Since publication of an earlier commentary on four steps to achieving better school security, many organizations have been in contact to offer excellent additional ways to reach this desired end state.
Again, there is no simple solution. We cannot just ban guns, or hand them out willy-nilly, and expect our kids to be safe. America must get beyond the political theater and posturing and do the hard work of making our schools secure places for kids to learn and grow.
What is needed is a true system of overall security.
The American people must determine that schools are a big enough priority to take action. Some groups have done so. Organizations like the FASTER (Faculty/Administrator Safety Training and Emergency Response) Program founded in Ohio, or the National Rifle Association’s School Shield program, offer training and support relating to physical security and first aid for any school district that wants it.
There are others as well. The University of Southern California’s Rossier School of Education has developed an entire construct of steps to add psychological security measures to achieve balance among the students affected. They do this in their online master’s program in school counseling.
The experts at Defend Systems in Nashville called for a much-increased emphasis in emergency first aid, particularly for trauma wounds. They were spot-on, and this is a great additional call. Defend Systems provides local schools with that critical skill set.
There are still four steps that must be taken to increase security in our schools and decrease the likelihood of a shooting and the number of children who will be harmed. Those steps are really four interconnected pillars: pre-emptive response, access control, hardening classrooms, and on-site incident response.
1. Responding Pre-emptively
In order to pre-emptively stop school violence, it is vital to establish an environment that provides solid psychological security. A promising track is to develop relevant and up-to-date forms and modes of psychological first aid.
Psychological first aid should be a national strategy used as a preventative measure for dealing with more serious psychological trauma. Currently, the development of psychological first aid can be highly effective in smaller sample populations such as schools, a workplace, or a religious or social association, and can be put into practice in everyday life.
As it pertains to schools, and school-age kids, the initial action is to involve the students. Using them as an informational resource can make all subsequent actions more effective. Survey their experiences and then use the information openly (but anonymously) so they can see the follow-through.
Additionally, put students in as many leadership positions in the process as possible. This grows them, and will provide a wealth of insights that the adults might have missed.
All of this will build trust and inclusion that will empower the other pre-emptive actions. The students will be your best source of information. This generation of young people lives in near-constant communication, but it is not always transparent to the staff and faculty. Given that there were warning signs before almost all of the recent school shootings (many of which were stopped), making the students a part of this process is a key.
That said, these warning signs must provoke immediate action. The majority of the shooters have had some mental health or social interaction issues, and people noticed. The Parkland shooter was flagged multiple times, yet no one took action.
This was egregious, but not that abnormal. Police and school officials have to respond to red flags on social media or in overheard conversations. This response must be immediate and highly public. That way, we can stop what we know about, and deter what we don’t.
Teachers must follow due process, but fear of overstepping one’s bounds must not be allowed to obstruct intervention. Worries about giving a student a “black mark” must be swept aside. Troubled individuals—and all those around them—are much better served by stopping them from doing something potentially drastic and deadly. Action must be taken before shots are fired, if at all possible.
2. Control Access to the School
The second pillar is firmly controlling access to school facilities. If a person does not belong in the school, or is attempting to bring in prohibited items such as weapons, they must be denied access. Schools must have limited points of entry (one or at most two), each of which should be monitored and controlled by personnel that can turn people away when needed.
School personnel and students must not be able to “cheat” by opening doors for friends or for parents. Worse yet is opening doors for a stranger, just to be “nice.” Convenience must not be a factor. If a shooter is blocked from entering a school, they are unlikely to do much harm, or at least a lot less.
Controlling access to a school is particularly critical at the beginning and end of the day, but also applies during the remainder of the day. The question, “How did the shooter get in?” is always a pivotal one.
How people enter the building and who monitors the access process are a key set of decisions. They must be tailored to each specific school. Too much security, or too heavy-handed a footprint can add psychological insecurity to the student body, which can do harm even if a shooting never takes place.
A balance must be found and maintained. This decision cannot be driven from outside the school. It must be seen as part of the school’s central “culture.” If students see it that way—which will require research, education as to the reasoning, and a deft touch with both students and parents—they will be far more likely to buy into the practice.
3. Hardening the Classroom
Next, we must do a better job of securing (or hardening) classrooms as potential targets inside the school. Classrooms are often chosen to shelter-in-place, particularly for the youngest kids who are very difficult to move quickly.
All classroom doors have windows to allow observation (and protection for the children), but in an active shooter situation, this becomes a liability. There needs to be a low-cost, fast way of blocking the outside view through the window. Likewise, the doors must be lockable from the inside by the door’s organic lock, and with some sort of very simple, quickly applied additional blocking mechanism.
Within the classroom, teachers must be able to provide their students both cover (protection from gunfire) and concealment (a place to hide). The courageous teacher who hid her young pupils in storage cabinets and then faced the gunman in Sandyhook gave her life, but her quick thinking saved the children.
