Insights, Lessons from CSSC School Safety and Mental Health Briefing

On April 11, 2019, the Secure Schools Alliance co-hosted a briefing with the Congressional School Safety Caucus, “The Importance of Mental Health in Comprehensive School Safety and Security Efforts.” The panel briefing and discussion was moderated by Alliance Board Member Michele Gay.

“In the current climate, when we hear the term school safety, many people immediately think of school shootings, high-profile mass shootings like recently in Parkland and ours in Sandy Hook. These are horrific and even one is unacceptable. But school shootings are actually statistically rare, and we’ve learned through our work…that the unique safety needs of each community are unique.”

The wide-ranging discussion touched on topics including:

  • The most pressing school safety issues beyond school shootings
  • Effective district-level policies and programs
  • Teacher and staff resources and training
  • Real-world examples of best practices in school safety and security
  • The important interaction between SROs and mental health professionals

“Culture of care is what comes to mind,” said Gay during the discussion. “We’re cultivating this shared culture of taking care of one another and making sure that each and every child and staff member in our community is truly safe, psychologically and physically.”

Watch the full video of the CSSC briefing below.

Police Foundation Releases New Reports on Averted School Violence

The Police Foundation recently released two studies delivering findings from the Averted School Violence (ASV) database. The Foundation’s Center for Mass Violence Response Studies, in collaboration with the U.S. Justice Department COPS Office, implemented the ASV database to provide a platform for sharing information about averted incidents of violence in institutions of elementary, secondary, and higher education. The ASV project defines an incident of averted school violence as a violent attack planned with or without the use of a firearm that was prevented before any injury or loss of life occurred.

A Preliminary Report on the Police Foundation’s Averted School Violence Database

The preliminary report analyzes 51 averted incidents of school violence selected from the ASV database to begin to improve our understanding of averted school attacks. The report begins with a case study of one averted attack and then details findings on the 51 averted incidents in the study. It concludes with recommendations for law enforcement and school administration to improve school safety. Read the full report.

A Comparison of Averted and Completed School Attacks from the Averted School Violence Database

As a companion to A Preliminary Report on the Police Foundation’s Averted School Violence Database, this report compares and analyzes 51 completed acts of school violence with 51 averted incidents from the ASV database. It includes findings on the demographics of individuals who plan attacks, victims’ demographics in completed attacks, and community characteristics. The report also provides important recommendations to minimize school violence and improve student and school safety. Read the full report.

Use Common Sense When Purchasing Campus Security Technology

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In my line of work, I see a lot of security technology and solutions that are effective. I also see some that are downright silly, impractical or even dangerous.  Unfortunately, when a highly publicized active shooter attack happens on a campus, some people let their fears outweigh their common sense. This makes them prone to making ill-advised technology and equipment purchases.

A great example of this is bullet-proof backpacks, which can cost as much as $500 each. Inevitably after something like a Parkland, Sandy Hook or Virginia Tech tragedy happens, parents rush out to buy these things in hopes they will protect their children from the next school shooting.

There are several issues I have with these backpacks:

  • Although the rate of gun violence in America is unacceptably high, the chances of someone being killed by an active shooter are really, really small. You are much more likely to be struck by lightning.
  • Even in the unlikely event that a student does get caught up in an active shooter attack, the backpack won’t protect them from the front or side. Additionally, in an effort to get away from the shooter more quickly, they might take off their backpack, rendering it useless.
  • Again, in the unlikely event that a student experiences a school shooting, there is a really good chance the student won’t be wearing their backpack if they are sitting in class, at lunch, playing on the playground or exercising in physical education class.

I also have issues with schools installing ballistic classroom doors, which can cost around $4,000 each. In all my years running Campus Safety magazine and, I have yet to hear of a school, university or hospital shooter successfully breaching a locked interior door. Even those wimpy push-button locks haven’t been breached (yet).  That’s because active shooters almost always want high body counts. When they encounter a locked door, they simply move on to an entrance that isn’t locked or is a softer target.

Now, there might come a time when an active shooter will breach a locked interior door. However, the likelihood of that happening at your specific campus is infinitesimally small. It’s even smaller than the remote chance of an active shooter attack happening at your location in the first place.

