Part of the Secure Schools Alliance Issue Briefing Series: “A Toolkit for K-12 Learning Institutions and Law Enforcement”
Addressing and assessing the security of K-12 schools nationwide has proven challenging, as community stakeholders often question their role in preventing and responding to school-based incidents. Questions over accountability remain—does school security and preparedness fall solely on school administrators, law enforcement, or the U.S. Department of Education? Or rather, is it a collaborative effort to secure K-12 public schools, where all partners share responsibility? While school administrators are held accountable for ensuring students and faculty are prepared in case of an emergency and for taking all possible measures to secure their campuses, they cannot work alone. Entrusting local law enforcement, as the first responders to most incidents, is an important partnership. Officers also face questions about school security before and after an emergency situation, and have expertise in keeping the wider community safe. Yet, securing school buildings remains challenging due to funding and budgets, competing interests, demographics and school location (inner city versus suburb), proximity to law enforcement, varying standards in school security that change from district to district and state to state, and political priorities. Each school therefore differs in their security needs, and some school districts fail to meet minimum standards which other schools exceed.
Stakeholders throughout the community have important support roles to play in school preparedness and security, and can help further the conversation about improving security standards. Finding ways to engage local law enforcement, while developing formalized partnerships with administrators enhances school security from the local level. At the same time, parents/guardians can be more involved in ensuring that the schools they entrust their children to have appropriate preparedness and security plans. Even businesses have a role in taking the initiative to provide low-cost or no-cost trainings, while the media can bring the community together to identify and address security and preparedness gaps.
This brief expands upon some of the roles and responsibilities of each support stakeholder, and can serve as the beginning of community-wide discussions related to school safety and security.
School Administrators are Key to Strengthening Security
School Administrators play a key role in strengthening school security protocols and procedures, and directly impact emergency plans and safety development for schools. Superintendents and “individual school principals’ first priority is undoubtedly to keep students safe,” however they may often struggle to find funds to enhance physical security and can be hesitant to reallocate money from educational programming and staff training. Also, it is important for school leaders to balance safety and security approaches. According to one article, “Principles and school boards must invest as much, if not more, in their people and in dedicating time to safety and preparedness planning, as they do in physical security enhancements.” While school boards and administrators create a climate of school safety in schools, they also work with teachers and faculty in all stages of safety programs and implementation. Finding a way to address the most vital security concerns while not impeding curricula or school climate is key.
In order to advance a school’s emergency preparedness and security measures, school administrators may consider:
- Liaising with local public safety agencies, such as emergency management, fire, police, and medical services;
- Together with public safety officials, assessing the school’s ability to perform population protection and incident management;
- Collaborating with law enforcement to lead the school safety initiative, especially as it relates to improving response plans and protocols that address identified gaps in physical security measures;
- Conducting a community forum with parents, teachers, students and first responders to discuss the steps that school administrators have taken to better secure the facilities. This type of engagement will allow a greater comprehensive understanding on the topic;
- Participating in statewide school security conferences;
- Prioritizing, to the extent possible, constantly improving security measures;
- Researching best practices, tools and school security checklists to aid the creation of preparedness plans;
- Creating or otherwise providing training, and equipping faculty and students in emergency preparedness and response;
- Devising a formal, all-hazards emergency response plan, in collaboration with public safety officials, that falls under an identifiable budget, and delineating roles and responsibilities of essential personnel to carry out the plan;
- Conducting emergency planning drills, documenting outcomes, and revising the plans as needed;
- Going above and beyond state and local requirements to ensure the security and preparedness of their facilities;
- Recognizing that school security and emergency planning is a continuous process that requires reviewing plans and security measures at least annually; and
- During and after a critical incident, making sure the media receives regular updates, particularly local media contacts, even if there have been no changes in information this will happen with a good relationship between with the school PIO and media representative.
