School Safety Consultant Ron Stephens: The Man in Demand

By Jessica Portner — January 01, 1999 5 min read

Ronald D. Stephens has churned out school-safety manuals for 15 years in his tranquil office ringed by eucalyptus trees here in the San Fernando Valley. As the executive director of the National School Safety Center, he has traveled to half the school districts in the nation to lecture about safety devices and crisis plans.

But Ron Stephens wasn’t exactly a household name. Until now.

The day after students Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold went on a murderous rampage at Colorado’s Columbine High School last spring, Mr. Stephens became one of the most wanted men in America.

With the public desperate for reassurance that schools were doing all they could to ensure students’ safety, Mr. Stephens emerged as a kind of national adviser to educators, politicians, and the media--with a travel itinerary that rivals those of most presidential candidates.

So far this year, he has given 47 safety talks to schools in 24 states. Mr. Stephens expects that pace to continue as the new school year gets under way.

Talk Is Cheap

On a sweltering day last month, the seasoned consultant landed in Amarillo, Texas, to deliver his standard two-hour rap to school officials.

“The message from Columbine is that these kids gave warning signs that weren’t acknowledged,” Mr. Stephens said, dispensing a list of clues educators can use to spot troubled students who could become the next school gunmen. To the 50 or so people assembled in the conference room at the district’s headquarters, he delivered the same message he has issued to schools from Port Huron, Mich., to Honolulu: Be prepared for the worst.

Mr. Stephens told the audience that a good crisis-preparedness plan that spells out steps to take in the event of an armed intruder is more effective than putting metal detectors in every doorway and transforming a school into a fortress. The best way to prevent violence is keeping the communication channels open, he added. Experience has proved that anonymous telephone tip lines students can use to report weapons on campus can thwart a crisis before it begins, he said.

After his talk, teachers and principals buzzed around Mr. Stephens, peppering him with questions.

“We need somebody to tell us if we are doing the right thing,” said David Cargill, an assistant superintendent for the 80,000- student Amarillo school district.

“It was crazy at the end of last year. We had bomb threats. Anxiety was high,” said Daniel Coward, the principal of Amarillo High School, which had a nonfatal school shooting eight years ago. “We have to consider what to do about these things. We can’t just wish it away.”

Amarillo district leaders called Mr. Stephen’s $2,000-a-day fee an excellent investment.

Nationwide, nearly every district where there has been a fatal school shooting has been slapped with a lawsuit from victims’ families. The average financial settlement in such suits, according to school law experts, has been about $250,000. In the months since the Columbine High School shootings, several lawsuits have been filed against the 90,000-student Jefferson County district.

“Parents won’t forgive you if their kids are damaged or injured or killed,” Bob Moore, the Amarillo district superintendent, said after the meeting. “So, this is cheap,” he said of the cost of bringing Mr. Stephens to town.

In the Spotlight

When he’s not on the road, Mr. Stephens, 52, is in his office here, patiently answering questions from journalists, among others. This morning, he is on the phone, spoonfeeding quotes to a rookie crime reporter and helping her navigate the center’s information-packed World Wide Web site. A producer from an ABC television news show is waiting on hold.

In the charged weeks following the Colorado shootings that left 14 students and a teacher dead, a sound bite from Mr. Stephens was a hot commodity. When everyone from former police officers to FBI agents started popping up on television talk shows as instant experts on school crime, the low-key former education professor came across as the real thing.

In the month after the incident, Mr. Stephens appeared on television 25 times, gave 12 radio interviews, and granted more than 70 newspaper interviews.

“There were legions exploring every aspect [of the shootings], and we became the ‘go to’ agency,” he said.

The National School Safety Center, established in 1984 at Pepperdine University with a federal grant from the Reagan administration, was launched as an information clearinghouse to promote model strategies on school safety. The center’s booklets on everything from gang prevention to the mechanics of crisis intervention have more than 1,200 subscribers.

Mr. Stephens, who was teaching at Pepperdine University at the time, was asked to set up the center.

The independent, nonpartisan center could be mistaken for a government agency. Members of President Clinton’s Cabinet--including Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley and Attorney General Janet Reno--routinely rely on Mr. Stephens’ expertise. And Mr. Stephens stepped in over the summer to ghostwrite legislation in some states that held special sessions to address school crime. The center provided ready-made drafts of model legislation used by a half-dozen states that would mandate that districts create safety plans, conduct architectural reviews of campuses, and forge partnerships with police.

Budget Woes

Such political access hasn’t always translated into public financing, however.

In 1997, the center lost a bid to win a three-year, $3 million competitive grant--a decision that Mr. Stephens claims had political overtones.

The NSSC is affiliated with Pepperdine, which had offered Whitewater Independent Counsel Kenneth W. Starr a position at its law school--a job Mr. Starr later declined. Mr. Stephens says Clinton administration officials were reluctant to offer a federal grant to the center because of Mr. Starr’s ongoing investigation of President Clinton.

But William Modzeleski, the director of the U.S. Department of Education’s safe and drug-free schools program, says the center lost in a competitive process and that there was no political motive.

The center’s annual budget shrank from $1.2 million to $250,000--about 30 percent of that from speaking fees and the rest from publications subscriptions. The center’s staff has gone from 30 to four.

Mr. Stephens plans to make up for the lost revenue by fund raising from foundations and through teaching: He was just appointed chairman of the new department of school safety at Pepperdine University’s graduate schools of education and psychology.

And he offers some free advice: Mr. Stephens said schools concerned about responding to public pressure to do something about security should be wary of expensive high-tech gadgetry that doesn’t work to prevent crime.

“Despite all the fancy hardware, the single most effective violence-prevention strategy is the physical presence of a caring adult,” he said.

And that’s one sound bite he hopes will sink in.