Safety & Security

Mixed Messages

Why many school officials are overwhelmed by conflicting school security advice.

During a school security assessment project affecting hundreds of schools, we had a series of meetings to obtain feedback from public safety agency representatives, educators and other stakeholders. One important finding is consistent with what we have heard in hundreds of other school security assessments. School superintendents, building administrators, teachers and a variety of public safety officials reported that they have experienced significant confusion because widely conflicting approaches were recommended by different subject matter experts and organizations.

One superintendent was concerned that he had repeatedly been told to change lockdown procedures as local police attended different seminars. He expressed that it was extremely challenging to change lockdown protocols five or six times in a period of one or two years. If we put ourselves in the shoes of a school superintendent, we can understand how difficult this is. For example, a school superintendent who complies with the instructions to make these changes may have to:

  1. Spend time revising their plans several times in two years;
  2. Spend money reprinting 1,800 emergency plans for employees;
  3. Dedicate time to issue the 1,800 plan components to the employees;
  4. Dedicate precious and extremely limited staff time to retrain 1,800 employees; and
  5. Experience a loss of confidence of students, staff and parents who cannot understand why their leaders and public safety officials cannot make up their minds about life and death matters.

This makes it even more important that school safety, security and emergency preparedness concepts be carefully vetted before they are implemented. Our experience has been that the following steps can reduce the problems associated with changing school security and emergency preparedness approaches.

  • Focus on implementing approaches that have been evaluated to provide evidence that they actually work. While many concepts over the years have sounded good when they were developed, time has proven them to be less effective.

  • Vet changes with law enforcement, fire service and emergency management personnel. A number of concepts that schools have been told by law enforcement officers to adapt for active shooter situations are a violation of fire code. These codes are often based on extensive research proving these concepts to be dangerous. Each of these disciplines can have incredibly important perspectives for active shooter protocols.

  • Carefully vet the credentials and experience of subject matter experts. Due to a nearly total lack of professional standards, there are many well-intentioned people who have inadequate credentials who work as school security experts. Though many of these people truly believe they are helping, they frequently provide advice that has been demonstrated by research to increase danger.

  • Independently test new concepts with appropriate simulations before they are implemented. Using drills, tabletop, functional and full-scale exercises and perhaps most importantly, one-on-one simulations. Testing can yield surprising and even disturbing results that are far different from those anticipated. As we have seen with many active shooter training concepts, people perform in dramatically different ways when tested, than anticipated during training sessions.

  • Apply the proven concept of problem seeking used by architects to try to identify potential problems before making major changes. Architects are typically formally trained to actively challenge their designs by actively noting any flaws in them as a structured activity. There is even a textbook for architects devoted specifically to this approach.

  • Conduct pre-mortem exercises to identify potential flaws. This research-based concept was recognized by a Nobel Peace Prize and is a powerful tool to help organizations from adopting flawed approaches that sound great at first glance. By conducting a structured interactive activity where participants are asked to presume that an approach has failed totally with catastrophic results, participants are often able to spot and identify previously unidentified and significant problems with the approach.

We have identified more than 100 mass casualty deaths in schools that have taken place when theoretical concepts that appeared to be fine were proven to be deadly under emergency conditions. Six school employees have been killed trying to disarm people, and 95 students and staff died because a school principal was the person who activated the fire alarm for every monthly fire drill. Far too many students and staff have died in schools because of approaches that had not been properly evaluated. We are long overdue for implementing what we know works, rather than what we hope will work to protect students and staff.

This article originally appeared in the February 2014 issue of School Planning & Management.

About the Author

Michael S. Dorn has helped conduct security assessments for more than 6,000 K-12 schools, keynotes conferences internationally and has published 27 books including Staying Alive – How to Act Fast and Survive Deadly Encounters. He can be reached at www.safehavensinternational.org.

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