by School Employee

I was recently notified that a city in Iowa has now been served with a civil action filed by a school employee who alleges being injured during an ALICE training session. I have no idea if the suit has validity or if it will be successful. I am aware that more than $300,000 in emergency room bills have already been paid out for emergency room medical care for Iowa school employees injured during options-based active shooter training programs. I have also been aware that at least one major school insurance carrier began sending all school system policies to underwriting if this type of training has been implemented in their district. A popular options-based training program in many parts of the country, ALICE stands for Alert, Lockdown, Inform, Counter, and Evacuate.

Is ALICE Training Safe?

Regular readers of my blogs and our newsletter know that our analysts have reservations about a number of the options-based active shooter training programs. In January, I wrote a blog addressing some concerns about specific aspects of the ALICE approach http://safehavensinternational.org/alice-training-gets-canned/. I also wrote a feature article about additional concerns relating to ALICE and other options-based active shooter training programs in School Safety Monthly http://safehavensinternational.org/wp-content/uploads/School_Safety_Monthly-Jan_2015-Safe_Havens_Intl.pdf. I am not the only school security expert that has concerns about the various options-based active shooter training programs that have become popular since the Sandy Hook School shooting. I have spoken to a number of other school security experts who share these concerns. One school security consultant who is deeply concerned about ALICE is Kenneth Trump.

Though both of us have worked in the same field for many years, I had never met Ken until last month. Over the years, Ken and I have had some differences of opinion. Both of us are very passionate about our work and like many people have some strong feelings about our professional views.  There are also a number of areas where we share common concerns. The shift to options-based active shooter training programs that have still not been validated as safe or effective has been of concern to both Ken and I.

Ken has been recommending that that law enforcement and school officials should vet options-based active shooter training programs with their insurance carrier and legal counsel before implementing them. I think this is sound advice. Ken and I are both concerned that many school and law enforcement agencies will have difficulty defending at least some of these lawsuits.

Even Those with the of Best Intentions can be Litigated

I am also concerned that some instructors teach options-based active shooter programs without incorporation or obtaining liability insurance.   For example, I have met dedicated law enforcement officers who teach options-based active shooter training programs for schools while off-duty. These officers are typically highly motivated and are eager to help make our schools safer.  However, these officers can easily find themselves being named as an individual in litigation regardless of the types of school safety training they provide on a private basis. The cost of defending a civil action relating to even a seemingly minor training injury can be astounding.   The fact that more than 90% of all civil actions in America result in a settlement should also be considered by those who want to help others by providing private school security training without liability insurance and appropriate incorporation.

Seek Qualified Legal Advice

This civil action demonstrates how important it may be for school and law enforcement officials to carefully vet and to test any options-based active shooter training program before implementing it. The case also serves as a reminder of how important it can be to seek advice from a qualified attorney before providing school security training as a private individual. Based on this civil action, I concur with Mr. Trump’s advice to vet ALICE with legal counsel before implementing it.