By Tara Gibson - September 10, 2020
Amid our current climate, K-12 schools and districts are focusing school safety efforts primarily on how to reopen schools safely as the coronavirus continues to spread. Although the pandemic is certainly a viable school safety threat – to both students and school staff – there are unfortunately other school safety scenarios to consider, such as an active assailant, weather disaster, or other traumatic event, any of which could have an enormous impact on a community.
The U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) Office of Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) School Safety Working Group recently released the “Ten Essential Actions to Improve Safety” report which identifies 10 vital actions schools, districts, and law enforcement agencies can take to prevent mass-casualty attacks and respond both rapidly and effectively to end safety threats as quickly as possible.
Though the document specifically addresses active shooter scenarios, the suggested actions can also apply to other areas of school safety, including severe weather events, a medical emergency, and more.
The “Ten Essential Actions to Improve Safety” report recommends a balanced, comprehensive, holistic approach that reflects physical safety, mental health and personal connection as priorities within the school community, according to Campus Safety Magazine. Protecting a school or district involves a variety of stakeholders including:
Find a condensed and summarized version of the 10 essential actions to improve school safety below:
The report tells us that the foundation for all school safety plans, security protocol, and operational procedure will be a comprehensive risk assessment plan. This should identify the highest probability of threats, their potential consequences, and the school or school district’s vulnerabilities to those threats. This living document must be reviewed and updated annually to accound for input from stakeholders and changes in school policy.
The report shares the following elements that are occasionally missing from school safety plans that should be included:
The Federal Commission suggests using the risk assessment to “prioritize security enhancements based on available resources.”
Schools and districts must foster a culture of connection and inclusion, as isolation and detachment are often traits exhibited by school shooters. By creating a positive school climate, educators will find the promotion of respectful, trusting, and caring relationships between students and school staff, which is an important aspect of school safety. Students are also more likely to feel comfortable asking for help or reporting concerns about their peers.
K-12 schools are taking steps to build safe, welcoming, and inclusive cultures by putting the following measures in place:
According to the Federal Commission, “One of the biggest concerns raised by schools and school districts since the Parkland shooting has been their inability to easily sift through the multitude of security options, equipment, technologies, etc., that are available to their schools.”
Schools should begin planning for security upgrades with a comprehensive risk assessment to identify critical gaps in campus, building, and classroom security. Once the gaps have been identified, schools can then develop plans for acquiring and deploying the needed technology and equipment to maintain school safety.
Campus Safety Magazine explains that at a minimum, schools should have the following protective physical security measures in place:
Furthermore, 70% of public schools in the United States were built before 1970, meaning retrofitting for school safety should be evaluated, according to the report.
Anonymous reporting systems have proven to help identify and communicate potential targeted violence as well as student suicidal threats. This tool allows students to identify concerns without fear of retribution or stigma. For example, Safe2Tell in Colorado received more than 1,500 reports of suicidal threats in the second semester (January-June) of the 2017-2018 school year.
The COPS Office School Safety Working Group and the Federal Commission recommend that “schools and school districts establish anonymous reporting systems for members of the school community to use to convey information about concerning behaviors.”
Schools and districts must coordinate with first responders – 9-1-1, law enforcement, and emergency medical services - as they’ll be heavily involved when responding to an active shooter or other critical incidents. Both advanced planning and joint training are essential to ensure the emergency response is rapid and effective.
The COPS Office School Safety Working Group recommends that “coordination between schools and law enforcement begin with the safety assessment and flow through the development of policies and the emergency operations plan to train ongoing drills and periodic evaluation.” Identifying and clarifying specific roles and responsibilities, clearly communicating them, and practicing drills could be the difference between life and death.
Some key considerations include:
A mobile panic button application could be a hugely helpful technology to assist with coordinating with first responders. This tool is centered around interoperability, and with the push of a button will connect 9-1-1, law enforcement, first responders, and school staff, ensuring all relevant stakeholders will be immediately notified of a specific emergency, such as an active assailant.
Watch this short video to see how a panic button application works:
When schools and law enforcement receive information about a potential threat they should thoroughly evaluate and corroborate that information and then develop a plan to manage the threat, time permitting. A threat assessment program has been proven to be beneficial in preventing mass-casualty attacks.
A multi-disciplinary threat assessment team should be both trained on effective threat assessment considerations and comprised of multiple stakeholders including teachers; administrators; school resource officers; and school mental health professionals such as a school psychologist, social worker, or counselor or if necessary other mental health professionals, according to Campus Safety Magazine.
According to the Federal Commission, “The school personnel best positioned to respond to acts of violence are those with specialized training such as school resource officers (SRO), who are typically sworn law enforcement officers, and school safety officers (SSO), who are typically unsworn school security staff.”
For schools and districts without the resources to place an SRO in each of its schools, the following options should be considered:
The Federal Commission believes that schools have the potential to play a key role in preventing youth mental, emotional, and behavioral difficulties by being able to identify and support students with mental health problems to ultimately reduce youth violence.
By hiring mental health counselors, psychologists, and social workers, K-12 schools can proactively help students – who require access to a continuum of mental health services - by providing prevention, early intervention, and treatment. Schools must also develop collaborative partnerships with community-based and local government social service providers who can support students with more intensive mental health needs. Leveraging these partnerships can sometimes augment limited funding.
During an emergency event, such as an active shooter situation, everybody in the vicinity must understand what to do and how to get to safety. Creating “muscle memory” and clear expectations of everyone’s role – including teachers, staff, and students – during an emergency are best achieved through the conduct of active assailant drills regularly throughout the academic year. Identify and craft a plan that can prepare students without inflicting unnecessary trauma.
Schools can alternate between active shooter drills, weather emergency drills, and fire drills as permitted or required by state law and school district policies and procedures. According to the report, Safe and Sound Schools recommends debriefing sessions following all drills to identify challenges encountered and ideas for improvement.
It’s no secret: school-aged kids and adolescents spend an enormous amount of time online. Putting in place social media monitoring provides constant online scanning of messages within a geofence around a school or school district. This system can identify both threats and at-risk behavior, such as cyberbullying.
The COPS Office School Safety Working Group concurs with the Federal Commission’s assessment that these systems, when implemented with strong protocols to safeguard privacy and free speech, can be an effective tool in a comprehensive, multilayered school safety plan.
Although currently, the pandemic has gripped the nation, other notable school safety threats must also be prevented and addressed. By following COPS “Ten Essential Actions to Improve Safety” report, K-12 schools and districts can proactively work to protect their school community.
Tara is a Marketing Coordinator on the Rave Mobile Safety marketing team. She loves writing about all things K-12, State & Local, Higher Ed, Corporate, and Healthcare, and manages the Rave social media channels. When she's not working, she's taking care of her smiley, shoe eating, Instagram-famous fur baby, Enzo!