Over the past decade, as the severity and frequency of violent events on school campuses have increased, school administrators have sought to harden school campuses and better train school personnel. Pressured by public outcry and facing potentially large financial settlements, government officials and scholars have seized upon the importance of effective planning when confronting all hazards on school campuses.
Gone are the days when a one hour lecture by local police or requiring employees to watch a 45 minute video are sufficient training on a school’s security needs
It is no longer practical to do nothing and not doing enough will endanger the lives of students. Thus, what is required is the implementation of the best security practices and strategies designed to create safe learning environments.
Importance of Emergency Operations Planning
In 2013, the federal government released a set of guidelines for developing “High-Quality Emergency Operations Plans” for K-12 Schools, Institutions of Higher Education, and Houses of Worship. These guides are a collaborative effort of the U.S. Department of Education, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, U.S. Department of Homeland Security, U.S. Department of Justice, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Using the key concepts elaborated in the guide for K-12 schools, administrators are directed to develop a high-quality, all hazards, emergency operations plans (EOP) that include annexes for unique threats confronting a school campus. The key to a successful plan, and most importantly the mitigation of these threats, are the following components.
- Engaged Leadership: Superintendents, school board members and principles must recognize the importance of emergency planning and support the effort.
- Collaborative Effort: The drafting of a plan must involve a “core planning team” of both internal stakeholders and external stakeholders.
- Effective Allocation of Resources: A school district must commit the resources necessary to develop and exercise a high-quality EOP.
- Consider All Hazards/Threats: A high-quality EOP must assess and prioritize all threats facing a school district and school campuses.
- Determine a Course of Action: The EOP must include specific annexes that clearly and concisely spell out actions taken when confronting a hazard or threat.
- Establish a Threat Assessment Team: Both at the district level and campus level, it is essential a comprehensive team of staff be tasked with evaluating a potentially violent individual or situation with the goal of intervention and mitigation before an event becomes violent.
Situational and Observational Awareness
The best defensive is always a proactive offensive designed to identify and mitigate a threat before it becomes a reality. One key aspect of emergency planning today is the adoption of a situational awareness (SA) mindset that will enable administrators, staff and teachers to alert the school administration of a potentially violent situation such as the possible active shooter event. What is situational awareness and how does it enable schools to create safer learning environments? In the National Response Framework, the Department of Homeland Security defines situational awareness as “the ability to identify, process, and comprehend the critical information about an incident, knowing what is going on around you, which requires continuous monitoring of relevant sources of information regarding an actual incident and developing hazards.” The key is to establish a process by which critical information from relevant sources can be relayed to the threat assessment team or appropriate school administrator.
At the campus level, situation awareness exists on three levels: the SA State, SA Systems, and SA.
- The SA State operates at the individual level and refers to the actual awareness of a situation.
- The SA System operates at the administrator level and refers to the distribution and sharing of information between teachers and administrators.
- The SA Processes operates at the campus level and refers to actions taken to mitigate a potential threat prior to it becoming a reality.
It is imperative that teachers learn to understand indicators of a potential violent individual or situation. It is also imperative that a school has a system to share and distribute this information with appropriate administrators. And finally, it is imperative that a process be in place to act upon this information in a manner that brings about the mitigation of a threat or hazard. The key to ensuring situational awareness becomes a practice rather than an art and can be applied to a school’s overall safety initiative to ensure teachers and staff obtain an appropriate knowledge base and thus advanced training is essential.
Professional educators practice observational awareness each day when it comes to assessing student behavior and performance. For a teacher, this observational awareness is second nature. The key to ensure not only academic success but also to ensure a safe learning environment is an awareness of situations and thus, educators are predisposed to use these observational skills to develop a situational awareness mindset and enable teachers and staff to identify a potentially violent individual. The key, however, to developing situational awareness beyond the classroom is advanced interactive training by security experts.
This training is not only essential for teachers and coaches, because they are in optimal positions to recognize changes in baseline behavior, but should include bus drivers, custodians, and other staff members because they see and hear things outside the classroom that can be more telling about a potential threat. Identifying and reporting suspicious packages, a concerning behavior, threatening remarks and other violence indicators can enable a threat assessment teams to mitigate and thus prevent a violent act from coming to fruition. But training and empowering educators and staff to apply these critical life skills can only achieve this higher level of awareness.
Individuals must learn to be comfortable reporting observations and incidents to their immediate supervisors or the school’s designated threat assessment team without hesitation or fear that they might be viewed as a pest or nuisance. Thus, advanced training is essential if school administrators are to set a positive tone and embrace the collaboration strength of situational awareness.
Today, school administrators, educators and staff daily face multiple security challenges that did not exist in the past. Gone are the days when a one hour lecture by local police or requiring employees to watch a 45 minute video are sufficient training on a school’s security needs. Safety initiatives and foundations now must be based on the security industry’s current best practices. It is essential that emergency operations plans and situational awareness doctrine be shared through advanced interactive training. This new paradigm provides a better means to mitigate potentially violent acts — including active shooter events. While no level of training will guarantee a zero chance of an incident, it is clear that zero or inadequate training will leave schools unprepared and place our children at a high risk. Candidly, this is a risk that no responsible adult should take lightly or accept.
Michael A. Yorio is President of SSI Guardian.