Security Special Section

Innocent Targets

School Terrorism: Police Responding

PHOTO © TFOXFOTO/SHUTTERSTOCK.COM

The attacker entered the school with a duffle bag containing more than 90 pounds of weapons. He had a semi-automatic rifle, a pump action shotgun, a semi-automatic pistol, an improvised explosive device and precut paper sheets and tape to cover classroom windows to prevent police from seeing inside the room. He also had wire to bind hostage’s ankles together in a semi-circle in front of the classroom door in case police attempted a tactical rescue. More than 2,000 panicked parents and relatives rushed to the school when word of the incident spread. Fortunately, the attacker was not a terrorist. In fact, he was a troubled student and the siege ended peacefully about six hours later.

This attack occurred in a rural Georgia School in the early 1990s. The event proved to be rather challenging for school and law enforcement officials. Had the attacker been a terrorist, a different outcome would have been likely and the ensuing panic even more difficult for school and law enforcement officials to address. While this incident did not generate national media attention, the same actions performed by a terrorist would likely result in the types of intensive and emotive reporting we have seen in the wake of mass casualty school shootings. Though the chances that any particular school will experience a terrorist attack are remote, the attack on any one school, school bus or school event would likely have a negative impact on every school in America.

INCREASED THREAT LEVEL

Recent terrorist activities in the United States, Europe and other regions have heightened concerns relating to this highly emotive and important topic. There are other indications that the general risk of school-related terrorism in the United States has increased in the past several years. There have been a number of both averted and successful attacks by individuals who have been connected to or inspired by terrorist organizations. There have also been repeated and earnest cautions about the risks posed by terrorists from federal government officials including the director of the FBI.

The manner in which our media covers major acts of violence provides clear indications to individuals or groups who desire to carry out terrorist attacks that a successful attack on a K-12 school, school bus or school event would receive intensive media coverage. Many of the reactions to mass casualty school attacks also demonstrate that this type of attack would likely generate considerable fear among Americans. The damage to school safety measures in this country through alarmist responses since the Sandy Hook Elementary School attack has been significant. Further emotional and untested concepts are likely to occur if a school terrorism event takes place in America.

Class evacuated due to school terrorism threat

PHOTO © TFOXFOTO/SHUTTERSTOCK.COM

IMPORTANCE OF ALL-HAZARDS PLANNING

One area where K-12 schools are often vulnerable is the lack of appropriate all-hazards approaches to school security and emergency preparedness. For example, our analysts have found that the majority of the more than 1,000 K-12 schools we have assessed since the Sandy Hook Elementary School attack do not have a viable hazardous materials incident protocol and have not conducted any drills for hazardous materials incidents.

We have found that many K-12 schools have been too heavily focused on specific types of active shooter incidents, leaving staff severely unprepared for incidents involving hazardous materials, edged weapons, explosives and attacks involving the use of fire as a weapon. This type of focus can also leave schools even more highly exposed for combination attacks involving the use of firearms in combination with other types of weapons.

Between 1975 and 2013, at least four combination attacks have occurred on U.S. K-12 campuses. While none of these attacks has been related to a terrorist group or ideology, they demonstrate how easily they could be employed by more sophisticated attackers.

SECURITY PROCEDURES

Fortunately, many of the same school security measures that can help prevent abductions of children, assaults on staff and other far more common criminal acts on campus can also help reduce the risks of terrorism. For example, effective access control and visitor management systems can make it much more difficult for an aggressor to enter and conduct pre-attack surveillance of a school. While a highly motivated and skilled attacker may be able to defeat school security measures, many planned attacks including attempts by terrorists have been thwarted by effective security measures.

Care should be taken to avoid ineffective “feel good” security measures. One example of this type of gap would be entry point weapons screening approaches that are conducted without appropriate supportive perimeter security. While thoughtfully implemented metal detection can create significant barriers to an attacker, we have seen examples of weapons screening checkpoints that are conducted in such a loose manner that they can be easily defeated.

In one instance, we noticed that a school resource officer was using a hand held metal detector to screen students without any indications that the metal detector was working. When we asked to see the unit, we learned that the batteries were dead rendering the equipment inoperable.

The use of multiple and supportive layers of security can significantly increase the reliability of school security strategies. The combination of thoughtfully implemented school security technologies in combination with good staff development programs can be particularly effective.

First Responders coordinating response to school terrorism threat

PHOTO © JOHN SARTIN/SHUTTERSTOCK.COM

Peace of Mind. Chances that any school will experience a terrorist attack are remote, but the attack on any one school, school bus or school event would likely have a negative impact on every school in America. Many K-12 schools have been heavily focused on active shooter incidents, leaving staff severely unprepared for incidents involving hazardous materials, edged weapons, explosives and attacks involving the use of fire as a weapon. The majority of U.S. schools do not have a viable hazardous materials incident protocol and have not conducted any drills for hazardous materials incidents. Thoughtful, balanced and consistently applied approaches to school security and emergency preparedness can reduce the risks associated with school terrorism and help to address much more common types of school crisis events.

SECURITY AND EMERGENCY PREPAREDNESS TECHNOLOGY

The school security market has become highly competitive. Manufacturers have often improved their product offerings. This has resulted in more practical and effective security and emergency preparedness products. School security technology solutions have their limits, but many schools we assessed have significantly improved the levels of school security and emergency preparedness by combining improved technology solutions with positive human practices. For example, thousands of sexual predators have been identified through visitor management software systems combined with alert school staff who followed proper screening procedures. Improved emergency communications systems can also help to reduce the number of casualties in the event of a terrorist attack at a school.

HUMAN FACTORS

Our ability to train school employees to spot and react to indications that a person, or group of people, pose a threat has also improved in recent years. I have personally been involved with a number of instances where intelligent and highly motivated individuals have been stopped from carrying out planned attacks at schools and school athletic events. In one such incident, Officer Kenneth Bronson of the Bibb County (Ga.) Public School Police Department was able to prevent three men from shooting a middle school student because the officer noticed some unusual behavioral cues.

Behavioral training can help school staff detect subtle signs that people pose a danger. There are also specific training concepts that can help school staff spot indicators that someone is carrying a concealed firearm. This type of training has helped to avert a number of planned school shootings over the past 20 years.

The risks of any particular school being targeted by terrorists are statistically quite low. However, the fear generated by even a single attack America could be significant. Thoughtful, balanced and consistently applied approaches to school security and emergency preparedness can reduce the risks associated with school terrorism while also helping to address much more common types of school crisis events. Effective school security and emergency preparedness measures can also help to provide the critical peace of mind that is important to parents, students and staff.

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

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