School safety on a shoestring budget

     April 20, 2009, marked the 10-year point since two students at a large, at a Colorado high school, walked onto the campus with the express intention of killing as many people as possible.

     Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold turned Columbine High School into a one-word metaphor for school violence. Prior to their armed assault, there had been other instances of student attacks, but nothing approaching the magnitude of Columbine.

     In the attack, the shooters planted bombs and concealed numerous weapons on their persons, then entered the campus during a busy lunch period. Although the bombs failed to detonate as the pair hoped they would, the two high school seniors killed 12 students and one teacher, and injured many more.

     Area law enforcement was soundly criticized for its response to the incident. Among the charges leveled by parents, residents and the press was that information about the two attackers, their penchant for violence and making threats, as well as their interest in bomb making, were known to investigators in advance of the school attack. Officials were also criticized in their handling of the scene when active shooters were present.

     As a result of the Columbine shootings, police protocol embraced more proactive responses, a development that has undoubtedly saved lives. But even though both school and law enforcement authorities are much more cognizant of the signs of potential problems, school violence has not been relegated to the past.

     On April 16, 2007, a mentally disturbed Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University (Virginia Tech) student, Hui Cho, shot and killed 32 individuals on campus and wounded many others before finally committing suicide. Cho's rampage would result in the highest number of casualties in a school shooting in the history of this country.

     Other violent acts have also taken place since the Columbine massacre, including an incident in 2006 in which an adult took children in an Amish school hostage, then killed five girls, ages 6 to 13.

     Schools have long employed on-campus security measures that, particularly in high schools and middle schools, include school resource officers. But in this day and age of economic cutbacks, budget shortfalls and just plain hard times, departments and school systems need more than simply a school resource officer. They need inexpensive but effective ways to prevent these things from happening. Law Enforcement Technology took a look at some cost-effective ways schools, and the law enforcement agencies that patrol them, can help shut down potential problems before they grow. Here is what we found:

Manage incident stress

     School principal and crisis consultant Naomi Zikmund-Fisher of Ann Arbor, Mich., has a simple approach to shoring up school safety.

     "One of the most cost-effective thing schools can do is have a team trained in Critical Incident Stress Management. It doesn't prevent bad things from happening, but it saves a tremendous amount of time, energy and cost in the aftermath," Zikmund-Fisher says.

     The long-time school administrator acknowledges that "bad stuff is going to happen" and it's impossible to build up experience that will prevent it. But, she says, it's not impossible to be prepared for the worst. And being prepared can make all the difference in the outcome.

     "It's so important for folks to be trained ahead of time," she says.

     Zikmund-Fisher believes law enforcement can partner with school staff, especially counselors, by practicing skills that would be needed in the event of school-based violence.

     "Often our instincts are exactly backwards; if we wait until schools have their own incidents to learn from mistakes, it's too late," she says.

     Zikmund-Fisher says one free resource that school administrators should consider is FEMA's NIMS training, which is aimed specifically at schools. Make sure your department's NIMS training is in sync with what is being offered to educators. She also recommends practicing what to do if a violent incident erupts on campus.

     "We have this idea that you shouldn't practice things with kids because it will scare them. Well, we practice fire drills all the time and kids don't sit up at night and think about fires," she says.

     She believes schools should build bridges of trust with the students. "Every single kid in the school should have an adult he can trust. Relationships build trust," Zikmund-Fisher says.

     Her bottom line: Planning is free. Take a step back from the spreadsheet and ask, "What are we prepared for and what are we not prepared for?" Preplanning a response goes a long way toward solving problems and costs nothing.

Get involved before the worst happens

     Former L.A.-based prosecutor Robin Sax has a simple philosophy: Action is smarter, cheaper and more successful than reaction.

     "Prosecutors and law enforcement officers don't get involved until after a crime has been committed," Sax says. She says she also sees reluctance on the parts of parents to have safety conversations with their kids. "Parents are so concerned about kids 'living in fear' that they don't have those critical talks," Sax says.

     Sax notes that being proactive is better for prevention. "I equate it to [the fact that] people who actually read the booklet and listen to the [flight attendants] are more likely to survive an incident than people who don't," she says. "Why can't we talk about personal safety?"

     Sax believes society has become too politically correct in that we don't teach children to listen to their instincts. Instead, they give everyone the benefit of the doubt, including ignoring behaviors and activities they shouldn't. The former prosecutor says she believes programs that involve finding teachable moments in everyday life would help reduce the opportunity for school violence.

     "It goes back to instinct. The kids need to be able to recognize the outward signs and symptoms," she says. And, she believes, schools should have teachers address subjects that are often considered taboo.

