School Security Assessments and Safety Audits versus School Climate and Culture Assessments
We have been inundated with requests to conduct school security assessments since the tragic shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School. Many of the schools and school districts that have contacted us have never had any of the various types of school safety assessments conducted before.
We felt that it might be helpful to provide few thoughts on the pros and cons of different types of school safety assessments. Aside from the more popular “safety audits” or “school security assessments”, there are also a number of more detailed or nuanced approaches to performing a hazard and risk assessment for a school, school district, private school, hospital campus or other type of facility.
What types of school security assessments are a good fit for my organization?
One of the first considerations is the scope of the assessment needed. For a comprehensive assessment, we normally suggest that our clients have us conduct a school safety, security, climate, culture and emergency preparedness assessment. This approach goes far beyond the scope of most school security assessments and does not focus solely on the prevention of mass casualty loss of human life. This is of course one of the main reasons most people want to conduct school security assessments, so that is always going to be a key focus of the assessment. What sets this type of assessment apart is that it includes findings to improve security and general safety while also looking for ways to improve rather than to degrade school climate and culture through the safety process.
In contrast to safety audits or school security assessments, this type of evaluation is usually far more comprehensive and holistic in its scope and approach.
These are important distinctions because there are significant differences between security and each of the other areas described above.
Should a written report be prepared or not after school security assessments are performed?
Another important factor involves whether or not a written report of findings is a good fit for the school or district. While most for-profit school safety firms require or recommend a written report, there are distinct advantages and disadvantages to having a written report. One basic difference is that such reports are discoverable and are often used by plaintiff’s counsel as an avenue of attack in litigation. This is a particularly important issue for non-public schools due to their lack of qualified immunity. Another difference is that written reports do drive the cost of a project upward due to the time required for their preparation. In some instances, this could make it impossible for schools with a limited budget to conduct an assessment at all. Written reports do however, make it easier for school officials to maintain a record of suggested improvements, may be helpful in convincing a board to take action and are often required if the assessment is being paid for with a grant.
If a written report is desired, will the client have an opportunity to fact-check the report for accuracy after school security assessments are performed but before reports are delivered?
We have seen instances where school officials have been provided with a written report that is not accurate because the consultant or firm issuing the report does not allow the client to fact-check the report for accuracy. While a credible consultant or firm will not alter their basic findings relating to potential dangers, it is very typical that a comprehensive report from even the best firms will contain factual errors and omissions, especially when conducting school security assessments for districts with a large number of facilities and multiple personnel performing the site assessments. We suggest that clients require the opportunity to review a draft of the report and to provide feedback on any factual errors or omissions.
Getting stuck with an inaccurate report can cause significant problems during litigation and, more importantly, can result in a less effective report. For example, we had a report that suggested that a new position for security director be created. The client asked if we could use a term other than “director” because in their school district, director’s positions salaries were set at $120,000 per year while the city police chief was paid less than $60,000. Administrators were concerned that the school board and community would become fixated on the terminology and the requisite costs and reject funding for the much needed position. Changing the title to “coordinator” allowed the position to be easily approved, funded and filled by the board. Had we not learned of the important nuance of terminology in this district, our client feels the position might never have been created. For firms that deliver comprehensive reports containing linear data, photographs as well as numerous detailed findings and recommendations, it can be especially important to vet the report in this manner before it is finalized. School safety experts and firms that have a strong reputation in the field will be able to defend assertions that the firm was pressured into making changes by a client organization.
Require and check references with care before hiring a firm to conduct school security assessments
The school safety consulting field is largely unregulated and school officials should use due diligence when selecting service providers for school security assessments or any other service. A civil action is not the time to learn that your school safety consultant works in the field because they were terminated from a job for embezzlement, arrest for felony theft or other serious issues. We recommend that school organizations require and check at least six references from school clients and that the firm’s website be reviewed for “red flags” such as vague credentials, indications that schools are not a primary area of expertise, etc.
A bit of thoughtful evaluation and research can reduce the cost of school security assessments for large organizations by as much as 75% while improving the quality of the project.
We hope these tips are of help to school officials who are considering school safety assessments.