School Security Requires a Measured Approach
Parents, students, school officials and community leaders across the country are reviewing school security and emergency preparedness measures in the wake of the tragic shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School last week.
Our center has been receiving hundreds of requests for assistance each day since Friday and we were getting an average of one call per minute on Tuesday. Many of the calls we have been fielding have centered around three areas:
School access control
Improving school crisis plans
We have also focused our energies on providing free resources that can help school employees improve school security, safety and emergency preparedness. We typically post new resources on our website on a weekly basis.
Choosing the right path for school security improvements
School security and public safety officials should consider taking a measured and assessment-based approach for all three of these areas. For example, implementing new school access control measures too quickly can result in a poor quality and easy to defeat system that costs substantially more than a more reliable approach.
Similarly, many schools have rushed to purchase ready-made crisis plans that are not tailored to local conditions, building designs or public safety capabilities. Effective plans have to be developed with local public safety officials because protocols that might work very well in a San Diego school could result in mass casualty losses in a rural Pennsylvania township. For example, a San Diego school could probably expect a much faster police response during a lockdown than a school in a rural area, where the first police car may not arrive for half an hour during a school security crisis.
School security assessments
School security assessments should be approached with particular caution. There are now literally thousands of school safety trainers and consultants in the United States, and many of them refer to themselves as “national school safety experts” in large scale PR campaigns. There many highly qualified and talented individuals and firms out there. At the same time, there are also practitioners who have limited relevant experience or serious skeletons in their closet that can come back to haunt a school or district during litigation. For example, there are several school safety consultants who have been terminated for serious situations such as an arrest for felony theft, substance abuse and embezzlement.
This matters because there are a number of untested and highly controversial approaches to school safety that are being taught across the country. These include the lockout/lockdown technique as well as the practice of teaching students to attack an active shooter. School officials and school security professionals should carefully consider whether they want to be the first test case in a civil action for new and untested concepts that are highly controversial among experts in the field of school security.
There are also widely varying approaches to school security audits and safety assessments. For example, some firms will not allow clients to review a draft version of their report to ensure accuracy. This can lead to a school or district being stuck with an inaccurate report that can come back to haunt them during litigation. A quality firm will allow review and comment without compromising the integrity of their report.
Another important consideration for some types of school security assessments is whether the client should opt for a written assessment or not in the first place. These reports are discoverable during school safety litigation and are often utilized as an avenue of attack by plaintiff’s counsel. This can be and extremely important consideration for independent, parochial and other non-public schools. School safety consultants usually recommend written reports because they are billing thousands of dollars for the report and because they structure the report in a manner that will reduce their exposure to liability should a major event occur at a client school or district.
Cost is another important issue. Fees for these services vary widely between vendors and cost is not always an indicator of the quality of the assessments. Obtaining several bids with an open bid process takes longer but can reduce project cost by as much as 75% while improving the actual quality of services. Keep in mind that schools should be able to prove in court that they used due diligence in selecting a vendor if a school security incident ever occurs.
Lessons from past school security incidents
I have served as a school security expert witness in large school safety malpractice civil actions where I was asked to evaluate the work performed by school safety consultants. In one case, the district settled 26 lawsuits after a school security incident. This was an especially hard financial blow because the district had previously spent considerable money to hire a school security consulting firm. The plaintiffs then filed suit against the consulting firm, which quickly settled the case for a reported $1.5 million. The most tragic thing about this case is that the school district dedicated a considerable amount of time and fiscal resources trying to prevent and better prepare for this type of tragedy only to experience mass casualty loss of human life.
A thoughtful and careful approach to improvements in school security, safety and emergency preparedness will typically yield much better results.