Safety in Schools: Priority vs. Necessity

Security in schools has always been a top priority, but recently it has become a necessity. Active shooters in schools have increased the level of awareness and concern for overall campus safety. In 2002, the Secret Service completed the Safe School Initiative during which it analyzed 37 incidents involving 41 student attackers. The focus of the study was to develop information about pre-attack behavior and communications. It determined that most of these acts were not impulsive but rather thought out and planned in advance. Most importantly, it was determined that fellow classmates of the attacker had reason to believe that a catastrophic event could occur.

These findings indicate that some attacks could have been prevented, and emphasizes the importance of creating safe campus programs. Safety awareness programs could help improve the overall safe campus perception and encourage students to report activities they may otherwise ignore.

Identifying Potential Threats
While it is understood that only a school psychologist or other mental health practitioner can truly determine and/or identify potential threats, it is important to develop guidelines so that other people know what to report. A threat could be an expression of violence in writing, or drawing. It might be patterns of impulsive or chronic intimidation or bullying of others, or it may simply be social withdrawal. When someone notices these characteristics the proper persons should be promptly notified. It is possible that reporting these early warning signs may serve to help troubled individuals and should be a part of any plan for prevention or intervention.

A few of the outward indicators of potentially dangerous student behavior that might be reported by a teacher, classmate, parent or other concerned individual were developed by the National School Safety Center. They include:

• Has a history of tantrums and uncontrollable angry outbursts
• Characteristically resorts to name calling, cursing or abusive language
• Habitually makes violent threats when angry
• Has previously brought a weapon to school
• Has a background of serious disciplinary problems at school and in the community
• Has a background of drug, alcohol or other substance abuse or dependency
• Is on the fringe of his/her peer group with few or no close friends
• Is preoccupied with weapons, explosives or other incendiary devices
• Has previously been truant, suspended or expelled from school
• Displays cruelty to animals
• Has little or no supervision and support from parents or a caring adult
• Has witnessed or been a victim of abuse or neglect in the home
• Has been bullied and/or bullies or intimidates peers or younger children
• Tends to blame others for difficulties and problems s/he causes her/himself
• Consistently prefers TV shows, movies or music expressing violent themes and acts
• Prefers reading materials dealing with violent themes, rituals and abuse
• Reflects anger, frustration and the dark side of life in school essays or writing projects
• Is involved with a gang or an antisocial group on the fringe of peer acceptance
• Is often depressed and/or has significant mood swings
• Has threatened or attempted suicide

What to Expect From Your Security Service Provider
Expert security service providers take into consideration the research and recommendations on this critical topic made available by many different federal agencies including the U.S. Departments of Homeland Security, Justice, Education, and Health and Human Services. Research shows that prevention through communication and identifying early warning signs is one of the most critical parts of any campus security program.

Targeted violence in a school is defined as any incident of violence where a known or knowable attacker selects a particular target prior to the violent attack. Taking this into consideration, the U.S. Secret Service published “Threat Assessment in Schools.” This guide explains how to manage threatening situations and create safe school climates. By building assets that are integrated into the school, family and community, responsive decision-making can be developed.

Security service providers research publications and previous events in preparation for partnering with educational institutions. Those partnerships begin by forming a school safety committee to provide oversight. The committee, representing different school departments, provides guidance for the overall safety and security objectives of the campus. Security professionals work with the committee to review incidents and develop programs that enhance campus safety through education, training, social media and the ongoing awareness that is developed through such a program.

Your security services provider should develop a checklist that takes into consideration the physical plant, lighting, existing alarm systems, audio and visual systems and the use of social media. These, along with other potential threats, are evaluated and used to create a customized plan. Whether it be a bomb scare, chemical agent leak or threat of violence, the potential crisis is evaluated and a threat analysis is completed.

Partnerships involving educational institutions and security service providers help the school to develop a plan for effective intervention with at-risk youth demonstrating behavioral difficulties. Trained security professionals work with administrators and staff to ensure that their long-term safety and security objectives are met. By creating an environment that allows properly trained individuals to engage in intervention/response, security providers can help schools identify crises and eliminate potential threats before they occur. It is imperative that every program plans for a recovery process that enables the school community to respond appropriately and quickly, and to provide necessary care and support. Minimizing the trauma and emotional distress that affects a learning institution after a crisis event has occurred is also a top priority.

No school can prevent all crisis events nor give the assurance that such events will never take place on their campus. What a security service provider can do when partnering with schools is ensure that every reasonable solution has been evaluated, considered, discussed and planned for accordingly. The goal is to secure the campus by limiting access, developing awareness programs and providing a safe and enjoyable educational experience for students.

Kent Jurney, CPP, is vice president of client services at ABM Security Services. He has been developing and delivering security protocol and training to schools and private industry for over forty years.