school safety

Anonymous reporting systems enhance safety

Nearly every violent incident at a school, a workplace, or a public setting is followed by media coverage in which people point to obvious warning signs that had been ignored. It may have been a student shooter’s obsession with weaponry, a co-worker’s muttered threats, a mass killer’s propensity for harming animals … in each case, there’s something the after-the-fact experts tell us we should have noticed that maybe, just maybe would have prevented the violence.

 Assume we had taken note of the behavior in question. What were we supposed to do with our observations and suspicions?

 For a long time, society has trained us to keep our mouths shut. As children, we’re told not to be “tattletales,” and as adolescents, “telling on someone” can result in our incurring the wrath of a bully. In the adult world, the idea of sharing information is often considered to be “ratting” on someone and “whistleblowers” are typically isolated by others around them.

 After 9/11 and incidents such as the Columbine and Sandy Hook school shootings, that attitude started to shift. Law enforcement and other authorities have shared the message that when we see something that makes us uneasy, we need to say something about it. If a student is making violent threats on social media, we need to alert the school’s principal. If a co-worker makes angry comments about the manager and audibly fantasizes about shooting her, we need to tell someone who can investigate.

 It makes sense, but again we go back to the question: what are we supposed to do with our observations and suspicions? We don’t want to be perceived as a tattletale or rat, nor do we want to become the target of someone who’s unstable just because we shared our concerns about that individual and his or her behavior.

 That’s where the value of some type of reporting system that allows people to make reports either anonymously or with the confidence that their names will be kept secret. People are far more likely to call attention to dangerous situations if they don’t fear any personal backlash.

 Such a system doesn’t have to be limited to threats or criminal activities, and one of the most successful examples exists in the aviation industry. Some years back, industry and government leaders collaborated to create the Aviation Safety Reporting System (ASRS), which provides a way for pilots, service technicians, air traffic controllers, and others to self-report near-misses, mistakes, and other problems without fear of penalty or retribution. The goal of systems like ASRS is to gather information that can identify underlying problems and educate others, so they don’t make the same mistakes. Reporting systems can also be put into place for issues such as fraud, sexual harassment, and compliance issues.

 Many school districts are now using the Say Something Anonymous Reporting System that was developed by the violence prevention organization known as Sandy Hook Promise. The system gives students and adults a way to alert school administrators to potentially dangerous situations, so they can investigate and intervene as necessary.

 Creating an effecting voluntary reporting program includes several considerations. First, you need a clear scope and straightforward process. How will reporting take place? Who will receive those reports? Ideally, the person or people you select to play that role should be well-known and respected leaders who have demonstrated professional maturity.

 Your process should also spell out exactly what that person is expected to do with the information and how quickly they should take action. That’s especially important when you receive a report of something such as suicidal ideation, in which delays are unacceptable. How will reports and follow-up be documented? You also don’t want to establish a process that circumvents or undermines established authorities such as law enforcement or school administrators, or that puts your organization at risk for violating laws. As an example, some states require immediate reporting of suspected child abuse, so your process can’t sidestep that.

 Most of all, you must protect the confidentiality of people making reports. There’s no room for error -- a single breach of that confidentiality will destroy any trust people have placed in the system and ensure that nobody will make any reports.

Someone phoned in a bomb threat. Now what?

It’s an ordinary day, and the person at your front desk smiles as she chats with a co-worker. The phone rings, and her smile remains as she greets the caller, only to hear a nervous voice tell her there is a bomb in your building and everyone had better get out before it explodes.

 

What’s the next step? If you’ve been proactive, you’ve already developed a plan for this situation and trained the people who answer your phones about what they should do. If you don’t have a plan, the response is likely to be a panicked evacuation.

 Bomb threats are some of the most disruptive situations a school, church, business, or other facility is likely to encounter. While the overwhelming majority of such threats turns out to be pranks, the potential damage from an actual explosive device is so significant that experts recommend the threats be taken seriously.

 According to the U.S. Bomb Data Center, the federal agency responsible for tracking bomb- and arson-related incidents, there were 1,536 bomb threats reported in 2016. Of those, 529 were made to schools and 254 to businesses. The agency reported that there’s been a 33 percent increase in bomb threats to schools since 2014. Students know a bomb threat will be taken seriously and bring classes to a temporary halt, so whether someone has a gripe with the administration or really isn’t ready for that Algebra test, a threat -- whether it’s phoned in or takes the form of a note in a restroom or a comment on social media -- seems to be an effective way to cause trouble.

 The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) cautions that every bomb threat is unique and has to be considered in light of the nature of the facility and who uses it. They note that law enforcement officials and facility managers are usually in the best position to determine whether the threat is credible and how to act.