     Sax draws the comparison between sexual harassment training in the workplace and recognizing when something might be off-kilter at school. Businesses spend a lot of time and energy educating workers on sexual harassment, but schools do little to cover the signs that something could be terribly wrong with a student's outlook.

     She also encourages law enforcement agencies as well as educators to be proactive with technology. "Every school should have people on Facebook and on MySpace listening to cries for help. Don't wait and go there after the crime has taken place. Why not say 'I noticed this' to the kid? Connect the dots on how kids act and what they say to us. Pay attention to social networking," she says.

     In fact, Eric Harris, who along with Klebold committed suicide after the Columbine High School shootings, left plenty of clues as to his violent intentions. Although some law enforcement officers had apparently been alerted to Harris' penchant for guns, bombs and threats of harm to others, other than the parents of a student they threatened, no one seemed to take his rants seriously.

     "Kids want boundaries — that is why sexual predators are so successful," Sax asserts. "Give kids the attention they want. The goal is to raise adults who make good decisions."

     Her bottom line: Form multi-disciplinary teams to monitor kids' social networking and keep their ears open for things that seem off-kilter.

Add more manpower

     It may initially appear to be a more expensive way to handle the job, but there may be a way to cover more ground for less money. What you have to do here is think outside the lone school resource officer model.

     Steve Cliffe, a former educator who previously worked in personal and executive protection, combined his knowledge of the two disciplines to create a program that, he says, better prepares school employees and administrators to react the right way to perceived threats. Cliffe says the first thing school employees need to do is change their mindset.

     "People look for pleasant ways to deal with social settings," Cliffe says. That doesn't cut it with school shooters, as the staff and faculty at Columbine High School discovered. Cliffe recalls one 911 call from a teacher hiding with a group of students.

     "You could hear it in her voice ... the training stopped at a certain point. She had the kids and it's locked down and that's all she knows, so she reverts to panic. No other tools other than yelling at the kids to stay down and get under the [tables]," he says.

     The basic tenets of Cliffe's system, which he offers through his company, I.T.D. Systems, teaches educators to react proactively — and think like a cop when doing it. It's different from NIMS training in that this approach makes staff more proactive. For example, he illustrates the difference between cover and concealment to students. At Columbine, some teachers directed kids to hide in place beneath flimsy desks and tables, which offered minimal concealment and no protection whatsoever against the high-powered rounds fired by the gunmen. Students were also urged to hide when fleeing the area might have saved their lives or reduced the opportunity for injury.

     "Educators don't just have to sit there and hope. They can make themselves (and their kids) safe, even the ones who are violently opposed to hurting someone in a social setting," he says.

     He says getting past that initial objection is the key. Other objections, such as liability issues, Cliffe says, become moot once there's a real threat of violence. He asks, "What about the liability of teaching students to shelter in one concentrated area for a greater kill ratio?"

     Cliffe points out that many times the first responder, who is usually the SRO, will be targeted immediately. Even if the SRO is not taken out of the picture at the beginning of the incident, one officer can only clear a building in the amount of time it takes for him or her to work through it.

     By increasing the number of responsible adults who know the proper tactical response and can execute it, lives can potentially be saved. The cost, which can many times be off-set with grants, can run as low as $45 per educator, depending on the distance Cliffe's staff must travel and the time investment. He says the cost, compared to outfitting another SRO, is minimal.

     "A lot of teachers come from the lily white background of the ivory tower. We teach them to react as if lives depend on them," Cliffe says.

Other tactics

     Nationwide, severe budgets cuts are common this fiscal year, yet school safety remains a top concern. In addition to ramping up the capabilities of school staffers and making everyone, from students to parents, more aware of what is going on out there, some other ways to make schools safer on a shoestring budget include:

  • Better camera placement. Where do school cameras focus? Could there be better placement?
  • Locking exterior doors. Consider having only the main entrances unlocked from the outside while class is in session.
  • Picture IDs for all staff. If they don't have them, they should.
  • Good lighting. High quality lights can deter nighttime visitors who might plant weapons or bombs. They flush people out from their hiding places and help security cameras do a better, more accurate job. While it's not necessarily cheap, it's priceless compared to the cost of a school shooting incident.
  • Security camera footage that can be viewed in real time. And a way to monitor them.
  • Annual review and updating of the school safety plan.
  • School protocol on behaviors that reduce the likelihood of school violence. Make sure the faculty reports any child they feel may be having problems or be prone to violent behavior. Swift intervention can save lives.

     While both schools and law enforcement agencies face unprecedented fiscal challenges, school safety issues can still be met head-on by paying attention to small, but significant details.

     A 12-year veteran of police work, Carole Moore has served in and has extensive training in many law enforcement disciplines. She welcomes comments at