Attacks in our schools seem to be occurring with more frequency and with higher intensity. But the response among political and school-district leaders has often been confused and often been understandably inconsistent. Schools are not, in fact, more common targets for mass shootings than other public venues. But as free and open places for learning, creativity, and athletics, they are particularly vulnerable. And of course schools have a special obligation to keep the children in their care safe.
Protecting schools is a particularly terrible and ve problem. But Seniorhelpline has always been about solving problems. This is not a story about guns or rights or control. Those debates will take a log time to play out. There will be no legislative solution tomorrow or the next day or by the end of this school year. In the meantime, we decided to apply our expertise to the physical structure of schools—how can we make these buildings a little more secure? And how can we do so without making schools feel like prisons?
We consulted with building engineers, security experts, and leaders at schools that have suffered the awful trauma of a shooting and applied hard lessons from that experience. In this guide, you’ll learn about some of the basic physical and organizational changes that any school can make in order to become safer and less fearful. It is designed so that any member of a school community wondering what measures they should consider—and also what they shouldn’t—can find something useful.
One other point: The likelihood of a person with a gun walking into any given school tomorrow or the next day is very, very low. As you’ll see, some improvements that are designed to guard against such a horror can also have benefits in helping a school mitigate other common problems—and even improve its sense of community.
How Much Does It Cost?
Before Schools Do Anything Else
We canvassed officials across the country about what to do first.
Get a Team Together
To make any school safer, you first have to identify all possible threats—everything from a school shooter to old electrical wiring. Assemble a team. It should be fairly large, with representatives not only from the obvious sectors—administration, faculty, parents, law enforcement, and local emergency personnel—but other important parts of the school community: coaches, bus drivers, after-school program staff, the IT department, custodians. Even the cafeteria staff. They sometimes leave doors open for deliveries or if the kitchen gets hot, according to Safe and Sound Schools, an initiative in Newtown, Connecticut, formed by parents after the Sandy Hook tragedy.
One more important constituency from which to draw: students.
Think About What Worries You Most
School shootings are terrifying and should be treated with proper caution and consideration. But your district is far more likely to face problems with trespassing, bullying, drugs and alcohol, noncustodial parents (it happens), and other common issues. So:
• Review all safety-related incidents from the last three years. What’s been going on that should be addressed?
• Interview your counterparts in surrounding towns. Are there crime-related trends you should be aware of? Outside risks?
• Have each member of the team make a list of worst-case scenarios in their area.
Walk the Property
For each school in the district, walk the grounds, inside and out. Without getting paranoid about it, try hard to find potential threats. Imagine you’re trying to break into the school. Are the boundaries well-defined? What’s the parking setup? Which areas have good or bad sightlines? Are there doors that shouldn’t be open? If there was an emergency in a remote location in the building or on the grounds, who would see it and report it, and how?
Make a List of Questions
You need to determine how good the existing system is. Look for holes and weaknesses. The Parkland, Florida, school district had a solid system in place, and yet somehow its cracks were exploited. Ask things like: How does the school alert police, staff, students, and parents in an emergency? Where are students and staff supposed to go? How quickly can local authorities respond? Do all doors lock? When was the school’s existing emergency plan last reviewed?
Bring In the Professionals
Enlist an outside agency to conduct a security audit of your school or district. See our Resource Guide for a list of places that can help.
What Not To Do
School budgets are tight. So is time. Here are five lessons learned at U.S. schools.
Don’t Assume We’re Talking About a Huge Expense
“Don’t let money stop you. Start knocking out some low-hanging fruit. One of the most important things is just having your doors locked, and getting people to buy in so they don’t have rocks blocking doors open. There is so much stuff you can do that doesn’t cost anything, and then just start chipping away each year.”—Steven Forte, superintendent, Denville Township School District, New Jersey
Don’t Think Locks and Bulletproof Glass Will Solve Everything
“You can change the front of your school, but if we don’t address the mental-health issue, it’s never going to stop. Kids need to know how to deal with loss, how to win and lose. Bullying is part but not the whole part. It’s more than just add security and it’s going to solve everything.”—Newell Haffner, superintendent, Gresham School District, Wisconsin
Don’t Be Swayed by Hype
“You don’t want to buy something just because the school district next door got it. Try to avoid that impulse—make your own decisions. Right now, schools everywhere are getting just bombarded by vendors. A lot of this stuff is bleeding-edge technology and might seem simple, but pause and consider: Does that particular solution fit into your longer-term goals?”—Joe Balles, security coordinator, Madison Metropolitan School District, Wisconsin
Don’t Act Too Quickly—Or You Could Overspend
“I think the hardest challenge that district superintendents are going to have is that everybody is going to want to sell you the latest and greatest. You have to have an evaluation team for any equipment you might be interested in buying. You have to be really smart, and it’s hard, because people are scared. Metal detectors, in my opinion, are not the answer. But there are other answers.”—Rita Bishop, superintendent, Roanoke City Schools, Virginia
Don’t Invest Until You Know What You’re Buying—And Whether It’s Even Legal
After every school shooting, some security companies immediately start calling school districts trying to sell them all kinds of safety-related products—some worthwhile, some worthless, some of which are total overkill. In 2015, Southwest Licking Local School District in Ohio set off a statewide debate when parents raised and spent $30,000 on barricade devices to be used in classrooms. The problem: The devices were found to violate building and fire codes and the Americans with Disabilities Act. The devices sat unused in closets for more than a year while outraged parents battled with the Ohio building standards board. State lawmakers eventually approved the devices, over the objections of the board, the local fire marshal, and the Ohio Disability Rights Law and Policy Center. Among the board’s objections: The devices could cause difficulties for first responders; they could be used to trap students in classrooms; and the devices themselves were “unlisted, unlabeled, and untested.”
