Safety & Security

The Best Decision

The process of educating children in the Los Angeles Public School System was brought to a halt by an anonymous threat. Some were quick to condemn the district’s actions. However, as the district’s chief of police correctly and professionally responded, those critics did not have to bear the burden should children or staff die due to a bad decision. As this case shows, anonymous threats against schools have become increasingly difficult to address. Many people are experiencing higher levels of anxiety due to government cautions indicating increased risks of terrorism combined with a series of terrorist incidents. When combined with the emotive and intensive media coverage of terrorist attacks and school shootings, it is now much easier for a single individual to cause alarm via the Internet or even a simple note scrawled on a restroom wall. There are strategies that can help campus officials respond more effectively to these challenging situations.

Enhance your ability to quickly discuss a threat with representatives from local law enforcement, fire and emergency management agencies. An increasing number of school districts have purchased systems which allow web conferences so key personnel can meet rapidly in a virtual manner to work together when they cannot assemble rapidly in person. While people tend to focus on law enforcement for these situations, many types of incidents have aspects beyond law enforcement expertise. An important example of this would be a threat pertaining to hazardous materials. Be sure to include the additional key disciplines of the fire service, public health department and either emergency management or homeland security offices in your community.

It can be extremely valuable to conduct tabletop scenarios for several different types of situations. Local and state emergency management personnel can often script facilitate and evaluate tabletop exercises for key administrators, school security or police department personnel and representatives from area public safety agencies. Working through a series of scenarios in limited amounts of time for each can be particularly helpful. In our experience, this leads to faster and higher quality decisions. Your team will make better decisions faster if they have had a chance to practice as a team in real-time fashion.

Focusing not only on the credibility of the threat, but also the best tactical responses of the threat can be important. There have been attacks where aggressors have communicated threats that were intentionally designed to appear to be a hoax before carrying out an attack. This type of attack occurred in London many years ago. Terrorists taped their call to the police and then sent the tape to the media after people were killed in a bombing. Poor quality bomb threat protocols contributed to this situation. We still regularly see very outdated response plans for an array of attack methodologies, especially as we have become so fixated on mass casualty shootings.

I also find it to be helpful to periodically run a series of easy to conduct simulations with the personnel who craft your messages to inform parents of threat situations via your emergency notification system (ENS). Schools today usually have an excellent means to rapidly push out messages. However many do not take the time to conduct timed drills so the people who craft and send out the messages are better prepared do so more effectively and rapidly. This is easy to do and can really improve the quality and speed of getting appropriate messages out to the community should a situation involving a threat occur.

It can also be helpful to periodically re-evaluate your plans to make sure that certain key areas are well covered. For example, your plans should have separate and distinct protocols for chemical, biological and radiological incidents. Many school crisis plans lump these together even though there are significantly different action steps that are appropriate for each. In some cases, plans do not even have protocols for these difficult and potentially deadly situations.

Taking the time to develop a strategy for addressing anonymous threats can lead to improved decision making. The stresses of limited information, resources and time make some of these situations difficult to address under the best of circumstances. Developing and practicing a multi disciplinary threat evaluation and management approach can prove to be invaluable for these difficult and stressful situations.

This article originally appeared in the May 2016 issue of School Planning & Management.

About the Author

Michael Dorn serves as the executive director for Safe Havens International, Inc., an IRS-approved, nonprofit safety center. He has authored and co-authored more than 20 books on campus safety. He can be reached through the Safe Havens website at www.safehavensinternational.org.

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