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.

Preventing Grooming, Sexual Assault and Sexual Misconduct in Schools

School Planning and Management Magazine published a feature article on preventing sexual misconduct in schools in June 2016.  The article – Preventing Grooming, Sexual Assault and Sexual Misconduct in Schools is focused on concepts that school officials can use to reduce the chances that these tragic situations will occur.  I regularly assist school officials in preventing these incidents and have provided expert witness services for cases involving sexual misconduct.  While it is not possible to completely eliminate these traumatic incidents from K12 schools, there are many valuable concepts that can dramatically reduce the risks that they will occur.

While the field of K12 education has made tremendous progress in this area, we still often see opportunities for improvement in the way schools are designed and operated.  This article focuses on design concepts, security technologies, and increased awareness that can help prevent these types of incidents.  While other extremely important preventive measures to reduce the chances that sexual violence will occur in the school setting, renovation, and new school construction projects are an excellent opportunity to protect staff and students from sexual violence on campus.

The article can be accessed on the School Planning and Management website at:  https://webspm.com/Articles/2017/06/01/Sexual-Assault.aspx

 

School Shootings, No Simple Answers

Mass casualty school shootings are neither a new phenomenon nor a type of violence unique to American schools.  Though American school shootings predate the Civil war, the first mass casualty school shooting in an American K12 school we have identified took place in a Newburgh, New York Parochial School on April 19, 1891.  A 70-year-old man shot five students with a shotgun in this attack.  Just more than a decade later, an elementary teacher shot and killed three trustees of a Mennonite School in Canada before going across the street and shooting their three children to death.  Tragically, mass casualty school shootings have also occurred in Argentina, Austria, Australia, Brazil, Canada, China, Finland, Germany, India, Israel, Mexico, Nigeria, Russia, and Scotland, just to name a few countries.  School and police officials have expressed concerns about school shootings in every one of the more than two dozen countries our analysts have worked in.

To dispel another common myth, attackers have used firearms, edged weapons, gasoline, swords, clubs, hatchets, explosives, a homemade flamethrower, and other weapons to carry out mass casualty school attacks in the United States and many other countries as far back as 1764.   In fact, there is no region of the world that has been left touched by the types of extreme violence in K12 schools.

While many pundits, special interest groups, vendors, elected officials and individuals with the very best of intention suggest an array of simple solutions, there are actually no examples of any singular approach that has been proven to eliminate mass casualty violence in schools.   While it is a healthy and natural part of our culture to discuss and debate potential strategies to further reduce the number of homicides in our schools, it is extremely important that schools do not overlook the measures that have been repeatedly used to successfully avert planned school shootings while seeking new protection measures.  While schools consider an array of new theoretical but as yet not validated approaches, it is imperative that student threat assessment and management, suicide prevention and other proven behavioral prevention measures be more widely utilized.   While there are no simple answers nor 100% effective approaches to prevent school shootings, there are approaches that have been used to successfully avert hundreds of planned and imminent school shootings.

While every school homicide is one too many, we cannot lose sight of the fact that multiple planned school shootings are successfully averted for every successfully carried out attack.  While we continually hear about the “good old days” when mass casualty school attacks were not a concern, history provides many examples of horrific attacks from colonial times to the present.   The 24/7 news cycle and the development of the internet make us painfully and almost instantly aware of horrific attacks that in the past did not receive national attention.  Keeping in mind that there are more K12 students in U.S. K12 schools each day than there are human beings in Canada and Australia combined can also provide a more accurate perspective.   As with child molestation by school employees and staggering numbers of fatalities from drunk driving prior to the efforts of Mothers Against Drunk Driving to educate us, we are far more aware of homicides in K12 schools than we were when a school board member carried out a deadly bombing of the Bath School in Michigan killing 43 students and staff in 1927.  It is also important to remember that our nation’s most lethal K12 attack occurred at the Our Lady of Angels Sacred Hearts school in Chicago in 1958 when a troubled elementary child killed 95 students and staff with a book of matches.

While we seek new ways to make our schools safer, it is at serious risk to our students and those who educate them for us to invest considerable time, energy and fiscal resources on theoretical measures while ignoring proven measures that have repeatedly prevented deadly school shootings and bombings over the past three decades.