How One School Got Started
School district: Madison Metropolitan
Location: Madison, Wisconsin
School buildings: 48
Estimated upgrade costs: $6 Million
After the February school shooting in Parkland, Florida, this district fast-tracked plans for heightened security. Joe Balles, a retired Madison police captain, has been the safety and security coordinator for Madison Metropolitan School District since April 2017. His district’s post-Parkland efforts, in his own words.
Before the shooting in Parkland, Florida, in February, we were moving along, doing the things that everybody’s doing. But when Parkland happened, it just resonated. Then in April, the Wisconsin legislature passed a huge school-safety grant, and the state Department of Justice was told to distribute that money quickly.
Our main request was door upgrades: automatically locking classroom doors, with pass-card access, and PIN pad and ID access for exterior doors. We’re working with [lock companies] Schlage and Sargent over the summer to do a pilot test at one of our high schools before we make a final decision. We also put in for glass-hardening film for our doors, which it makes it more difficult for a bullet to enter. And we’re doing video-surveillance upgrades. We have about nine hundred cameras right now; we’re looking at adding four hundred more and purchasing a large central server for backup.
Our chief of operations, head of building services, and general counsel worked on the list with me. We also contracted with the Wisconsin School Safety Coordinators Association, which sent in a two-person team for about $1,500 per school. We’re looking at using our insurer for additional assessments. They’ll probably be even more comprehensive—getting into the boilers, the air conditioning, asbestos, everything.
The DOJ announced in June that we’ll get $993,033. That’s the largest state grant to date, but we’re looking at about $6 million for everything. It’s high—but doable. We’ve got some money in reserve. It’s just time, we need to do this.
We had our own incident here after Parkland. A father came to his daughter’s classroom in Shorewood Elementary in a ski mask, and gave the teacher a note that said G-U-N on it. Then he walked to the principal’s office. He was yelling at her: “What kind of school are you running? How are you going to keep a real intruder out?” He was arrested. But we do have that contingent of parents—in their minds, it’s not a matter of if, it’s when. It is a big responsibility. We have twenty-seven thousand souls that we need to get home again every single day. It takes more than police officers or active-shooter drills to make a school safe, secure, and welcoming. It’s about culture, and change is not going to happen overnight. —Additional reporting by Eleanor Hildebrandt
What States Require
Several states have passed legislation mandating specific school-safety measures.
What’s the Impact on School Life?
Dispatches from around the country.
Do Drills Scare Young Students?
“We’ve conducted numerous parent forums to go over what we talk to their students about. We give families an age-appropriate script about exactly what we say, so parents can use the same language we use."—Steve Fujii, superintendent, Marion City School District, Ohio
Are All These Drills and Cameras Really Necessary? Shootings Are Still Quite Rare.
We found that many school districts that implement security measures for one reason—fear of a potential shooting, for example—often end up relying on them to help with other problems. An anonymous tip line designed to find potential aggressors might also receive calls about drug use, or a suicide. And so-called active-shooter drills are useful in preparing for all kinds of emergencies.
Drills Help Address All Kinds of Problems
“When we drill, we create all kinds of scenarios. It could be something like a truck with a chlorine leak, and they have to act on that based on the information we give them. We do four a year to keep them off balance.”—Richard Muth, Department of School Safety, Baltimore County Public Schools, Maryland
“Statistically speaking, most schools aren’t going to have an active shooter. But they are going to have medical emergencies, a bus accident, a non-custodial parent—something that has the potential for students to be injured or killed, which is just as tragic. Drilling and training helps teachers better prevent and respond in any of those situations.” —Amy Klinger, cofounder, Educator’s School Safety Network
Cameras Reduce Misbehavior
“It’s amazing what you can find out just with cameras. Absolutely we’ve seen a reduction in vandalism. And an uptick in finding the little darlings who do something you don’t want done. Everything is taken seriously, everything is investigated. It’s not just kids being kids anymore.”—Rita Bishop, superintendent, Roanoke City Schools, Virginia
“Our security systems have basically knocked out vandalism—we’ve seen a 98 percent reduction.”—Guy Grace, director of security and emergency preparedness, Littleton Public Schools, Colorado
Most Parents Feel Reassured
“The cameras, especially in our welcome centers, have been reassuring to parents, as has seeing more control over entrance and egress during the school day. That’s what we’re hearing: There’s an expectation that we’re on top of this, They don’t want strangers walking into our schools.” —Joe Balles, security coordinator, Madison Metropolitan School District, Wisconsin
“Having a uniformed police officer in our high school or rotating through our other buildings—I think that provides a level of comfort. You have a police presence that you can see. I don’t think that bothers people anymore.” —Brad DeRome, business manager/treasurer, Jay School Corporation, Indiana
Started by members of the Security Industry Association and the National Systems Contractors Associations, PASS provides a step-by-step map for assessing and outfitting schools with safety technology.
A nonprofit advocacy group tackling school safety research and legislation, with particular interest in securing funding for security infrastructure improvements. Website includes information on state-specific resources.
A school-safety nonprofit that addresses crisis management and infrastructure improvements from an educator-focused perspective.
Founded by the mothers of two Sandy Hook victims. Provides free resources, including safety tool kits and primary research on school-safety practices. Backed by experts in security, psychology, and violence prevention.
A secure forum for vetted school administrators and security personnel to share questions, tips, and useful information about safety programs with schools around the country. Founded by two police officers.
This appears in the September 2018 issue.