Teachers Play a Vital Role in Protecting the School
Teachers naturally take on a role of protection with a ‘culture of care’ philosophy where teacher practices promote positive interactions and relationships that makes children feel happy, secure, and cared for. Some schools, however, have moved to more of a ‘culture of security,’ where teachers no longer focus solely on delivering academic curricula because safety has become an integral part of their day. This shift in teachers’ roles creates a profession where they are not only teaching academics, but are also preparing students for emergencies, rehearsing threat scenarios, or even acting as crisis intervention specialists. Teachers, given their great insight into potential problems, can offer solutions applicable to their school more often than not and serve as the front line of school safety.
During the events that took place at Sandy Hook Elementary School, teachers were the first line of defense and their immediate actions served to safeguard their students. Whether it was by turning off the lights to give the idea that the classroom was empty, ushering students into bathrooms and closets out of direct view from the shooter, or being the calm voice of reassurance in a horrific scenario, teachers were able to protect the lives of students. Likewise, during an attack at Phillip Barbour High School in West Virginia, a teacher was able to negotiate with—and calm a 14-year-old gunman, while also maintaining order in the classroom, during a 45-minute hostage situation that easily could have resulted in a tragic scene. Finally, in an averted attack at Russell High School in Alabama, a teacher was able to prevent a mass killing when she found violent journal entries and reported it to administrators and law enforcement.
Teachers are a critical part of creating security in schools. Their roles may include:
- Supporting and taking direction from the public safety agencies leading school safety initiatives (federal and local), and school administrators, especially as it relates to improving response plans and protocols that address identified gaps in physical security measures;
- Having a basic knowledge of safety issues in the community, including typical regional threats such as fires, tornadoes, and at-risk individuals;
- Acquiring knowledge of their school’s crisis management plan and emergency policies, procedures, protocols, and safety mechanisms, including: shelter-in-place, lockdown, drop-cover-shield, evacuate and reverse evacuate, signal for help and emergency communication, and facemask/barrier/basic decontamination;
- Becoming involved in basic crisis intervention training to prepare for talking down high risk and armed suspects;
- Participating in safety briefings or trainings held by the school or school district—ideally in conjunction with law enforcement and/or other local first responders—at least once a year;
- Participating in training modules like ALICE, “Run, Hide, Fight,”19 or other school-based trainings;
- Being aware of state legislation requirements regarding requirements for teachers to receive safety training; and,
- Understanding their individual roles before, during, and after a critical incident, for example, leading an evacuation or assisting with off-site sheltering; verifying location and status of students; or assembling emergency kits.
Partnering with Local Law Enforcement – Collaborative Leadership
The presence of school-based safety officials continues to increase, and has proved effective in many schools as the protector and enforcer role. Whether it be school resource officers (SROs)—who are specially trained sworn law enforcement officers from local departments assigned to a school on a long-term basis—school safety officers (SSOs)—who are non-sworn civilians with no arrest authority responsible for ensuring safety, security, and welfare of all people; preventing crime; and investigating violations of school policies—or a combination of the two, having law enforcement in schools is just one option to strengthen collaboration. When school administrators engage in law enforcement partnerships, through security assessment, training and strategy development, many gaps in school safety and security can be bridged.
Although the roles of schools and local law enforcement agencies differ relative to school security, there are areas of significant overlap. Both schools and police departments are responsible for the safety and well-being of students. For law enforcement, working with—and within—schools is a logical extension of community policing; a responsibility for public safety.
When schools partner with local law enforcement so that they can monitor electronic surveillance systems located in the school, activities in school hallways or entrances can provide real-time data to officers. This technology is increasingly used to provide evidence should there be a criminal case filed, or may even save a life. As illustrated by Worcester Police Chief Gary Gemme, “Police will be monitoring the cameras of North High School all day long, but they will be prepared to look at them in real time if the need arises…and will be tied to police’s Real Time Crime Center.” Likewise, Spring Lake Police Department is looking to install cameras to, “use them in schools to guard against a shooting.”
Both law enforcement and school administrators work to promote a sense of community and connection to enhance a safer learning environment. In this community policing partnership, schools and law enforcement are focused on prevention, intervention and problem-solving, as well as emergency response, where emergency and safety planning are able to be efficiently and collaboratively addressed.