I’m not saying that ballistic doors don’t have their place on some campuses. If you have a high-security location —such as a nuclear facility or infectious disease research lab — that type of solution might be very appropriate. But if you install those doors on your run-of-the-mill classrooms, you are probably wasting your money.

So which security technologies and equipment should your campus buy? I generally prefer solutions that have multiple applications and can prevent or mitigate multiple risks. For example, locks not only enable  teachers to lockdown their classrooms, locks also can also prevent theft and vandalism. The purchase is even better if you can use it during your day-to-day operations. For example, card access control solutions not only improve security, the cards themselves can be used by students, faculty, clinicians and staff as debit cards, cafeteria cards, library cards, laundry access cards and more.

So, here is a list of just some the security equipment and technologies I believe are wise investments:

  • Classroom door locks: These should comply with all fire and ADA codes, and should be lockable from the inside of the room so a teacher, administrator or other staff member can quickly lockdown and shelter in place.
  • Access control: Card access systems can enable a campus to lockdown quickly. They also allow administrators to deactivate a card when a person stops attending the school or an employee is terminated. Additionally, data from these systems can help law enforcement investigate campus crime.
  • Two-way radios and other forms of emergency communication: These should be used not only during security and safety incidents, but also for regular campus operations. If possible, radios should be able to communicate with local first responders during an emergency.
  • Emergency notification: Multiple layers of these mass communication devices should be deployed, such as public address systems, text alerts, voice evac systems, strobes, digital signage, etc.
  • Security cameras: Video surveillance can help security personnel verify alarms. Additionally, cameras can help with investigations, as well as monitor other issues, such as damage from flooding and crowds at concerts and athletic events.
  • Fire alarms: These sound when there is a fire and can be leveraged for mass notification.
  • Intrusion alarms: These can monitor campuses during off-hours, as well as areas prone to tampering or other issues (such as flooding).
  • Window security film: This solution not only slows down a would-be attacker from entering through a window, it also prevents glass from breaking during severe weather emergencies and protects building occupants from flying debris. Additionally, it can help conserve energy.
  • Secure vestibules: This approach funnels all visitors through one entrance so their identity can be verified.
  • Anonymous tip lines: These should not only accept information via phone, but also text and online. They can identify potential active shooters as well as individuals who might be suicidal or experiencing some other crisis.

There are many more excellent solutions on the market that I haven’t mentioned here, but this is a good start. In addition to these, be sure you incorporate Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design (CPTED) concepts. Also, don’t forget about other non-technical solutions, such as threat assessment and management; training of officers, other staff, students and clinicians; mental health services; social services and more.

There are a lot of great campus security solutions on the market right now, but campuses must do their research and use some common sense so they invest wisely.


School Resource Officers Advance Safety through Relationship-Based Policing

SROs and relationship-based policing

The Virginia House of Delegates has agreed to a set of school safety recommendations produced by a special committee appointed after the mass violence at Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida in February 2018.

Among the recommendations is increased funding for school resource officers (SROs). Secure Schools Alliance Executive Director Robert Boyd spoke with the Richmond Times-Dispatch’s Justin Mattingly about the recommendations and the important role SROs play in advancing school safety. Boyd noted that SROs should be trained and invested in the schools they protect.

The article also reads in part:

“It’s a calling, just like teaching,” Boyd said. “Police officers that want to be in schools need to be involved in what we’re now calling relationship-based policing.

“They ought to be involved in the everyday life of a school. They’re not just there to enforce the law – they’re really there to have this relationship-based policing with our youngest citizens.”

Read the full article.

Build US Schools

Public school facilities are inequitably funded. Public school districts rely heavily on local taxes to fund their buildings. On average, states fund only 18% of the cost of school construction and modernization. 12 states pay nothing. Worse, the federal government pays for less than 1%, all through FEMA. All that translates into an annual gap of $38 billion between what communities should be spending to modernize their schools — and what they can afford.

Safe and Sound Schools

Article Originally On:

Our mission is to support school crisis prevention, response, and recovery, and to protect every school and every student, every day.We have always — and only — focused on school safety. We are firm in our mission and firm in our resolve, and we will continue to provide research-based education, tools, and resources to ensure the safest possible learning environment for the youth of our nation.

The Partner Alliance for Safer Schools


The Partner Alliance for Safer Schools (PASS) has a singular focus: To provide school administrators, school boards and public safety and security professionals with guidelines for implementing a layered and tiered approach to securing and enhancing the safety of their school environments.

