There is no easy way to begin a discussion on school violence, safety and security. As such, I will just delve right in. I have no desire to get into the political fray with regards to gun control or mental health awareness. Further, I do not have a cadre of expert witness writings to choose from on related topics. The result is a blog post where I've gained a slightly better understanding of the safety and security issues facing administrators at educational institutions throughout the United States.
Let me start with a little background. When I was a child, my hometown of Stockton, California, was thrust into the national spotlight after a horrendous school shooting commonly referred to as the Cleveland School massacre. This was one of the first mass school shootings to occur in the nation. The perpetrator, Patrick Purdy, took aim at the Cleveland Elementary School playground where he fired over 100 rounds of ammunition, killed five children, and wounded 30 other students and a teacher. Purdy then turned the gun on himself.
Fast forward to the mid and late 90's, I remember lockdown drills during my high school years. At that time, I seem to recall they were generally related to someone threatening to do harm to students or faculty. During high school, I can recall only one or two instances where we had to actually lockdown the school for any period of time. No incident stands out as particularly frightening or noteworthy. I cannot recall an incident where I ever felt in danger, other than occasional gang-related disputes. Those disputes were generally directed at rival gangs.
If we jump ahead another twenty or so years, we are now dealing with regular incidents of school violence. Not just gun violence, but physical altercations, bullying, stabbings, hostile parents, angry teachers, current students, former students, and more.
With all this in mind, I decided to start reading some articles, by experts and available on Experts.com, to see what might be done to improve the safety and security of school facilities. The following is what I found:
In reading several articles by member Dr. Edward Dragan, I found that he often restates some similar comments about school liability. It is summed up as such, "Schools, after-school programs, summer camps, Sunday schools, daycares and other agencies that supervise children are responsible for student safety of children in their care." With this in mind, schools need to have policies, procedures and protocols for protecting the children in their care.
After reading several articles, it does appear difficult for schools and school districts to avoid liability when children are injured due to violence. The schools are put in a difficult position of protecting children while simultaneously trying to avoid liability. In my research, it seems that schools are often found liable even when it appears they did everything in their power to prevent injury. So, what are some of the things they should respond to in order to protect children and also attempt to avoid liability?
As Dr. Dragan points out in an article on terroristic threats, "The standard of professional care and legal standards for determining what constitutes a credible threat are contradictory and confusing. Until the U.S. Supreme Court defines a common standard, various contradictory lower court opinions will persist." He goes on to use Pennsylvania law defining a terrorist threat as a "threat to commit violence with the intent to terrorize another person, to cause evacuation of a building, or to cause serious public inconvenience..."
I'm immediately reminded of students discussing calling in a bomb-threat in order to get out of an exam. I don't know of anyone who ever used the method, though I recall students liking to joke about it in high school and college. In our current environment, it is far less humorous.
Dr. Dragan uses the School District of Philadelphia as a good example of how students and administrators should respond to terrorist threats.
It should go without saying that depriving or disrupting a child's education in order to protect the student is most definitely worthwhile.
Until reading this article by member James Francis, I did not realize there were distinct drills. In my own experience, we only ever practiced a lockdown drill. It turns out there is more than one drill and the terminology may be a little confusing.
According to Mr. Francis, "Lockout recovers all students from outside the building, secures the building perimeter and locks all outside doors. This would be implemented when there is a threat or hazard outside of the building." The lockdown protocol is different. It requires "locking the classroom door, turning off the lights and placing students out of sight of any corridor windows. Student action during Lockdown is to remain quiet. It does not mandate locking outside doors."
I had to summarize the difference as such:
You could see where one is used for an external threat or hazard and the other is when the threat has entered the school grounds. Mr. Francis explains lockout is not just necessary for a school shooting situation, but imagine a dangerous dog is loose. On a rare occasion we get mountain lions in our area and a lockout might be appropriate where the school is contained in a main building or a couple buildings. At my elementary and high schools, where the buildings were spread out, we would have been required to lockdown in the event of a mountain lion. To be fair, there is less of a "jumping the fence" hazard with most dogs.
Mr. Francis further explains there have been confusion of the lockout v. lockdown terms. Schools and first responders have reacted inappropriately by conducting lockdown drills when a lockout would have been the appropriate response to a neighborhood or community threat.
As I read this article, I couldn't help but think maybe a change in terminology is more appropriate so administrators, police, and other first responders are on the same page. "Close-out" might be an appropriate replacement for "lockout."
From what I've been reading, emergency planning and response are massively complex topics. Even for me to write about it briefly, I've had to undertake some pretty serious research.
