About Michael Dorn

Michael Dorn serves as the Executive Director of Safe Havens International, a non-profit school safety center. The author of 27 books on school safety, Michael’s campus safety work has taken him to 11 countries over the past 34 years.

Biting Off More Security than You Can Chew

©Michael Dorn Safe Havens International 2020

School officials should exercise care to implement school security enhancements they can sustain with fidelity.  One commonly discussed option for the prevention of school shootings is the use of airport and courthouse style entry point metal detection.  While excellent metal detection equipment is relatively inexpensive, staffing, security, X-ray screening equipment, and security measures to support effective entry point weapons screening of this type can cost between $500,000 and one million dollars a year for a large high school.  For this reason, alternative approaches to weapons screening such as demonstrably random numerical sequence entry point screening and randomly selected classroom and school bus occupant screening can be more practical and, in my experience, are often more effective.

While we have been seeing many of the same harmful patterns that we saw after the tragic attacks at Columbine High School and Sandy Hook Elementary School in the wake of a series of five major school attacks in the 2017-2018 school year, we have noted an even more pervasive and troubling trend during the past two years.  While many schools and districts have implemented considerable positive life-safety enhancements, some of the reactions to these terrible events have resulted in a considerable amount of damage to school safety across the nation.  This damage has resulted from demands from the public that school and public safety officials “do something” to stop school shootings without proper evaluation, consideration of reliable national school fatality data, and a comprehensive view of risks to safety and security.  

The negative effects of poorly developed and implemented active shooter training programs that became common after the Sandy Hook attack have caused significant degradation of school emergency preparedness in many schools.  As I have mentioned in other writings, we are seeing increasing evidence that these types of training programs can be quite dangerous.  However, in addition to the severe problems from emotively driven active shooter training approaches, we have been seeing intensive pressure for schools to implement security measures that people hope can ensure that a school shooting cannot possibly occur.  As there are no such security measures in any setting let alone in K12 schools, this is placing tremendous and potentially dangerous pressure on school officials.

One particularly prominent and concerning tendency of this type is the pressure to implement extensive target-hardening, security technologies, and emergency communications systems without the human resources to support them. 

For example, many school districts have been under considerable pressure to implement entry point metal detection by a public that is typically unaware of the actual costs required for adequate supportive security measures.  For example, security X-ray technology required to reliably and effectively screen bookbags, purses, musical instrument cases, and other hand-carry items can be staggering.  This is even more difficult for large K12 schools due to the challenges created by the need to screen massive numbers of students in short time spans each morning.  In addition, perimeter access control technology and most importantly, the significant ongoing budget required for personnel to accomplish reasonably reliable entry point metal detection are very costly.  For many of our nation’s larger and more complex middle and high school campuses, running reasonably reliable entry point metal detection during the daytime and all evening and weekend hours the facilities are open, personnel costs can run from between $250,000 to $1,000,000 per school per year depending on a variety of factors such as local labor costs.  As with an airport or courthouse, if screening is not conducted during all hours of operation, it is very easy for a student to defeat the screening process.  For example, a student or non-student can enter a school and hide a gun to be retrieved later while an evening event is being held but no security screening is being conducted. 

One of our primary concerns is that school officials may agree to conduct entry point metal detection or other security upgrades without receiving the funding to support them that is needed to make them work with reasonable reliability.  This inherently results in problems the technologies were purchased to address taking place in spite of significant expenditures.  In many cases, the discussion and resulting litigation moves from “why didn’t you use metal detectors” (or a variety of other security technologies) to “you were incompetent because you spent X dollars and still had a shooting.”  In my experience, thoughtful explanation of the resources and thus funding that will be needed to effectively support the security upgrades combined with a tactful but clear message that while there are ways to reduce risk, but there are no 100% reliable ways to absolutely assure that violence will not occur in any setting is not only honest but critical for success.  As an example, I have tried to help parents understand the limits of even well-funded, professional and extensive security measures, repeated breaches of White House security by multiple intruders over the years demonstrate that something as seemingly simple as keeping an intruder out of one of the most heavily secured and budgeted facilities in the world has been challenging. 