To help school districts and local law enforcement define their partnership, a memorandum of understanding (MOU) can be crafted to clearly delineate roles and responsibilities for planning, training and responding to school based events. MOUs outline the terms and conditions of an agreement between the two parties, including requirements, roles, and responsibilities for each party. These partnerships promote collaboration during school-based preparedness and safety training sessions. Safety training can be delivered during in-person meetings, webinars, or presentations, and illicit input and advice from law enforcement and emergency response personnel to help school administrators strengthen school emergency response plans.
To continue to improve the safety and security of schools, law enforcement agencies can:
- Conduct a vulnerability assessment of the facility with the school superintendent or administrator (risk team);
- Provide detailed input and recommendations on emergency response plans and review them with school officials to ensure they consider the needs and expected responses of first responders;
- Rehearse emergency drills on a regular basis with school administrators;
- Partner with neighboring state and federal law enforcement agencies to improve school safety, security, and preparedness;
- Perform tabletop and full-scale exercise simulations at school facilities, both during and outside of school hours to understand campuses and various response scenarios;
- Discuss blueprints of school buildings, location of command posts, utility systems and layouts and any other information the school entity deems necessary to help assist local law enforcement in their response; and
- Provide presentations during assemblies or in classrooms to create awareness of real-life school threats, and the best ways for teachers and students to respond to these situations.
Students can be a huge asset in contributing to school safety, security, and preparedness when they are empowered to participate. Students often have observation skills that may go unnoticed by adults, but can provide inside information on security gaps, at-risk students, and suspicious behaviors. Middle and high school age students can take an active role in providing input on certain aspects of their school’s safety and security plans, be engaged in all steps of preparedness, and be encouraged to identify and report warning signs. To continue to improve the security of schools, students can:
- Learn to recognize and report suspicious behavior from social media posts, along with any abnormal behavior witnessed around campus to help avert acts of planned violence;
- Consider active roles to help with security functions, such as safety patrol guards, bus safety cadets, or kindergarten safeties;
- For younger children, regularly practice emergency drills, as part of their school routine, to improve confidence in how to react should an emergency occur;
- Engage in open dialogue with students and teachers, giving students the opportunity to provide their perspective and potential recommendations regarding the school’s culture of safety and security;
- Once policies and preparedness plans are devised, publish in the student handbook and ensure that children understand the strategies;
- Review strategies to protect against violent crime and how to stay safe with teachers and parents; and,
- Look for ways to work towards acts of good citizenship and to serve as a positive role model for school security and safety.
Parents are critical stakeholders in helping to secure the school environment. Finding ways to include parents, treat them as colleagues and ensure that they feel confident in their school’s emergency preparedness planning is an important part of school safety especially as children spend most of the day in these learning institutions. Even though each school has their own standards for parental involvement for school safety procedures, understanding what the school and local law enforcement request of them is critical. Parental engagement promotes coordinated emergency responses, and contributes to a comprehensive approach to safety and security.
Parents and legal guardians can take on some of the following steps to support emergency preparedness in their children’s school:
- Ensure school administrators are aware of your interest in the security of the school;
- Use training on effective communications and partnering skills;
- Ensure information on students’ Student Emergency or Medical Card is up to date;
- Engage in open dialogue about school security and emergency preparedness with teachers and administrators, and volunteer to be involved in the process by providing input and suggestions regarding roles—presence is the best way to help secure schools;
- Request information about the school’s emergency plan and strategies for communicating in the event of an incident. Ensure that a communication strategy is in place between the school and parents, should an incident occur;
- Participate in safety briefings and/or emergency drills when they are scheduled, and encourage schools to have public briefings and/or drills if they are not already being held;
- Discuss, practice, and direct children to follow emergency policies, procedures, and protocols outlined by school personnel, and explore emergency management training for families; emergency preparedness conversations should take place at home to reinforce what is learned at school; and,
- Assist in providing resources, such as volunteering time during emergency planning meetings or helping to locate non-profits and other no-cost resources to support securing schools.
