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Proactive safety measures
By Adam Aurand, director of marketing and public relations at Thaddeus Stevens College of Technology.
Tamara Willis is in her first year as superintendent at Susquehanna Township SD, a suburban district east of Harrisburg. She is looking through “hurricane glass” in the cafeteria and wondering if it should not be more widespread.
That’s because investigators think glass windows designed to withstand hurricane-force winds at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida prevented a gunman from firing on students as they fled his attack in February.
“We’re a school; we never signed on for this,” Willis says, as she talks about more ways to secure her schools from a possible armed assailant. “But, unfortunately, this is the world we live in now. School has changed.”
Ask any school administrator these days about priorities and he or she is likely to put the safety of students at the top of the list – often, above even learning. But the administrator is also likely to admit that there are no guarantees. That’s why school leaders are partnering with law enforcement more than ever, getting creative and taking as many proactive measures as possible to make their schools as secure as possible before another attack.
‘Boots on the ground’
“Partnership with local law enforcement is critical,” Willis says. Susquehanna Township SD involves police and other emergency responders on its safety committee, and the local chief requires that officers are visiting its school buildings every day. The police help district administrators troubleshoot things administrators may not even consider.
The relationship “is very important – now more than ever,” says Cpl. Adam Reed of the Pennsylvania State Police. “We partner with schools throughout the state on a regular basis, not only in a reactive measure, but also in a proactive fashion.”
State police – like many local police departments – want to be active participants in school crisis planning and offer training on emergency response. Like Susquehanna Township Police officers, state police encourage troopers to visit schools in their coverage areas, even if it is only to have a presence in the parking lot or lunch with kids.
Some schools are bringing law enforcement in-house. Bethel Park SD, outside of Pittsburgh, had its own armed security officer, a 10-month employee. After Parkland, it decided to add three more officers to its staff.
“We talked it over with our local police department,” says Joseph Pasquerilla, the district’s superintendent. “They were looking for boots on the ground. When you look at a lot of these situations, one of the things to prevent or stop them as soon as possible is an armed, trained police officer.”
Of course, highly trained personnel do not come cheap. The district says it offers a salary of up to $65,000 per year, depending on experience, plus benefits. And officers need to be outfitted with uniforms, vests, firearms, transportation and continuing professional development. All that is in addition to a school resource officer, whom the district shares with the Bethel Park Police Department at a cost of $50,000 to $60,000 per year.
“Sure, if you had no budgetary concerns,” you’d look at other safety upgrades, too, Pasquarilla says. “But on a prioritized list, that was first.”
Still, many districts would balk at even that price tag. Budgetary constraints are often cited by proponents of arming teachers to defend school grounds. Skeptics, including PSBA, counter that it is unrealistic to think teachers could be adequately trained to use a firearm like a first responder in an emergency.
“It would give some people an illusion of safety,” wrote PSBA Chief Executive Officer Nathan G. Mains and others in a Pennlive.com op-ed in February. “In reality, it would make our schools less safe.”
While there are no one-size-fits-all approaches to school safety, the PA Department of Education (PDE) recommends that district leaders work closely with law enforcement and other local authorities to develop emergency plans. In addition to planning resources available on its website, PDE offers two Safe Schools grant programs, one for equipment/programs and one for school police/school resource officers, that can help schools prevent incidents while defraying costs.
In fact, law enforcement wants to be more involved in emergency planning. State police has a group of specially trained troopers known as Risk and Vulnerability Assessment Teams, or RVAT, that provide full security assessments of school buildings or entire campuses upon request.
“We encourage schools to take advantage of these resources,” Cpl. Reed says. “Over the last couple of years, we’ve found that schools have been more apt to follow our suggestions and enact measures to really improve building security.”
Troopers will make recommendations large and small – an exterior door that should not be propped open, a section of hallway that needs security cameras, a large tree that a gunman could climb to access the roof.
But there is also value in conducting your own assessment – or hiring a private firm to do it for you — according to Ian Thompson, vice president and founding principal of Standing Stone Consulting in Huntington and a school director at Huntington Area SD. His firm does safe-school planning for schools across the United States.
An independent assessment may complement evaluations from law enforcement, because police inevitably look at security from a responder’s point of view.
“When (a school) does a security assessment, you always do it from the defender’s perspective,” Thompson explains. “Take the defender’s perspective over the responder’s perspective. They’re very close to each other, but you need to know if you can delay an intruder long enough for an appropriate response.”
Thompson’s firm is a believer in Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design, or CPTED — a process for schools to think about security by considering natural surveillance, access control, territoriality and maintenance.
“Schools are good at making decisions if they have a process to make decisions with, if they are given a vocabulary to express what their concerns are,” Thompson says. “My biggest fear is that schools just don’t” have enough training to think more deeply about security.
In general, Thompson says schools should think holistically about how their campus grounds, buildings, entrances and procedures can be designed to make a violent intruder look out of place or suspicious before there is loss of life.
“Violent criminals are success-oriented,” he says. “How can we make it harder on the bad guy?”
Administrators should keep in mind the need for compliance when considering changes to facilities. When making safety-minded enhancements and changes to schools, it’s important that districts work with their solicitors and consult local authorities to ensure updates or alterations to physical structures are effective and aligned to local codes, said PDE spokesperson Nicole Reigelman: “Local officials are best equipped to understand a particular school’s or district’s strengths and challenges, as well as be familiar with local coding regulations.”
Planning and training
Thompson, state police and administrators are all agreed on the importance of training.
“We actually, physically do (intruder) drills each year with students in buildings,” explains Pasquerilla, of Bethel Park. “Parents should know what we’re working on and why.”
Districts have access to free resources to assist with planning on the PDE Safe Schools Office website. Earlier this year district administrators were also sent contact information for nine regional safe school coordinators at intermediate units who can provide additional assistance.
State police community service officers visit schools on a regular basis to conduct “run-hide-fight” training. Thompson’s firm conducts “Five C’s” training: Clear, Cover, Conceal, Counterattack and Communicate. Bethel Park uses ALICE training: Alert, Lockdown, Inform, Counter, Evacuate. What all of these programs have in common is they incorporate preparations for fighting back. Over the past decade or so, security planners grew tired of studying instances of students hiding in classrooms who were ultimately defenseless to an attacker.
“We encourage people to make use of hot coffee, fire extinguishers, pens and pencils – anything that can be used as a weapon,” says Cpl. Reed. “Engage that shooter like your life depends on it, because it really does.
“Teachers are not trained on this in college,” Thompson adds. “Imagine being 22 years old and needing to make life-or-death decisions for a bunch of kindergarteners.” B