Starting the Conversation on School Safety

Part of the Secure Schools Alliance Issue Briefing Series: “A Toolkit for K-12 Learning Institutions and Law Enforcement”

All of us have a vested interest in protecting the schools in our communities. Nationwide, these institutions stand as monuments to the freedoms and hopes we have as Americans. Commitment to protecting our schools, and expertise in the field of school security, continues to propel dialogue and partnerships, which can help secure our Nation’s critical infrastructure and provide invaluable resources to learning institutions.

However, assessing and addressing K-12 security and preparedness for school-based incidents has proven challenging. Schools vary greatly in their needs, threats, and resources, within individual states and districts. In some cases, when individual states take the proactive step of passing legislation requiring minimum safety and security standards, few accountability measures exist to ensure that standards are met. Since school security initiatives often compete with curriculum standards for budgets, interest, and human resources, some school districts are left challenged to meet minimum standards. In a 2004 survey of 750 school-based police officers, 50 percent indicated that emergency response drills were not practiced regularly, and lacked confidence in their school’s emergency measures.

Nationally, while we have made progress since the events at Sandy Hook Elementary with changes in school policies, procedures and focus, room for improvement always exists. In response to the Guide for Developing High-Quality School Emergency Operations Plan, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) found that while multiple federal agencies supported K-12 schools, their efforts are not always strategically coordinated, and can lead to gaps in areas like training, technical assistance and funding. A coordinated, focused effort on school security that secures schools with proven strategies and technologies is ideal.

The Threats

Threats to school safety and security shakes our confidence in fundamental public and community institutions. These threats can take many forms, and lack discretion in their targets. Far too frequently in the last 20 years, threats have evolved from bullying and verbal harassment, theft and larceny, and vandalism, to acts of mass violence and improvised explosive devices (IEDs). Approximately two-thirds of public schools recorded that one or more incidents of violence had taken place, amounting to an estimated 757,000 crimes. As depicted in Figure 1, school-based incidents are not limited to a particular age range or population either. Although school incidents are more prevalent in urban schools, suburban and rural schools also face school violence, shown in Figure 2. Additionally, according to a Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) study of 160 active shooter incidents in the United States between 2000 – 2013, almost 17 percent occurred at pre-K–12 schools, most notably at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012.

Starting the Conversation

These statistics have led some to question if more can be done to ensure the safety and security of schools and the faculty and students inside of them. Differing regional, cultural and environmental threats; competing financial priorities; and lack of coordination between school administrators and public safety executives have made schools vulnerable to disparities in school security preparedness. These challenges, however, require more engagement and collaboration to identify effective solutions. While identifying solutions collaboratively can be a challenge in and of itself, it cannot be an effort that is started after tragedies are narrowly avoided or worse, during or after a tragic incident has occurred.

School security preparedness and planning is best addressed collaboratively and it is imperative for law enforcement and homeland security professionals to work with school administrators to lead all community stakeholders to address specific issues and leverage roles, responsibilities, and assets—in identifying localized solutions.

School Administrators: Administrators play a key role in strengthening school security and legislation, directly impacting emergency plans and safety development for schools. District level Superintendents and local school principals sometimes struggle to identify funds for enhancing physical security, and can be conflicted with reallocating money from educational programming and staff training. The 2016 GAO report states that, “fifty nine percent of school administrators struggle with balancing emergency planning against higher priorities such as classroom time.” Administrators want to ensure that their facilities are secure for faculty and students, which requires engagement with: teachers, staff, and students to identify the most vital security concerns from their perspectives; local law enforcement to enhance emergency notification and response plans and protocols; local, state, and federal policymakers to encourage allocated resources and provide guidance or minimum standards for enhancing school security.

Law Enforcement: As safety and security experts in the community and the first responders to critical incidents, law enforcement agencies are the first line of defense to secure schools. Having a school resource officer (SRO) or other law enforcement-school partnerships is a start, but ensuring facility safety and security entails more. Law enforcement executives and professionals contribute to securing schools by conducting facility safety and security assessments, reviewing floorplans and conducting training walkthroughs, addressing facility and technology shortfalls, developing localized response plans, drafting memoranda of understanding (MOUs), and convening regionalized trainings and exercises with school and public safety stakeholders. Law enforcement often starts the conversation by reaching out to school administrators and individual principals to schedule preparedness meetings; conduct “Back to School” open houses to discuss school safety and security plans and protocols with parents, faculty, and students; and engage and educate faculty and students in reporting suspicious behaviors and security shortfalls. Law enforcement executives also play a key role in encouraging prioritization of school safety on policy agendas.