Our member Bo Mitchell has written extensively on both topics. His experience with companies and campuses is that they need to have an emergency plan for "all-hazards." It cannot be an active-shooter plan only. As he states in this blog post, "Your plan has to be all hazards. Not just fire, but severe weather, active shooter, roof collapse, assault in your parking lot�any and all foreseeable circumstances�as the lawyers say." All-hazards planning requires employers (including schools) be prepared for all man-made and nature made crises.
This seems extreme, does it not? How can a school or school district be prepared for all crises? In my mind, it is impossible to be prepared for all crises. One-hundred percent safety and security is unattainable. That should not prevent schools from taking all necessary steps to implement an emergency plan when a crisis occurs. Preparation and anticipation of all contingencies may limit damage or injury sustained during a crisis.
According to this pundit, it is foreseeable that a troubled student would pull the fire alarm, evacuate a school, and shoot at students and teachers during the "fire evacuation" process. This appears to be what happened in Parkland, Florida two weeks ago. After reading post by Bo Mitchell, it appears educational facilities will need to be prepared for this contingency and be able to respond.
For some detailed information on emergency planning, I recommend viewing Bo Mitchell's 10 Commandments of Workplace Emergency Training.
Assuming you have done your job in preparation and planning for all potential emergencies, what is your response when a crisis presents itself? As active shooter situations are top of mind, we will continue using this example. On his website, Mr. Mitchell indicates, "No court or government agency will find you - as an employer - at fault for failing to stop crazy. What every court and government agency does expect is that every employer know how to respond to crazy."
He further explains that the negligence issues employers and schools face after active shooter situation is failure to plan and failure to train. If you have not properly planned and trained for the crisis, you cannot respond appropriately. As Mr. Mitchel points out, "police, fire, and EMT's are official responders. Your employees are the first responders." In an educational setting, that makes students first responders as well.
Therefore, schools need to create their all-hazards plans and then train students, faculty, and other staff on implementing the plan in order to mitigate risk and loss of life. Bo Mitchell describes just some of the issues you will face when training to implement an Active Shooter Protocol. I'm certain after you read this list, you will understand why training is so vital:
If a school has not trained according to their plan, how will they be able to carry out their emergency response? My young staff member, Bobby Burns, has indicated to me that his high school only conducted one "lockdown" drill during his 4 year tenure. After writing this blog post, I have to assume that is insufficient training for students and faculty to put an emergency plan into action.
Have you ever heard of this before? I had not until I started working for Experts.com. I had no idea there was an entire area of architecture dedicated to developing safer buildings. In one article, our Member, Dr. Randall Atlas, explains, "The basic crime prevention through environmental design (CPTED) premise is that through the effective use and design and management of the built environment, there can be a reduction in the opportunity and fear of crime, and result in the improvement in the quality of life. If we can build effective spaces using CPTED in the next generation of schools, we will substantially reduce the opportunity and fear of crime in them."
Schools should be accessible to students, faculty, and other employees, while also being safe and secure environments in which students can learn. Dr. Atlas has written several articles on CPTED and there is a plethora of additional information on the Internet.
CPTED takes a wide variety of characteristics into account, including: site or campus design; building design (interior and exterior); visibility from classrooms; surveillance systems and other equipment; vehicular and pedestrian observation (line of sight); landscaping; walkways (interior and exterior circulation paths); signage; handicap accessibility; and much more.
A properly built CPTED school should make a school or university a safer learning environment. This does not mean creating a prison atmosphere. It simply requires a design that minimizes and impedes security threats while being accessible to students and faculty. CPTED combines safety, security, and design to make a hospitable educational facility.
This post only includes a handful of issues related to school safety and security. I have not yet touched on emergency communication systems and training with police, fire, and EMTs. Nor did I cover issues of "Run, Hide and Fight" protocol for dealing with active shooter situations.
This is meant to be a summary of school safety and security matters based on publications from our expert witnesses. What I have discovered is that making schools safe is a major undertaking and nothing I have read demonstrates 100% safety is achievable.
Nevertheless, we should continue to learn and work to make our schools an inviting and safe environment for future generations.
Nick Rishwain, JD,is the Vice President of Client Relations and Business Development for Experts.com, and primary author of the company blog. He is fully immersed in legal technology professionally and personally. In his own time, Nick is the co-creator and co-host of a live video legal technology show called LegalTechLIVE. The show has been online for more than three years and presently focuses on legal technology startups under one year of age. The show promotes the legal technology startup journey. Nick is an avid dog lover.
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