Regardless of the type of enhancement being considered, we caution school officials to take care not to attempt to implement approaches that may make people feel good in the short term but require resources beyond those available to implement with fidelity.  The cost of appeasement to urgent demands in the short-term can be dire when unrealistic approaches are revealed as a facade of security in the long run.  My advice is to thoughtfully develop a comprehensive and sustainable approach to school security while not biting off more than you can chew for short-term pacification which creates great risks of long-term failures.

Light at the end of the tunnel – Safe Havens Resumes Efforts to post regular blogs and to create new free resources.

As anyone who follows our blogs knows, we have only been able to post six blogs since the February 14, 2108 tragedy at Marjorie-Stoneman Douglas High School. The massive and unprecedented surge of requests that has still not abated has resulted in our senior staff and many of our analysts becoming exhausted.

After 18 months of a seven-day a week schedule with average workdays of 12-18 hours and less than one day off a month, I decided that our leadership team could not continue working at this pace no matter how much it pains us to decline the opportunity to work to make schools safer. As one of my doctors at the Mayo Clinic explained it to me, I had two choices – I could “slow down” or I could “stop”. Though it has been truly painful, we were forced to begin declining more than 75% of all requests for new assessment projects, keynote presentations, consulting projects, and requests to serve as an expert witness starting about eight months ago. As a result, our leadership team is now getting at least a few days off each month.

While we have 62 dedicated analysts, Phuong Nguyen and I personally work on and provide oversight for all Safe Havens projects. While we plan to hire an exceptional executive-level project administrator to help us provide oversight to ease our heavy project load, we have also decided that we must scale back on our overall project load. This will allow us to focus more time, energy, and budget on developing a variety of school safety resources, tools, and train-the-trainer programs to increase the number of individuals who can share our concepts. We are currently evaluating a combination of live and distance learning concepts to make these programs more accessible.

We are still very heavily engaged in expert witness work for two major court cases, three massive school safety projects for large districts, some smaller assessment projects, and a number of conference keynotes. We have just been approved for a second contract extension to continue to assist the Broward County Public Schools (BCPS) as they continue to move forward in their significant upgrades in emergency preparedness and the implementation of the nation’s first Enterprise Risk Management Department as recommended in our Phase I report, rapidly approved by the School Board of Broward County, and in keeping with the Greater City Schools report recommending that the nation’s 70 largest public school systems adopt ERM in a 2016 report. Since we were unanimously selected by the School Board to conduct the nation’s first comprehensive school safety, security, climate, culture, and emergency preparedness in the wake of a mass casualty school shooting, the tragedy at MSD High, our work to assist the BCPS has been and will remain our single biggest priority. Having provided post-incident assistance for 19 of these types of tragedies in U.S., Canadian, and Mexican K12 schools, we have never seen a school district attempt to make such a major overhaul of their school safety efforts. We feel compelled to expend every ounce of energy we can whether for the services we have been contracted for or the hundreds of thousands of dollars in pro bono work our analysts have donated to the BCPS.

Conducting school safety, security, climate, culture and emergency preparedness assessments for more than 1,000 K12 schools in less than 18 months, while providing post-incident assistance for six active shooter and targeted school shootings and delivering more than 50 keynote presentations, writing a 600-page university textbook, and completing many other major projects has been incredibly tasking, even with more than 60 dedicated personnel. We love what we do but hope we never see such demand that we have to decline requests to assess a school district of more than 600 schools, dozens of mid-sized and large public school systems, and even more small public school systems, faith-based schools, independent schools, and charter schools. Our hearts hurt every time we have to advise a school or public safety official that they will have to wait a year or more before we can assist them. While an astounding number of school officials have agreed to wait 8-12 months, most do not have the ability to do so.

We plan to begin posting increasingly more regular blogs and starting in the summer, resume our work on new free guides on various school safety projects. We thank our loyal readers for their patience with us as we have had to delay adding new content to our website, releasing free guides and training videos and of course, releasing only six blogs in 24 months.

We appreciate how patient everyone has been with us and we plan to work hard to provide practical and useful blogs and free resources in short order.

20 Years After Columbine, Challenges Remain

We have learned a lot since Columbine, but Sandy Hook and Stoneman Douglas show us we can still improve.