Policymakers: To ensure that schools are protected from critical incidents, policymakers play a key role, despite their competing interests. Federal, state, and local leaders serve as conveners to bring stakeholders together to address issues and identify solutions. Especially at the local and state levels—with Boards of Education, legislatures, and other political officials—allocating the necessary resources and legislating minimum standards are important steps that can have far-reaching impacts on school safety. These individuals play a valuable role in leading the conversation and seeking input from their constituents. Their prioritization of school safety by policymakers also regulates allocation of federal, state, and local funds to efforts that further the conversation. Federal agencies like the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ), National Institute of Justice (NIJ), the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and others have dedicated resources to improving school safety.

Teachers and Staff: Teachers and students have an obvious interest in ensuring the safety and security of the schools where they spend much of their time. In many cases, they are aware of areas of concern such as gaps in school security that allow for weapons, explosives, and dangerous persons to be snuck in, or areas that may be better addressed through safety drills and education. Teachers and staff are often the first line of defense, and may have valuable input for a potential crisis scenario. This group can start the conversation by talking to their peers, principals and school administrators about facility assessments and security, preparedness, and receiving available secure school training.

Students: Students have a clear interest in ensuring the safety and security of the schools in which they spend much of their time. Students also can serve as a knowledgeable source of information about their school community. In many cases, they are aware of gaps in school security or feel that they need to learn more about safety drills and exercises to feel confident. Students can start the conversation by talking with their parents and teachers about current emergency preparedness topics. Students who have formed positive relationships with SROs can also provide them with information about potential suspicious circumstances and security gaps on and around campus.

Parents: Parents have a vested interest in ensuring school safety and security. Parents who are educated about suspicious behaviors of youth or others and what questions to ask can help preemptively identify problems with their children or others who may affect the safety of the school community. Parents can also be leveraged as force multipliers and contributors to solutions, instead of adding to the chaos, should a critical incident occur at a school. Parents can start the conversation by participating in open dialogue with other parents, using their influence to encourage policy makers, school principals, and administrators to discuss emergency preparedness, and communicating with law enforcement executives and school administrators about facility safety and critical incident response.

Media: Media outlets have an important role to convey important information during an incident, and they should be included in all planning for school safety and security. This will also prove valuable in learning how the jurisdictions and departments will handle public information during an incident, providing a streamlined process of communication.

Community Members: Community members have a vested interest in the safety of their schools and the well-being of the community at large. Inviting them to become involved, serve in support and volunteer capacities, form groups such as Neighborhood Watch that act as force multipliers, and bring suggestions to the table are roles that should not be overlooked. Community members are also a vital to response and recovery efforts after any critical incident. Starting the conversation with this group can begin with inviting them to a preparedness meeting at the school or talking with the public about school safety at a community-based event.

Businesses: As of 2013, according to National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), there are over 98,454 public K-12 schools in America. Particularly with aging facilities, as of 1998 (the most recent data available) public schools were an average of 42 years old based on years since original construction. For schools that have been renovated after initial construction, on average, this would have happened 11 years after—still leaving many schools outdated.17 Organizations, both for profit and non-profit, can provide physical and technological security enhancements, provide security training and consulting services, and offer a wide range of other services to play a role in securing schools.

Using this Toolkit to Secure Schools

Enhancing security in schools and improving preparedness is the collaborative responsibility of all involved in the community, with leadership from homeland security and law enforcement policymakers and executives. This toolkit provides: promising practices in educational facility safety and security legislation, protocols, and plans nationwide; sample K-12 facility safety and security checklists and memoranda of understanding; roles and responsibilities of partners and stakeholders; and strategies, mechanisms, and technologies to address the issues that arise from starting the conversation.

These documents are designed to be used by all partners and stakeholders and serve as a catalyst for conversations focused on school safety and preparedness to encourage stakeholders to work together to make schools more secure. Having trust in school safety and security is much more likely when it is a priority and a collaborative conversation. Nationally, communities want to provide safe and supportive learning environments for students, staff, and schools. “‘It can’t happen here’ is the biggest and most dangerous myth, as it lulls people into a false sense of security… Disaster takes unexpected forms and strikes when it wants to, not when we are ready for it. That’s why preparedness is so important. Don’t think for a minute it can’t happen to your school.”

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:

View the PDF of the Secure Schools Alliance Issue Brief – Starting the Conversation on School Safety.