School Climate & Safety

School Safety Requires Prevention, Not Just Physical Security, Federal Commission Told

By Evie Blad — August 16, 2018 8 min read
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While many school safety conversations since the Feb. 14 shooting in Parkland, Fla., have focused on “hardening schools” with physical security measures, keeping students safe requires a broader, multifaceted approach, several panelists told a federal school safety commission Thursday.

Several of those panelists, who spoke on school policing, drills and protocols, building design, and threat assessment, also pushed for more centralized federal efforts to advance best practices and track what’s happening in schools around the country.

They spoke before the commission of four cabinet secretaries, which is chaired by U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos. Thursday’s meeting, coordinated by the Department of Homeland Security, was organized around the theme: “Creating a Citadel of Learning: New Tools to Secure our Schools, Inside and Out.”

While the image of a citadel or a fortress is in keeping with President Donald Trump’s calls to arm school staff and adopt more aggressive physical security measures, it clashes with the recommendations made by architects, educational leaders, and school safety consultants, who say such extensive equipment can make schools feel more like prisons than places of learning.

School shootings remain statistically rare, and schools remain relatively safe. Federal data show that student victimizations have trended downward for years. And the number of student homicides in schools have not trended significantly upward since the 1999 shootings at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo., which sparked many school safety conversations.

Still, large shootings like those in Parkland and in Santa Fe, Texas, lead schools to explore their safety procedures, often in order to reassure anxious parents. A recent poll found about a third of public school parents fear for their children’s safety at school.

Designing Buildings for Safety

It’s possible to create safe schools that are still welcoming to students and conducive to learning and child development, architect Jay Brotman told the commission.

“The primary goal is to provide an inspiring, healthy environment that promotes learning,” Brotman told the commission. “Security features, while vital and necessary, should be as invisible as possible and incorporated into the school’s design. Failing to do so puts children’s education, emotional development and pro-social behavior at risk.”

Brotman designed the new Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., which replaced a building that was demolished after 26 people were killed in a 2012 school shooting there. (A rendering of his design is pictured below.) He is also involved in an American Institute of Architects committee that explores ways to make schools safer through smart design—both in new construction and remodeling projects. That group has released best practices for school design and is petitioning for laws that prioritize school design as a safety measure, both in funding and legislation.

Architects emphasize “layering,” setting up multiple barriers that are backed up by additional layers if breeched, Brotman said. That might mean restricting building access to a single entry point so that visitors can be easily monitored, restricting access to hallways of classrooms with firewall doors that can be locked down, and limiting access to the front of the building, he said.

And many of these measures will be indistinguishable as security measures to students, he said. At Sandy Hook, for example, a rain garden around the perimeter of the building serves multiple purposes: collecting rain water run off, providing a space for students to learn, and restricting building access to a few pedestrian bridges that span the water, he said.

“There is no single design standard that can prevent this; however there are design principles that can help mitigate the risk both before and during these incidents,” he said, calling for a “federally housed school design clearinghouse that serves as an unbiased informational repository for state and local education officials.”

Max Schachter, who lost his son, Alex, in the Parkland shooting, agreed that controlling building entrances is important. But he also pushed for more robust, tech-heavy security measures. The Parkland gunman was able to kill 17 people without entering a single classroom by shooting through windows in classroom doors, that wouldn’t have been possible if the doors had been equipped with ballistic glass, he said, his voice cracking.

“It is time to protect our schools like we protect our airports and our federal buildings,” Schachter said.

He commended a high school in Shelbyville, Ind., that’s been dubbed “the safest school in America” because of a series of costly security measures: military grade security cameras with a direct feed to law enforcement, smoke canons that can be deployed in hallways from a centralized call center, and panic buttons carried by every teacher. Classrooms also have red lines on the floors that show students where to hide in the event of a shooting, Schachter said.

Many safety consultants, who worked with districts on facilities and protocols, have said the Shelbyville school’s model is not practical for others, noting that it hasn’t even been replicated in the local area. That’s because the 7th- through 12th-grade school, which teaches about 300 students, relied in part on donations from school security companies interested in demonstrating their products to complete the project, which would cost much more if it were scaled up to a school the size of Parkland’s Stoneman Douglas High School, which educates 3,300 students. And many experts question whether such aggressive measures are necessary, noting that they are not supported by research.

Schachter noted that smaller-scale changes would have made a difference in Parkland, too. Gates surrounding the 13-building campus should have been closed when the gunman entered, he said, and classroom doors should have been lockable from the inside, allowing teachers to secure their students more quickly.

Schachter called for a federal “school safety czar” to coordinate efforts between various federal agencies, and he pressed the commission to ensure their recommendations were put into place in schools.

“We cannot afford to kick the can down the road any longer,” he said. “We have to fix this if we want to save lives.”

Threat Assessment

Two other speakers told the commission their work was rooted in practices that were developed and advanced after past school shootings, noting that previous state and federal efforts had already had an effect on schools.

Donna P. Michaelis, the manager of the Virginia Center for School and Campus Safety, told how her state became the first in the country to mandate threat assessment practices in all schools, modeling the K-12 program off of measures put in place on the higher education level after the 2007 shooting at Virginia Tech.

Many other states have followed suit, she said, adopting school-based threat assessment and providing technical assistance to schools to carry it out. Threat assessment is a multidisciplinary process that brings together educators, student support staff, and law enforcement to respond to concerns that a student may pose a threat to himself or herself or to others. That team then makes a plan for addressing potential violence and supporting the student in the future.

The STOP School Violence Act, signed into law in March by Trump as part of a larger spending bill, includes grant funding to help states and districts establish threat assessment procedures and train students on the warning signs of violence. It also includes similar grants to create anonymous school safety reporting systems, like Colorado’s Safe2Tell, which accepts tips through a mobile app, website, and telephone number. That system, created after the 1999 shooting at Columbine High School, has been credited with thwarting multiple planned attacks. You can read more about Safe2Tell and similar reporting systems in this Education Week story.

Susan Payne, the founder of Safe2Tell, told the commission of a Secret Service report that was published after Columbine and has remained foundational to many threat assessment efforts. The agency’s Threat Assessment Center analyzed 37 targeted school attacks that occurred between 1974 and 2000, and it concluded that attackers in 31 of those events had told at least one person about their plans beforehand.

In 22 cases, two or more people knew about the planned attack in advance, the agency found. In most cases, those peers were classmates, siblings, and friends of the attackers.

“We have to change the culture and the climate into one that is about caring and seeking help when people need it,” she said, noting that the biggest category of Safe2Tell reports is concerns about suicide.

Students also often report troubling content they see on social media and video game platforms, and Safe2Tell operators, housed in a state law enforcement agency, coordinate with schools to track down involved students and respond to imminent concerns.

It’s important that any reporting system has protocols in place to quickly respond to concerns when they are reported, Payne said. Both Payne and Michaelis said their agencies benefitted from being housed in law enforcement agencies, rather than at state education departments. That helps them clear some logistical hurdles to sharing information between schools and law enforcement, they said.

Top photo: From left, Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, and Attorney General Jeff Sessions, listen during a meeting of the Federal Commission on School Safety in the Indian Treaty Room of the Eisenhower Executive Office Building on Aug. 16. --Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP

Middle photo: A rendering of the new Sandy Hook Elementary School--Svigals + Partners

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Rules for Engagement blog.