June 18, 2019
While no parent wants to think about the potential of an active shooter in their child’s school, the threat of a hostile event in any school has become an unfortunate reality in the United States.
According to the 4th edition of the Safety and Security Guidelines for K-12 Schools published by the Partner Alliance for Safer Schools (PASS), schools have become the second-most frequent targets of active shooter attacks. The highly publicized murders at Columbine High School in 1999 gave way to nearly two decades of like events, which has led to “reassessments of how we manage risk in the K-12 environment in the 21st century.”
Notably, “The PASS Guidelines were cited in the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Safety Commission Report released by the state of Florida in January 2019 as part of a key recommendation supporting a ‘tiered approach’ to ensuring basic protective measures are in place before pursuing more advanced measures,” wrote Mark Williams, vice chairman of PASS in a March 8 blog post. Williams said they provide districts with a “tiered list of best practices that will allow schools to develop a plan to enhance and phase in security levels over time as budgets and resources allow,”
For most school administrators, understanding what to do and how to prioritize in the event of an active shooter incident is a formidable challenge. As such, PASS has established a set of guidelines that it makes available for free through its website.
An All Hands on Deck Approach
The horrific attacks that have made headlines have given rise to another narrative in which victims are standing up against their attackers. “Mass shootings are now a nightmarish norm in the USA, and yet the tragedies often have a common thread of heroism in them as well – people whose heralded bravery and decisive actions helped stop the attacks and probably saved lives, sometimes at the expense of their own,” USA Today recently reported.
That potential victims have the power to shift the trajectory of the attack is a growing reality, which is one reason why the PASS guidelines advise that establishing roles and training people is a critical component of safety and security in schools. According to the guidelines, all students and staff should undergo the proper training that allows them to feel empowered to act in an emergency.
“It is critical for district leadership to understand the fundamental link between readiness for day-to-day emergencies and disaster preparedness. School districts that are well prepared for individual emergencies involving students or staff members are more likely to be prepared for complex events like a community disaster or an active shooter incident,” wrote Guy Grace, PASS chairman in a March 14 blog post.
As it is in the digital world, the best approach to securing the physical environment is multiple layers of protection, and the guidelines define the five physical layers for school systems to consider as: district-wide, property perimeter, parking lot perimeter, building perimeter and classroom/interior perimeter.
When it comes to securing schools, administrators need to have a risk mitigation mindset where they are thinking about and understand the difference between threat, vulnerability and risk. Though interconnected, the terms are not interchangeable.
The Risk Mitigation Mindset
As an analogy, let’s imagine a customer at a restaurant is eating a bowl of soup. A fly buzzing about that could potentially find its way into the soup is the threat; however, if the doors and windows are all closed and there are no flies within the restaurant, there is very little risk. If a door or window is left open, that presents a vulnerability. One fly whizzing about the entire restaurant isn’t a great risk, but it’s higher than the risk was prior to the door being opened.
According to the guidelines, “a threat is what we are trying to protect assets against. A vulnerability is a gap in our protection efforts. A risk results where and when threats and vulnerabilities intersect.”
The first step in developing a comprehensive security plan is doing a risk assessment. Without understanding the risks specific to an individual facility, it’s far more challenging to make informed decisions about which solutions best fit in your overall security strategy.
A Model that Works
Unfortunately, Grace has learned about security practices that work to mitigate or reduce the damage and loss of life from an active shooter through first hand experience.
“Equipping and empowering staff and students to make response decisions is the single most important factor in mitigating active threats. I saw firsthand during an active shooter attack on one of the schools in my district that immediate actions by staff and students had a direct limiting effect on the ability of the perpetrator to cause further harm after an initial attack,” Grace wrote.
“Both staff and students should receive age-appropriate training and drills that emphasize survival skills and decision options.”
In addition to training students and staff, there are technologies that should also be considered as part of an overall security strategy. Networked electronic locks, video surveillance components and intrusion detection systems are only a few. It’s also important for administrators to explore ways they can unify their communications systems.
“Within this integration, the school can receive instant alerts for weather and other emergencies that can affect the school. There are a variety of technologies to interface the in-building communication systems to wide-area systems,” Grace wrote.