Today’s school safety and security challenges are multifaceted and complex.  There is no single action that that will, by itself, make our schools safe, and for that reason it is essential to pursue solutions across the emergency management spectrum of prevention, protection, mitigation, response, and recovery.

However, it is clear that modern, effective security infrastructure should be an essential component of any comprehensive school safety strategy.  When other prevention efforts fail, facility security measures are critical to protection, mitigation and response to school violence.

The PASS guidelines are focused on best practices for securing school facilities.  They were developed to help address several needs identified by the education community:

  • Identification of specific actions that can be taken to raise the baseline of security
  • Information on vetted security practices specific to K-12 environments
  • A means to measure current facility security with best practices despite the general lack of standards and legislative or regulatory requirements
  • Identification of multiple options for addressing security needs, based on available resources

This session will be a high level review of the Partner Alliance for Safer Schools (PASS), the challenges schools face in securing their environments and the PASS roadmap of “Best Practices” and tools to help school districts through the process.

How Best to Secure U.S. Schools

The cases present largely the same way: A troubled white male with a gun gains entry to a school in a leafy green suburb of a small, majority-white, middle- or upper-class community known for being safe and having a good education system.

They’re places like Benton, Kentucky; Rockford, Washington; and, most recently, Parkland, Florida, where a former student killed 17 children and adults last month in a mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.

The towns could generally be described as “sleepy,” their populations often not even creeping into the five figures. Violent crime usually isn’t a factor. Parkland, for example, recorded just one homicide in the last 15 years – a 2014 domestic killing in which a husband fatally stabbed his wife after seeing her with another man. They’re often not places traumatized daily by local headlines of gunplay and death.

They stand in stark contrast to urban areas like Chicago and Baltimore, where killings come annually by the hundreds, poverty persists, and gun violence in neighborhoods immediately outside the schools can be unrelenting and unsparing. Young people in those predominantly black places experience a different, and no less damaging, type of trauma. But to now, they have largely been spared the mass-shooter scenario.

The schools in areas where gun violence is part of everyday life are not securing their campuses very differently from the seemingly “safe” schools where mass shootings have taken place, school safety experts say. In fact, they say, when it comes to securing schools, each strategy is unique.

“There is a no template for school security,” says Erroll Southers, professor at the University of Southern California and director of the school’s Safe Communities Institute. “Every school is different. Every school has its own vulnerabilities, it has its own assets and it has its own cultures.”

He similarly says there is no single security weakness that shooters exploit when they attack a school.

“I’m really reluctant to suggest that there is some commonality other than there was a vulnerability that these individuals took advantage of,” says Southers, a former FBI special agent who has served in counterterrorism and public safety positions at every level of government and who currently helps perform risk assessments for schools across the country. “And I wouldn’t necessarily say the schools were inadequately protected.”

In the case of Parkland, for example, the school had security cameras and armed resource officers who patrolled the grounds. The perpetrator, who had been reported to authorities multiple times, was a former student with behavioral issues who had been expelled. In Newtown, Connecticut, where in 2012 a gunman fatally shot 20 6- and 7-year-olds and six school staff members, emergency drills involving teachers and students had recently been conducted. The shooter, a former student with mental health issues who lived near the school, killed himself at the scene.

While schools may conduct safety drills and while parents and politicians debate the pros and cons of arming teachers, school security experts say there are major lapses that need to be addressed. Only 12 states have established guidelines or standards for school facility security, for example. And only 12 states provide school districts with funding for school security. While 48 states require training based on individual school emergency plans, only 27 require schools to audit and assess their facilities.

Six major safety measures as identified by the Secure Schools Alliance. Information was gathered and reviewed by the Police Foundation and the University of Southern California’s Safe Communities Institute.

Those are a few of the six major school security measures states should consider, according to the Secure Schools Alliance. Those measures include having: established funding for districts to use for school security, an adopted set of safety standards that districts can use as guidelines, a requirement that schools have emergency plans and conduct trainings for school staff and students to practice those plans, a requirement that districts and schools audit and assess their facilities and emergency plans, and the creation of school safety centers.

The alliance compiled state school security data in collaboration with the Police Foundation and USC’s Safe Communities Institute and found that only five states currently tick each of the six boxes: Connecticut, Indiana, Mississippi, New Jersey and Virginia. Eight states have established all but one.

