Safe & Secure Schools

School Shootings Revisited

Shortly after Kip Kinkle's rampage, (at the age of 15, he murdered his parents and engaged in a school shooting at Thurston High School in Springfield, Ore.), I began consulting on school safety, primarily under federal Safe Schools grants, or with support from the National Clearinghouse for Educational Facilities.

I had the opportunity to inspect most of the Oregon schools in Lane, Linn, Lincoln and Benton Counties, including Thurston High School, but I also analyzed more distant facilities, including a little-known high school in rural Tennessee — where the principal was shot, and a magnet school in inner-city Tampa — where a custodian was murdered the day before I arrived.

Most schools will never experience killings, but that’s far from reassuring for those schools that do. We must do all we can to prevent such tragedies, mitigate damage and respond swiftly. With that in mind, these would be my top priorities.

  1. Build safer school buildings. Most schools fall short on access control, surveillance and territoriality — Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design (CPTED) fundamentals. At the most basic, schools need the ability to quickly stop threatening visitors from entering and, if offenders do gain entry, quickly secure classrooms. But remodeling is expensive, and security features must be balanced with other essential deferred maintenance, including broken windows or leaky roofs. At the very least, CPTED should be applied to all new school designs.
  2. Use related technology, but define problems before you craft solutions. Metal detector portals are expensive, require staffing and are easily circumvented. Surveillance cameras have deterred lesser offenses, but they failed to stop shooters in Thurston or Platte Canyon. Emergency communication equipment is invaluable across the board. Intercom and phone systems, parental notification technology and lockdown buttons, along with carefully crafted emergency response plans, regular lockdown and evacuation drills, are essential.
  3. Provide professional guardians. Policing is best done by professional, armed school resource officers. The main obstacle here is cost. Draw on staff or volunteers in other roles, but arming them is not generally recommended. Most of us will never experience an active-shooter scenario, and the assumption that we would respond appropriately and effectively during a once-in-a-lifetime crisis is just unrealistic.
  4. Promote Connectivity (aka Second Generation CPTED). Externally, a greater connection to the community makes it easier to draw unarmed volunteers into the schools as event supervisors, hallway monitors, coaches, tutors, etc. Extra eyes and ears, equipped with cell phones, can be enormously helpful. This does come with the added expense of screening, supervising and training. Internal connectivity is even more important. If staff is skilled at listening to kids, those kids are less likely to become alienated or to engage in antisocial behaviors. If teachers are skilled at teaching and adequately equipped, students are more likely to feel engaged, hopeful and positive about their schools.
  5. Nurture your kids. Students who are encouraged to develop empathy, problem solving and anger management skills are more likely to do well in school and stay out of trouble.

There are bigger-picture issues to address, (mental illness and assault rifles come to mind), but they are not likely to be resolved anytime soon. In the meantime, addressing these five areas of concern, at the local level, can help make schools safer.

This article originally appeared in the July 2013 issue of School Planning & Management.

About the Author

Tod Schneider is a safe schools consultant, speaker and writer. For more thoughts on safe, healthy and positive environmental design for schools, visit his blog and website at www.safeschooldesign.com.

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