There are now bulletproof sanctuaries that can be put inside classrooms and can double as “story corners.” While these may be beyond the budgets of most schools, it’s a good model to provoke the imagination. We must devise the best cover and concealment we can find.
As a last resort, teachers and older kids should also make a determination as to how they might actually fight an attacker with improvised weapons available in the class.
The best mode of attack must be specified for each individual classroom, grade level, and teacher. Teachers should first be briefed or taught by an expert what is expected of them. Then, the teachers should devise a specific plan of action for their own classroom. This should be reviewed and, if need be, adjusted so that it provides the maximum protection and the minimum of psychological insecurity.
Once the plan is approved and set, it should be “published” in writing so it is not just in the teacher’s head. (Any substitute teacher should be required to review these plans.)
Lastly, drills should be conducted, first with the teacher alone, then with adults role-playing as the kids, and finally with the actual students. Older kids (high schoolers) can be told what the drills are really for, though teachers should characterize them for younger students as something like “stranger” drills, to avoid any unneeded worry.
4. On-Site Incident Response
That leads to pillar No. 4: Schools must have an on-site response capability that can confront and stop an active shooter.
Law enforcement will do their best to respond in a timely manner, but they will quite often fail. Most active shooter scenarios are done within 3-6 minutes. Few, if any, police or sheriff departments can promise to respond that quickly, especially in non-urban areas. How schools achieve this capability is again a delicate decision.
Every school district or individual school should come to this decision themselves. A highly centralized “solution” is not recommended. The “how” of achieving an adequate on-site response must once again factor in the school culture. This is clearly the most contentious aspect of school security.
There are four main options. (1) A school can have dedicated police assets on campus; (2) they can hire private security personnel; (3) they can seek volunteer security personnel from the community (such as veterans or retired law enforcement); or (4) they can have armed staff and/or faculty.
There are numerous options for schools to attain this on-site capability, and communities must choose what they can support, both budget-wise and within their collective moral structures. Remember: Too much security can be almost as big a problem as too little, so the right solution for each school is critical.
This is about more than just handing out pistols or asking those with concealed carry permits to bring their weapons to work. This will involve protocols for the storage of weapons, psych evaluations for those who volunteer, and extensive training regimens. The training must include negotiation and de-escalation skills, non-lethal control techniques, team response drills, firearms training, and extensive trauma-level first aid.
This all bears emphasis: You must have the correct people as well as the correct training. The firearms training in particular must entail far more than shooting a few dozen rounds at a local range. Shooting in close proximity to non-hostile personnel is the most difficult gun skill to learn—it must be trained and drilled until it is engrained, and only attempted in the correct situations. This is particularly essential if we are going to depend on a volunteer- or staff-based response capability.
The fact that certain individuals will actively deter and respond to threats need not lead to culture of fear among the student body. Local schools and communities will be able to develop their own psychosocial infrastructure that is compatible with each individual’s preferred form of security.
Some students are more attracted to a physical procedure, and therefore will be more likely to respond appropriately based on their training. Likewise, those who are attracted to a psychological facilitation can respond positively and rebound more quickly from the trauma of an attack event.
Both deterring and facilitating through adequately trained response are necessary to maintain psychological strength and resilience. This is needed both in the event and immediately afterward.
One final note of action. No matter how one of these situations plays out, the school and community will be severely traumatized. If a solid base of psychological security has been laid beforehand, along with the physical security measures, the school and student body have the best chance of weathering the tragedy with the least damage.
Strong follow-up support must begin as soon as the site is secured, and it must continue until every need is met. If the kids know the counseling department well from pre-existing relationships, this can go relatively quickly. Bringing in strangers may be needed, but it not optimal. School districts are better served if the counseling department is well and professionally staffed long before any event occurs.
These four steps (and the follow-up) will not guarantee 100 percent safety in our schools, but they will materially increase that security through deterrence, strong defense measures, and adeptness in ending the killing as quickly as possible, and returning to normality as swiftly as possible.
These are not pie-in-the-sky ideas. They are already being applied in hundreds of schools across America. It is time to apply them in all our schools.
Steven P. Bucci, who served America for three decades as an Army Special Forces officer and top Pentagon official, is a visiting research fellow at The Heritage Foundation. Read his research. Twitter: @SBucci.
Peter S. Bucci is a licensed psychological counselor in Georgia and Michigan with certifications in substance abuse, adolescent treatment, supervision, and trauma-specific training from EMDR International Association. He currently works with adults from high-risk environments.
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EDITORS NOTE: The featured image is of a Wellsville, New York, a teacher helping a student. (Photo: B.Fanton Universal Images Group/Newscom)