Over the past year, Safe Havens has been relatively silent on social media and our website. As our regular readers know, we are typically very active in print and online media. This is a primary function of our mission to provide free resources. The unprecedented interest in school safety over the past year has forced us to reallocate resources. The demand for school safety services is unlike anything our analysts have seen over the past two decades. While we love what we do, we truly wish the demand had not been so urgent. Around this same time we also stopped running our monthly newsletter as our intern moved on. We are currently exploring new formats and looking for a few dedicated and qualified interns to resume these activities.

Our center was already engaged with a number of projects when the terrible tragedy occurred at Marjorie-Stoneman Douglas High School.  Safe Havens received a call or email request every five minutes for about two weeks. By the first of March, we declined about 50% of all requests for school security assessments. We also had to limit our emergency plan development projects, consulting work and conference keynotes.  I decided to decline almost every request to review cases as an expert witness. We also declined to submit proposals for two projects with estimated budgets approaching $2,000,000. These adjustments allowed us to focus our efforts on conducting assessment projects.  Though we have more than 60 highly capable analysts, our leadership team is relatively small and our capacity to provide proper oversight and quality control has limits.

There has been an unprecedented demand for school safety after the Parkland shooting.

Since the attack at Stoneman Douglas High School, our team completed reports for for more than 900 public, faith-based and independent schools. This included school safety, security, climate, culture and emergency preparedness assessments for two of the nation’s largest public school systems. One of these was an assessment of more than 250 schools and support facilities for the Broward County School System. Our analysts conducted more than 1,000 site visits, interviewed thousands of personnel and ran more than 2,000 controlled one-on-one crisis simulations with district staff. We also participated in public forums and conducted surveys and focus groups of more than 80,000 students. The end result was more than 15,000 pages of reports.

This is the first time we know of  a school system opting to have a comprehensive external assessment in the wake of a mass casualty school shooting. Typically, legal counsel and/or insurance carriers dissuade school officials from doing this level of assessment. In some cases, there are concerns relating to mental health recovery, in other cases, school officials opt not to do this because this process will identify gaps.

The Broward County School Board recently asked us to extend our contract by an additional twelve months. The long term goal is the creation of an Enterprise Risk Management System – a first for a “top 70” largest public school system in the nation. The ERM provides oversight, coordination and accountability. A modern and highly robust 24/7/365 communications and monitoring center will support these efforts. We are also currently scheduling assessments for more than 360 public, faith-based and independent schools as part of upcoming projects. Other upcoming projects include a five-year state-wide school emergency preparedness program and several other large multi-year projects.

Continuing to focus on our mission of creating safer schools for all

During this time, our analysts also completed a number of other projects. We assisted 6 school districts with updating their emergency operations plans. This included developing hundreds of new pages of content for one district to meet stringent state requirements. We also developed an active shooter prevention program for the South Carolina Department of Education. We delivered dozens of conference keynotes and worked on many other significant projects. Several of these are very complex, including a multi-year project to assess all Jewish schools in the Boston area.

Our requests for assistance from other countries has also increased during this time period. We have expended hundreds of hours of staff time providing assistance to school and public safety officials abroad, where schools are often far less safe than in the U.S. In our home state of Georgia we were asked to provide oversight and generate a report for a school safety commission for Fulton County Public Schools and have been asked to assist the state with development of new standards for school safety assessments.

Meanwhile, we are still working to finish the manuscript for our 600-page textbook Extreme Violence – Understanding and Protecting People from Active Assailant, Hate Crimes and Terrorism. In the wake of this unprecedented demand, our publisher was kind enough to agree to an extension to allow us to devote additional time to serve our clients.

How far have we come since the Columbine shooting?

We deeply regret the understandable levels of anxiety and fear that mass casualty school attacks have caused. The Sandy Hook shooting and Parkland Florida attack remind us that we still have much further to go. Our experience and judgment tells us otherwise, but we hope that the  upcoming school years are some of the safest on record. It may still seem like we have a long way to go, but it is important not to lose hope. One must only look back over the twenty years since the Columbine school shooting to see how far we have come since then. Countless lives have been saved by the efforts of hard working school safety professionals over the past two decades.