Partnerships with the Media
Developing and sustaining positive relationships with local media is important as they can serve as a resource when critical incidents take place. The media working with school administrators, can help to raise awareness on the importance of school safety in a given community. They can serve as a catalyst for bringing together community members and others who may bring resources to support and enhance preparedness and security.
Additionally, partnering with the media before an incident or emergency occurs to plan protocols to inform the public of critical information in the event of a school emergency can bring understanding and control to a situation that can sometimes dissolve into confusion, panic, and volatility. Most school districts have a chief spokesperson, or Public Information Officer (PIO) who can take on this role and speak to the media during a crisis situation. In addition, school communication has become more complex; school districts require a professional school public relations person to publicize positive communications; and to build relationships with the community. If a school does not have a PIO, administration can work with the District spokesperson by designating a particular faculty member to act as a crisis/emergency spokesperson to release information to parents and the public, and work closely with local and national media outlets to better control information, balancing public fear and restoring the safety and security of children.
The roles and responsibilities of the media in partnering with schools may include the following:
- Collaborate with school PIOs and law enforcement to understand the restrictions on information that the media will most likely be interested in, such as background data, demographics, knowledge of the incident, and any injuries and/or fatalities-when minors are involved, school employees should remind the media of restrictions and other legal requirements regarding information that can and cannot be shared. Be prepared to answer questions about how well the school was prepared in managing the incident, and what steps were taken to prevent incidents;
- Limit confusion during live reporting from a school by identifying the location of the designated media area and a briefing area, and request clearly marked site maps; and,
- Speak only to the school district’s PIO for credible, accurate, and timely information, and refrain from pressuring students and other faculty into conducting interviews following a critical incident.
Engaging Relevant Non-Profit Organizations, Businesses and Community Members
There are numerous opportunities for organizations both for-profit and non-profit to engage with school administrators to enhance school security and preparedness, including leveraging resources to better equip educational facilities. In addition to the vital roles that businesses, parents and teachers play in school safety, the broader community has a vested interest in supporting their schools. When an incident occurs within a community, or even nationwide, the entire community is impacted. Communities can come together to improve the safety of its schools before an incident occurs.
Many schools have community members working in programs like School Crime Watch, who volunteer at school events, both in the classroom environment as ‘helpers’ who are extra eyes and ears in a safety capacity, and outside the building, serving as crossing guards or greeters, all of which are important roles in supporting the safety of children.
Non-profit and community organizations can provide direct and indirect services to school administrators to ensure school safety, security, and preparedness. A major focal point on which schools are spending increasing efforts, is in services to improve school climate, awareness and overall well-being of students. Some consult with local non-profit and community organizations that provide services focused on substance abuse and mental health, truancy, and other at-risk student behaviors.
Schools can find resources with local or national professional organizations who conduct original research and synthesize literature reviews into evidence-based and best practices on topics such as school security issues, emergency preparedness planning, crises training, and campus resilience. Organizations may also act as the fiscal agent for the school to accept and expend funds for functional assessments, create safety checklists and guidelines; review case studies of model schools; conduct proactive facility security assessments and after action assessments; and provide training and resources—all at little or no cost. Membership associations also provide the opportunity for stakeholders in school security to share promising practices and lessons learned, and can facilitate opportunities for mentorship and accreditation. In many cases, these membership associations and non-profit organizations have personnel that may have retired from the field and can serve as subject matter experts.
As the school leadership begins to develop a plan to address gaps in school security, and budgets have been allocated, administrators can research local and national organizations that may be able to assist in identifying security solutions. Striking a careful balance between purchasing equipment and increasing schools-based police officers and security guards, as well as between aesthetics and functionality should be a consideration. Rather than an either/or approach, moving beyond to a combination of both can be more successful. As security threats evolve, so does the need for physical security tools, strategies and mechanisms. However, not all schools can afford to purchase target hardening equipment, and will look for ways to partner with local businesses for low costs or no cost opportunities and products that are just as impactful in securing schools. Businesses can help with low cost training services such as A.L.I.C.E, or resources and materials that can support school preparedness as an affordable option.
