The families of two students killed in the Sandy Hook Elementary School attack in 2012 have filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the town of Newtown, Connecticut and the Board of Education. As an educator, this is very concerning to me. As a school safety consultant, this pushes me even harder to get the word out to school districts that we must do everything within our power to improve our schools’ level of safety.
We now know about the practices that must be followed if we are to attain a high level of safety in our buildings. The lawsuit against the Newtown School Board alleges that Sandy Hook Elementary School had security policies & procedures in place that teachers were not able to follow on the day of the attack. Specifically, the classroom doors could only be locked from the outside with keys and the front of the school did not have security glass. The suit also states that there was a substitute teacher in one of the classrooms where students were killed; this teacher purportedly did not have a room key and had not received training on safety protocol.
What this means for the rest of us is that we need to take an honest look at our physical site vulnerabilities and take action to improve all areas that leave us at risk. We also need to review our prevention and intervention programming, and our behavioral assessment practices. We need to make every effort to put into place recognized safety and preventive practices so we can quiet the voice of fear and eliminate that small nagging worry that perhaps we haven’t look quite closely enough at all of our practices.
If you need assistance with your safety improvement efforts, read this.
You have probably heard me speak on the topic or have read something I’ve written on threat assessment, and my belief that threat assessment teams should be in every school district, college campus and workplace.
All aspects of safety are important and should be addressed. In this post, I want to focus on the process of threat assessment because it allows us to identify, assess and intervene when someone needs our help. It is not designed to predict violence but to prevent it. And, isn’t that a primary goal of protecting our students and staff?
Recommended Threat Assessment Practices
Whether you have had a threat assessment team operating in your district for several years, or are in the very beginning stages of developing one, I encourage you to read about threat assessment and to get training for yourself and key staff members. You will want to include building administrators, student services staff, your school resource officer(s) and school nurse(s). It really does take a team to put all of the pieces together and feel confident that you’ve done a thorough job of assessing and assisting an individual or situation.
If you don’t have a threat assessment team and want to learn more about why you need one, FEMA’s Guide to Developing High Quality School Emergency Plans addresses the practice of threat assessment in a clear, concise way on pages 59-63. It’s a good starting point.
If you want to learn more, feel free to contact me. I help school districts get started and continue to improve upon their threat assessment practices. It takes time and repetition to get right, and I work with a small number of districts for up to a year until they feel confident that they know what to do when someone’s behavior concerns them.
Just imagine how much safer your school will be once you have a trained threat assessment team in place.
There is a lot of confusion among school staff about which strategy is most effective in the face of an intruder – running, hiding or fighting. Proponents of running and fighting offer examples of targeted attack victims who did not survive by hiding or locking down. It’s important to remember that lockdowns are, and have been, very effective if done correctly.
Hiding under desks while in plain sight is not the most effective way to survive an attack. However, hiding in a locked or barricaded space has proven quite effective.
So, what should you tell your staff? Most experts agree that we must give our staff members permission to do what they need to, to survive. We must give them the power to assess a situation and make what they believe to be the best possible decision at that time.
We need to provide opportunities for this type of assessment and response. When under duress, we are not very effective actors or decision-makers. We will do what we have been conditioned to do through practice. I suggest running drills using both evacuation and lockdown responses. It should always be made clear that fighting is a last ditch effort if there are no other options. People have survived by fighting back, and people have been killed by fighting back. The same holds true for both running and hiding. We must give our staff members the choice and educate them accordingly.
For more on this topic, here are two fantastic resources: the book The Unthinkable by Amanda Ripley and FEMA’s Guide for Developing High Quality School Emergency Operations Plans (pages 63-66 address this topic).
Once your staff has been trained and has rehearsed a number of possible scenarios, I think you’ll all sleep better at night.
It can be difficult to find the right safety preparedness resources for younger children. We want to help them prepare in a way that sticks with them, but we don’t want to frighten them.
The Red Cross has created a fun new app for kids ages 7-11 to learn about safety and practice responding to emergencies. It’s called Monster Guard and you can download it for free.
If you decide to try it with students, I’d love to hear how it goes. You can email me here with a few quick comments.
As we begin a new year, I can’t help but wonder whether we will make the changes necessary to create safer schools for our students and staff. We talk a lot about what it takes to keep students safe and in reality, it isn’t that difficult.
- We must take a critical look at our school climate and be sure we are providing a safe haven for children and teens.
- We must foster a sense of belonging in our school communities, where we celebrate and respect differences, and everyone has a place to call “home”.
- We must listen when others speak so we can truly hear their messages.
- We must offer a helping hand to those who are struggling so they can find their way clear of pain and anger.
- We must stop relying on hope as a strategy, as in “I really hope we’ve done what we need to so our school doesn’t experience a tragedy” or “I hope we don’t have anyone like that here, at our school.”
- We must work on these simple acts of kindness and humanity together, if we are ever to create safer schools.
That is my hope, and I know very well that hope is not a strategy. That’s why I dedicate myself to working intensively with school districts so they can rest assured that they truly have done everything they can to make their schools a safer place.
Happy New Year!