 If your facilities don’t have a plan for dealing with this type of threat, it’s a good idea to develop one and share it with those who are most likely to receive the threat and those who will have to make decisions. It’s also wise to obtain the advice of local law enforcement agencies so your plan is consistent with their procedures. You can find information about developing a plan at the DHS website, and many organizations have posted their plans online. A quick Google search can provide a great starting point.

 Generally, the first step in a response is to remain calm and notify the authorities immediately. With phoned threats, DHS encourages people to stay on the line with the caller as long as possible while someone else makes the notification. Be polite and engage the caller by asking questions about the specific location of the device, when it is supposed to detonate, how it looks, and what type of explosive it contains. If the caller is willing to talk, ask whether he or she placed the bomb and why he or she did it. More information makes it easier for law enforcement to make the right response. The person taking the information should not hang up the phone even if the caller does, because it may be possible to determine where the call came from.

 If the people responsible for decisions about evacuation determine that’s the right course of action, evacuate calmly and carefully. If your facility conducts regular fire drills, sounding a fire alarm is an effective way to get everyone out of the building.

 A similar issue is what to do if someone discovers a suspicious item in your facility, such as an unusual bag or package that appears to be out of place. Here again, you should have a policy that spells out procedures to follow. Not every item is suspicious -- for example, people accidentally walk away from backpacks and purses all the time. On the other hand, if it appears someone tried to hide the object, if it has a strange smell or odd sounds coming from it, or if it’s in an unusual place, there may be reason to be concerned. People who leave bombs or other hazardous materials tend to put them in locations where they can do damage to people and important assets.

 If you do find a suspicious item, DHS recommends that you remain calm and refrain from touching or moving it. Follow your organization’s procedure, whether that involves contacting a facility manager or placing a call to law enforcement, and follow their instructions. If you can’t reach someone and are convinced that there’s an immediate danger, calmly evacuate the area. Moving farther away from an explosive device generally is the safest course of action.

 

Are Your After-School Events Safe Places?

You’ve done an impressive job of putting safety practices in place during the school day. After the school day starts, visitor access is limited to a single door, and all visitors must be buzzed in and check in at the front desk. You’ve been using a visitor management system that verifies people haven’t been banned by your district or aren’t on sex offender registries. An off-duty police officer walks the halls and verifies that all exterior doors are closed and locked several times throughout the day.

 Then the final bell sounds and the students and staff leave. But that doesn’t mean your building is empty. In the late afternoon and into the evening, clubs are meeting and teachers are tutoring students who are struggling to catch up. The basketball team is running layup drills in the gym, while the band director is leading one more practice before Thursday night’s concert. The evening custodians are preparing the building for the next day.

So where are your safeguards? How many people are in the school? Are you sure they all belong there? Are you sure they’re all going to leave when it’s time to go? What parts of the building are they able to access? Could a pair of students with non-educational activities in mind find a hiding place? Could someone with evil intent hide a weapon in a locker?

 The same questions could apply to churches and other organizations. The flaw in many security plans is that they’re designed solely for the facility’s primary use -- during class time, around worship services, or in the business day. Those are the busiest times of day, so they get the lion’s share of attention and protection.

But most schools, churches, and organizations see activity outside of normal hours, often with relaxed access controls. The basketball players drift in through the locker room door. The custodians prop open the door near the dumpster so they can sneak a smoke break. While the Bible study facilitator is enlightening his group, his preteen kids are running amok in the hallways. Add in after-hours events, from athletic contests, to choral concerts, to Scout meetings.

 The simple fact is that if your safety plan fails to address the other times of day, it’s inadequate. Your safety plan needs to incorporate all times in which people are in your facilities, whether that involves visitors or employees. The concern behind that approach isn’t only that someone who intends to do harm to others can access your facilities. Allowing people to roam your buildings unsupervised could create a liability issue if they were to injure themselves. In addition, what would happen if there were a fire or severe weather? Would occupants know what to do? Would first responders know where to check?

 First, take some time to do some planning. Focus on how your facilities are used and occupied during “off” hours. Look at activities and event schedules so you have a clear understanding of what’s happening and who is involved. Second, determine how people get in and out of the building after hours. Ideally, access and egress should be limited to a single entrance. Third, look for ways you can block off access to other parts of the building, such as by installing security gates. Fourth, consider how you can provide supervision of activities. If you’re expecting a big crowd for a band concert or a volleyball tournament, you may want to have security staff on hand. At the very list, administrators should be at the front doors to monitor who is entering. For activities such as after-school practices, make sure coaches know they are responsible for supervising the entire team while they’re in the building.

 Finally conduct spot checks of your facilities after hours. See if the activities match what’s supposed to be happening. Make sure the occupants belong, and that they aren’t in places where you don’t want them. Walk through empty hallways and look for unlocked rooms. Conducting such checks will not only reassure about the safety of your facilities, but they’ll also give you ideas for additional steps you can take to ensure everyone’s safety.

