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.

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.

South Carolina Advanced Emergency Management Training for School Districts Train the Trainer Program

It has been a true privilege to be able to work with five really outstanding groups of participants in a train the trainer program for the South Carolina Department of Education this month. We feel honored to have been selected by a competitive bid process to develop and present the five modules for this initiative across the state of South Carolina. We have been impressed to see school superintendents, business officers, operations and facilities directors, risk managers, student services, mental health, security directors, and law enforcement officers dedicate two days of their time for these information rich discussions.

Safe Havens developed customized presentations for five topical areas for the program:

  • Permission to Live – Engaging and Empowering School Personnel to Perform Life-Saving Actions and Communications
  • The Window of Life – How to Empower Staff to Act Fast and Survive Deadly Encounters
  • Getting Back Together – Off-Site Family Reunification for School Crisis Events
  • When the Dust Clears – How to Test the Effectiveness of a Continuity of Operations Plan
  • Road to Recovery – Putting Your Mental Health Recovery Plan to the Test

We researched and updated each of these topics and customized them to fit the needs of the South Carolina Department of Education and the school districts they serve. The Department has completed two prior projects to provide training for school staff and their community partners in school emergency planning. The – train the trainer programs were designed to help participants train personnel, conduct scenario-based building and district level drills and exercises to test the fidelity of their prevention, preparedness, response and recovery plans. The program was also designed to help districts improve their approaches to documentation of safety efforts to reduce civil liability exposure, risk of reputation damage and most importantly, to help prevent injury and loss of life.

The participants have each been provided with multimedia presentations for each of the five topics, planning and evaluation tools, and more than 30 school crisis video and audio scenarios. The focus of this program has been on providing tools to help the instructors not only provide high-quality scenario-based training, but also with ways to help obtain buy-in from school employees. This last point has been one of the biggest challenges school safety personnel face. The use of scenarios in each of the five modules are designed to help school officials and their community partners understand their risks, identify gaps and identify appropriate and realistic opportunities for improvement.

We are thankful to have had the opportunity to participate in a variety of statewide school safety initiatives in South Carolina, North Carolina, South Dakota, Hawaii, Indiana, Maine, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, and the District of Columbia. These programs afford excellent opportunities for Safe Havens to have a much broader and meaningful impact on school safety, and we feel truly blessed to work with state agencies on these exciting projects.