Two – Hawaii and South Dakota – have none of the identified security measures in place.

“What’s the first thing someone says when they’re interviewed on network TV after a school shooting?” Southers asks. “‘I never thought this would happen here.’ That thinking has to go out the window.”

One of the major hurdles, Robert Boyd, the executive director of the Secure Schools Alliance, says, is that schools and districts are often hesitant to perform vulnerability assessments because, if they don’t have the money to make the recommended upgrades, it could legally implicate them should something happen.

“If I’m a school principal or school superintendent, I don’t want to go assess my schools and figure out where the liabilities are if I don’t have the money to fix them,” Boyd says. “States need to be making grants to schools and districts to implement things they learn based on standards the states set.”

But that shouldn’t be an excuse, he says, since the most effective and impactful things are often the least costly.

“It’s just basic stuff that works,” he says.

One of the most effective deterrents to threats is having established protocols for how people enter the school. Signs directing visitors to a single entrance, for example, where they must sign in, present identification and be approved before gaining entry to the school itself, ideally via some sort of remote locking and unlocking system, is crucial, experts say.

Emergency drills should become as common as fire drills, so students and teachers know exactly what to do. And when it comes to locks, giving staff key cards instead of actual keys to access doors is another low-cost major threat deterrent.

“When you lose keys, that’s a security risk,” Mac Hardy, director of operations at the National Association of School Resource Officers, says. “But if you have a key card, then all you have to do with the click of the computer is turn that card off and it’s a piece of plastic.”

Security cameras, which can be more expensive, also add a relatively simple layer of protection – though only if they work, are maintained properly and someone is watching them.

“If cameras are just up there and look pretty and look good but maintenance is not kept up on them and they have a tendency to break or quit functioning, then what’s the point?” asks Hardy, who previously worked at Hoover High School, just outside of Birmingham, Alabama, which had 187 cameras running. “If you don’t sit there and you don’t have somebody who’s monitoring cameras for the whole school day and that’s their job – their job is not supervising students – then cameras can just be reactive because an incident occurs and you go back and look.”

In Chicago, for example, each school has an individual safety plan that’s tailored to address the unique challenges associated with each neighborhood. In all cases, exterior doors are secured during the school day and visitors must ring a doorbell from the outside that’s equipped with a camera so that staff can see who is trying to enter.

In all schools, safety officers hold posts in different locations, and some schools also employ resource officers from the Chicago Police Department and benefit from staff members that patrol various routes students take to and from school. Students and staff wear identification badges, and some schools utilize metal detectors.

What Chicago benefits from the most, its officials say, is an intensive focus on social and emotional learning and a restorative justice approach to discipline in which schools focus on ways to counsel students who commit nonviolent offenses instead of giving them out-of-school suspensions.

Indeed, schools need to do more than simply secure their campuses, experts agree.

“It’s great to be fortifying our buildings, but I’m also going to say too is that the biggest thing we can do as school officials is try to be more proactive in the mental health areas,” says Guy Grace, the director of security and emergency preparedness for the Littleton School District in Colorado.

Littleton school district, whose neighboring school district suffered through the 1999 shooting at Columbine High School, where two seniors fatally shot 12 students and a teacher, performed a risk assessment in the wake of its own school shooting in 2013 at Arapahoe High School, where a student fatally shot another student before killing himself. What they found is that they were actually well-equipped when it came to security protocols but lacked in offering mental health services.

Since then, Littleton has focused on integration of mental health services into their security protocols, so that school psychologists work hand in hand with school resource officers and others to constantly assess potential threats. The district also established a “safe to tell” system that allows students, teachers and other staff to report when someone is acting out of character or violent or making threats.

“That has been really, really helpful for us as a schools district,” Grace says, noting that the safe to tell system has allowed them to interrupt at least two instances in which students were making threats and had made hit lists.

Whatever states, school districts and schools decide to implement, security experts say, the most important thing they can do is constantly reassess their security protocols to avoid any oversights or new issues that arise.

“Once you have it in place and it’s there and you’ve paid the money for it, you’ve got to check on it,” Hardy says. “When you have to answer the question why – why didn’t you do this, or why didn’t you follow up – we hope that your answers for why are very positive because I don’t want to answer the question of why from a parent who just lost a child.”