Schools increasingly use no cost opportunities, such as the resource guide, “Twenty Simple Strategies for Safer and More Effective Schools,”56 developed by the partnership of Safe Havens International and the Maine Department of Education as a pro-bono collaborative effort that offers effective strategies schools can adopt. Topics include emergency preparedness, safety and security, school climate and culture, and mental health. This type of an all-hazards approach can help prevent daily school violence, as well as the more rare, but catastrophic school shootings.
Ideally, emergency preparedness should be viewed as a proactive effort, rather than on a case-by-case basis, or after tragedies occur. School districts and law enforcement officials can partner with safety and security businesses and other organizations to upgrade their K-12 security infrastructure and strengthen emergency preparedness. Business partners can:
- Help to find security gaps by surveying administrators, teachers, parents and students on current technologies, their effectiveness and functionality;
- Offer competitive and cost effective physical security solutions that schools can implement;
- Provide on-going training and audits on physical security measures, and invite security companies to Spirit Week and Safe School Weeks to allow parents to engage in the conversation;
- Offer free apps, services, materials and resources to support the security needs of the school;
- Collaborate with neighboring school districts to discuss what security measures worked for their needs versus what technologies were not valuable, and how that can be applied to individual schools;
- Keep up to date with campus safety trends, through continued research and changes in issues and policies that directly relate to K-12 schools;
- Liaise with other security vendors to see if products, systems and equipment exist that may complement each other, and that schools would find important; and
- Showcase products, services and trainings to school administrators to highlight school buildings that are exceeding school safety standards, or ways that structures are being challenged.
Community members can facilitate improvement of school security by partnering with school administrators and law enforcement to undertake the following:
- Partner with school administrators to volunteer time, energy and expertise during preparedness training;
- Continue community and national dialogue in support of securing schools and emergency response plans through social media and other platforms; and,
- Continually look for ways to integrate physical security measures with common user-friendly technologies, such as smartphones and tablets, providing centrally managed systems to offer schools.
Policy Makers and Legislators Set Secure Schools as a Priority
While campus safety is the obligation of educational facilities, individual school districts are guided by state legislation on school safety policies. While progress has been made in state legislatures nationwide, particularly since the events at Sandy Hook Elementary School, room still exists for policy makers and legislators to improve legislation, and raise security minimum standards for educational facilities. Emergency plans and school safety measures are required under state statutes, but additional provisions for conducting safety drills, building security assessments, and other components of safety plans can differ from school to school. Individual school emergency plans are often not standardized at the district level, and not based on a specific safety model designed for educational facilities.
Policy makers at all levels can take steps to further improve the school security and emergency preparedness gap. Those steps may include:
- Making school security a national and state policy priority;
- Strengthen and expand grant programs to provide schools with more resources, lower schools’ local share or match requirements, and increase allocation of resources;
- Ensure that schools have access to resources and help guide them to funding opportunities;
- Differentiate school infrastructure from critical infrastructure (non-child centered businesses); and,
- Create a mandated school preparedness standard that can be implemented nationwide.
School safety, emergency preparedness and security planning is a process that requires commitment and collaboration of all relevant stakeholders. Similar to communities that are most successful when all stakeholders are involved, schools are more likely to be secure when all community stakeholders are engaged in a multifaceted approach that ensures that children, teachers and professional staff within educational facilities are protected. Each group of stakeholders involved in school safety and preparedness conversations can provide invaluable expertise, resources, and meaningful insight that can be leveraged. Whether the priority is preparing attendees for all types of emergencies and/or target-hardening educational facilities, school administrators, law enforcement, policy-makers and other stakeholders identified in this brief have roles and responsibilities in protecting our most valuable asset—our youth and future leaders.
About These Issue Briefs
The Secure Schools Alliance, with support from the Police Foundation, has developed this series of issue briefs to address and enhance school security. These briefs are designed for school administrators and law enforcement, as well as all stakeholders in the school community, with a toolkit that helps advance the conversation and offer ways to collaborate on this topic. View the other briefs in this series: