As this school year comes to a close, school administrators will find themselves searching for ways to make their schools safer in the coming year. Recent school tragedies like those last week in Santa Monica, have made it clear our schools are soft targets for deranged criminals. Administrators seeking to improve student safety and school security need to heed a simple, yet important fact: Over time, safety, unlike algebra, has evolved into a completely different subject matter from what many administrators once learned.
Safety is my expertise. The lessons I have learned as an Army Ranger and security professional leading protection details for dignitaries, heads of state and public figures in some of the most dangerous places of the world provide solutions to many of the challenges brought to light in this evolving discipline of risk reduction and vulnerability assessment.
Congress’ response to the Sandy Hook tragedy was to pursue a variety of gun control legislation. But these bills were off the mark – even their authors admit they would not have prevented the shooting in Newtown. Instead of getting bogged down in ugly, partisan fights, there are noncontroversial actions that can be taken immediately that would actually make a make schools safer than they are today.
The best scenario, of course, is to stop an “active shooter” attack from happening altogether. We must embraces a practice of prevention, not reaction. When school is in session, there should only be one way for guests and visitors to approach, and a specific process for them to enter. A school in session should mimic a Broadway theater after the curtain has gone up: hundreds of ways for the audience to leave, but only one way to enter.
An individual who makes a public attack almost always has a specific person in mind to attack first. These offenders typically plan their action only up to the moment of initiation; they almost never plan for what will come next. This knowledge is important: if you are not the first intended victim your chance for survival is increased if you run immediately away from the sounds of the gunshots, or as soon as the threat is recognized.
Teachers and students are told to shelter in place during an attack. But sheltering in place was designed to protect against natural disasters, high winds, falling trees and other non-human dangers. It is an absurd idea for surviving a physical encounter. Quite simply, you cannot outrun a storm, but you can outrun a person, especially one not chasing you. I have yet to speak with a parent, whom when given a scenario similar to Sandy Hook, would rather have to identify their child than spend a few hours searching for him or her.
Some will argue that you cannot outrun a bullet. They are correct, but who is more difficult to hit: the child running away and gaining distance with each step, or the child hiding in the coat closet?
If fleeing is not an option, teachers and students should be able to barricade themselves in the classroom. Unfortunately, most public-funded buildings have doors that swing out. This is a norm from times when building fires were much more common than today.
But out-swinging doors cannot be barricaded – the hinges are on the wrong side. This makes any argument for staying in the classroom during an attack a losing proposition. Classrooms should have in-swinging doors that can be barricaded. In addition, classrooms should have emergency exits, similar to those on buses and airplanes. I’d even support installing a door similar to an exit row airplane door, complete with inflatable slides in classrooms above the first floor. Would this be an inexpensive option? No. Is it worth the life of a child? Yes.
For those forced to hide or barricade themselves inside a classroom, there should be a universal “survivor signal.” Something as simple as writing H (for “help”) on any window that faces out signals to emergency personnel that someone is still inside.
Army Rangers in Mogadishu learned the same lesson Secret Service agents learned 30 years earlier in Dallas: However unlikely, expect the worst will happen. School administrators, teachers and students should do the same. Instead of periodic drills, schools should conduct a walk-and-talk discussion about what to do and where to go in the event of an attack. No fake hysteria, no sirens, no alarms – just a serious conversation about what to do if an attack happens. Airlines do this well. Few will ever experience a plane crash, but we still get a clear, calm and informative safety brief every time we board a flight.
Parents today are more involved than ever in the lives of their children, participating in decisions about curriculum, sports, and social activities – almost everything but school safety. Parents are too often placated by the belief that “something is being done” to keep their children safe at school, but then forget to ask the follow up question of what that “something” is.
Our children deserve a safe and welcoming learning environment. Partisan politics need not get in the way of taking simple steps to ensure our children get what they deserve.
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