Name: Ronald D. Stephens
Position: Executive Director of the National School Safety Center
Years in the Education Field: 35
Previous Posts: Chief Operating Officer for Columbia Christian Schools, Chief Business Officer and Vice President of Administration at Pepperdine University
Achievements: Named to Marquis Who’s Who in American Education, Marquis Who’s Who in the West, Marquis Who’s Who in California and Marquis Who’s Who Among Students in American Colleges and Universities. Recipient of the American Spirit Honor Medal. Testified on school safety matters before the United States House of Representatives and U.S. Senate committees.
Among the accolades that he has received for keeping schools safe, Ronald Stephens has been described as “the nation’s leading school crime prevention expert” by the Denver Post newspaper.
Since 1984, Stephens has served as Executive Director of the National School Safety Center, an advocacy group for school safety worldwide that was established that year by President Ronald Reagan. Prior to the appointment he had served as vice president of administration at Pepperdine University in Malibu, Calif.
“At the time the center was started, the field of school safety was relatively new,” says Stephens. “In 1984, the state of California had just passed Article 1, Section 28C [of the state constitution], which basically said that all students, staff and faculty have the inalienable right to attend schools that are safe, secure and peaceful.”
Stephens says that Article 1, Section 28C, put school safety measures on the educational map not only California, but across the United States. The concept of school safety soon began to spread, encouraged by a number of high-profile incidents of campus violence in the 1980s and 90s, most notably the massacre at Columbine High School in 1999.
“Columbine was America’s wake-up call – it was, so to speak, the public schools’ 9/11,” Stephens says.
After Columbine, schools nationwide began looking at school safety issues more and more, Stephens says. K-12 and higher education institutions increased their interagency agreements with local law enforcement, and more schools began adding metal detectors and closed circuit television systems to their infrastructures. Greater emphasis was placed on developing threat assessment protocols, allowing educators, mental health professionals and law enforcement to better react to campus threats and violence.
“As tragic as it is, often times it does take a school crisis or tragedy to get school officials to become more serious about putting their plans together,” he says.
Since taking the reins at NSSC, Stephens has facilitated the growth of security systems and programs at schools across the U.S. Originally a federally funded entity, NSSC is now a nonprofit that conducts fee-based services ranging from school site safety assessments to customized school safety and training programs.
Other focuses of the organization include providing expert witness and trial consultant services, and producing publications that report on research and trends in school safety best practices in campus security.
The NSSC works with approximately 80 school districts and organizations per year, providing assessments and training, Stephens says.
“Over the past 25 years, we have conducted more than 2,000 training programs nationwide,” he says. “We were asked by the U.S. Department of Justice to develop the federal training program for 10,000 federally funded school police officers. We created the curriculum and developed the training program, and provided that training throughout the United States to both educators and school resource officers.”
Stephens’ journey from educator to school safety expert began on a traditional path that was soon disrupted by the Vietnam War. Earning both his undergraduate and graduate degrees from Pepperdine, Stephens was in the midst of his first teaching contract when he was drafted into the United States Army. He rose to the rank of sergeant and served at Fort Hood, Texas, and in Vietnam. Stephens later returned to the West Coast, where he eventually worked as a teacher, assistant superintendent and school board member. He received his doctorate from the University of Southern California.
During his career, Stephens says that he has worked with legislators and educators at almost every level on school safety reform, including testifying before the House of Representatives’ Judiciary Committee, the House Committee on Education and Civil Rights, and other House and Senate committees. Much of the educational materials and training programs that NSSC develops is based upon the personal experiences of school security officers, administrators, and teachers.
“What we have done since the beginning of our operation has been to suggest model policies and practices that will enhance safe schools,” Stephens says. “We have always had a bias towards what works. We want to find out the common practices that help school administrators to be more effective in their work.”
Stephens added that over the years, the NSSC has held post-crisis meetings with educators and administrators after violent encounters to determine what changed within their schools systems following the situations. These meetings have produced valuable lesson plans, he says.
While policy remains an important facet to reducing school security threats, another factor is the school’s design, Stephens says. Most schools were not designed to be defended against, while others actually encourage campus crime through architectural barriers or areas that are difficult to supervise.
“If you were designing a facility where you wanted to control visitor traffic, you would want to minimize pedestrian and vehicular entrance and exit points,” Stephens says. “You visit some of these high schools and they have over 100 different points of ingress and egress and it’s an enormous task to try and control all that.”
Though the use of surveillance cameras and other technologies have become more prevalent in school security, it’s the changing attitudes of students – and the utilization of a strong supervision plan – that remain two of the greatest factors in school safety, he says.
“An interesting study came out of the University of Michigan almost ten years ago that basically said despite all the high-tech strategies that address school crime prevention, the single most effective strategy for keeping schools safe is the physical presence of a responsible adult in the immediate vicinity,” Stephens say.
“Since Columbine, there has often been this idea that if we just use more high-tech strategies we can prevent crime,” he adds. “All we know is that the high-tech strategies can be helpful in crime prevention, but it is still about how you address and change the attitudes and actions of young people.”