It has been just over a week since the recent tragic school shooting in Florida and the outcry for safer schools continues across the country. Understandably, everyone wants answers to why and how mass casualty incidents continue at our nation’s schools. The issues are complex, the solutions likely even more so. This article seeks to highlight one small area of this massive issue- how we can make our school campuses safer without huge outlays of technology, new buildings, or personnel expense.
My career in law enforcement has placed me in schools throughout the State of Delaware working with districts and administrators on ways to enhance school campus safety. When assigned as a School Resource Officer (SRO) in several Delaware schools and during two years as Deputy Director of Delaware's Comprehensive School Safety Plan, I learned of the vast spectrum of school safety related issues. During my tenure, never did I enter a school to teach violent intruder survival to staff or conduct a “Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design” (CPTED) assessment when I was not able to note potential for simple and effective safety enhancements.
As is the norm, the aftermath of all school mass casualty events includes vendors, with their school safety products, inundating school districts, educators, parents, and legislators. Let’s be honest, we’d all like our schools to have the best technology and new, more secure school facilities. However, my goal is to urge school districts, administrators and educators to employ enhancements which can be implemented expeditiously, at little or no cost, and which will immediately increase safety on their campuses.
While it’s true that a monitoring system with high resolution cameras, no blind spots, that is connected to your local 911 center and smartphones would be a great security measure, it’s simply not practical for most schools. In fact, most schools which are equipped with cameras only utilize them for post-incident investigations. Additionally, few of those schools with cameras have developed strategic plans on how those cameras would be utilized during critical incidents which means, unfortunately, they wouldn’t be utilized for those incidents. While waiting for the school board to approve, or the PTO to raise funding for, a new $50,000 camera system, there are several safety practices which can be quickly implemented to increase effective natural surveillance on campus.
Natural Surveillance is a very important component of the CPTED principals. People who believe they are being observed are less likely to commit crimes. Restrooms and parking lots are two important areas that should be checked throughout the school day. Whether the walk through is conducted by a custodian, teacher, paraprofessional, safety monitor, etc., they should be checked often and documented. Restrooms provide students opportunities to skip class, fight, conceal/sell weapons/drugs, etc. Merely increasing adult presence in school restroom areas is a deterrent to many of these activities.
Parking lots are another area where surveillance is typically minimal. Taking observation outside is much more effective than scanning with limited peripherals from inside the building. Similar to restroom checks, having someone walk the parking lot helps to strengthen and advertise the vigilance of your campus. Unusual activity that is observed should be communicated with administration immediately. Small infractions like parking violations should be addressed as soon as they are noticed. Consider this: a person wishing to do harm will typically look for the closest route into the building, which could be the fire lane in front of your entrance. Again, consistently enforcing all infractions, regardless of their perceived importance, will demonstrate a culture of vigilance and help prevent attacks.
There are some outstanding visitor management systems available that can undeniably enhance campus security, but visitor procedures should be enhanced and implemented now. When visitors arrive on campus, have a detailed procedure for office staff to follow. Allowing visitors to check themselves in is not considered best practice. I've seen many examples where a clipboard sign-in is placed on the office counter for self-check or a computer is placed near the entrance for visitors to check themselves in and print their own badge. The vetting of visitors is a responsibility of the office and a school staff member should always verify the identification provided. Consider keeping non-generic blank visitor stickers on hand in the office which hare easily identified as belonging to your campus. Once a visitor provides identification and your school database is checked, be sure to fill out the visitor badge with complete information. Once a visitor provides identification and your school database is checked, be sure to fill out the visitor badge with complete information. This information includes the visitor’s name, time, day, and destination. These identifying marks should be prominent so that anyone passing the visitor in the hallway could quickly read the badge and assess. Remind staff that they are enforcers of your visitor policies. If a teacher on the third floor passes a man in the hallway and notices his badge says "9:30 a.m. NURSE", and the nurses office is located on the first floor, that teacher has a responsibility to stop the visitor, ask questions, and contact administration. Fight “Normalcy Bias” in your buildings. Staff will commonly discredit indicators of danger in favor of the norm. Staff involvement is paramount to the enforcement of visitor management.
No one, unless they are an employee of your school, should be on campus without being vetted and receiving a visitor pass. How often are deliveries made to your school? Do you have any idea who the driver of that delivery truck is? There is absolutely nothing wrong with contacting vendors and requesting driver identifications to allow for vetting. What if that food delivery driver has an active restraining order against him from his wife who is a teacher in your building? Stay aware, stay vigilant, check your visitors.
This paragraph assumes you already have safety teams formed in each school. If you do not have a safety team, form one immediately. Safety teams should be comprehensive and include representation of teachers, custodial staff, food service, school counselors, special education departments or providers, parents, and local first responders. Bring the team together on a consistent basis to allow communication to flow throughout your building regarding safety concerns and solutions. Also, create a safety team email group that allow collaboration between meetings on concerns as they arise. The email chain of the safety team will also provide documentation of safety related concerns which can be used to leverage support from district office, school employees, and the community.
This article only focuses on three areas which could enhance safety on campus, but there are certainly more. My hope is that in this time of public demand for expensive and often time-consuming school safety upgrades, immediate action can focus on practices that can be implemented quickly and without incurring cost. Some of safest schools I’ve visited, do not rely on school safety technological advancements; instead, they rely on their school’s culture of putting student safety at the forefront. It’s easy to get caught up in the "but we don't have" mentality. A more proactive approach is to increase your school’s safety with the "this is what we can do" attitude. School safety is most effective in this culture of awareness, proactivity and diligence.