 

Metal Detectors Aren't a Magical Safety Solution

There are no two ways about it: school shootings are terrifying. Students, parents, teachers, and communities are horrified by the thought of someone violating what we’ve always thought of as one of our safest spaces by firing a weapon with the intent to kill.

Criminologists point to statistics confirming that the number of such shootings really isn’t on the rise, noting that schools continue to be among the safest places for young people. Still, given the explosion of media and social media coverage, the average person can’t be faulted for thinking America faces some kind of violent new epidemic.

After this spring’s highly publicized incidents in Parkland, Florida and Santa Fe, Texas, and another in Noblesville, Indiana -- not far from our company’s offices -- there’s been an outcry calling for “hardening” school buildings to thwart potential shooters. In particular, many well-meaning people have insisted that the best solution is to place metal detectors at the doors of all schools. Indiana’s Governor recently made hand-held metal detectors available to all of the state’s schools at no cost to the districts.

Metal detectors have their place in security, but they’re not the foolproof or magical solution many advocates believe them to be. First, metal detectors are personnel-intensive devices. To provide adequate protection, they have to be staffed any time anyone enters the building. That not only includes the times when large groups of students are arriving for school, but throughout the day, and for high schools, into the evening and weekends.

If the swim team arrives for practice at 5:30 a.m., somebody has to be there to scan the members and their gym bags. If practice for the spring musical runs all evening, someone has to be there to scan all the participants. The same goes for sporting events. If there’s any gap in scanning, it creates an opportunity for someone to smuggle a weapon into the building and place it in a locker or other location for later access.

Not only do trained people have to be on hand to perform the scans, there has to be an established process when the detector identifies a suspicious person or object. Who will be responsible for frisking students or searching their bags? Will that interfere with the flow of students coming into the school?

Nor are all weapons made of metal. Even with every door protected by a metal detector, students could bring weapons made of wood, plastic, or other materials without detection. That creates a false sense of security.

Finally, if metal detectors placed at building entrances create a crowd of students who are waiting outside to get into the building to be scanned, that crowd becomes what’s known as a “soft” target. It would be easy for someone on the school grounds or in a nearby vehicle to open fire into that crowd with a weapon and inflict mass casualties. That individual wouldn’t even need a gun -- choosing instead to mimic the actions of terrorists in Europe and elsewhere who have simply driven vehicles into crowds.

It isn’t that metal detectors are inherently bad. But they’re not a panacea that will eliminate school shootings. Parents and others want a simple, easy-to-implement strategy to secure their children’s schools, and such an option just doesn’t exist. If it did, law enforcement officials would be leading the movement to use it. The fact that you don’t see police departments and law enforcement experts pushing for simple solutions like metal detectors is that they know better.

Effective school security encompasses several components, many of which can’t be purchased from suppliers. One of the most important is awareness of the hazards and having systems for alerting the authorities to potential threats. In nearly every major school shooting, we’ve later learned that the shooter had made threats or shared plans in advance, yet that information was never passed along to those responsible for security. Schools need a means through which people can safely report concerns about individuals.

In addition, it’s important to address visitor access. In the Parkland incident, the shooter was a former student who had no reason to be in the school, yet he easily gained access to commit his violent act. Would the outcome have been different if he had to obtain access to the building through the office and obtain a pass? Any answer is just speculation, but it’s worth thinking about.

Students and teachers need to be protected, but demanding simple solutions isn’t going to provide safety for everyone. The real answer is replacing rhetoric and social media chatter with thoughtful planning by professionals.

Learn more about school safety best practices.  Contact us.

Are You Keeping Students Safe with a Quality Visitor Management System?

There can never be too much safety for our schools. As technology advances, it is vital for schools to make technological advances as well. A main advancement that many schools are implementing is a visitor management system.

Visitor management systems not only keep children safe, but they also provide a sense of comfort for your district’s parents. SafeVisitor Solutions can provide safety for your school, comfort for parents, and organization for the school’s office. Here are a few key features that SafeVisitor offers:

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  • Monitors temporary visitors by checking the visitor’s identification against the National Sex Offender Registry in a matter of seconds.

  • If cleared for entry, SafeVisitor will print a time-expiring badge for the visitor.

  • The software allows the school’s attendant to know who is in the building at all times.

  • SafeVisitor Solutions can screen and manage school volunteers.

These features are only a few that SafeVisitor Solutions offers to keep schools safe. Along with the features listed above, the software can also manage existing employee background checks along with all background checks for any vendors that come into the school. These features ensure that anyone in contact with students on school grounds, is thoroughly checked and vetted.

With SafeVisitor, schools are able to manage the safety of students and teachers with ease. With SafeVisitor Solutions, both safety and visitor management will be enhanced in a more organized and efficient manner. If your school does not have the latest in a visitor management system, please check out a webinar on how SafeVisitor Solutions can help your district.

Please click here to register for a free webinar!