Buyer beware: Risky school safety consultants, expert witnesses

Posted by on July 4, 2012

More than a decade ago, I co-authored an article for the National School Boards Association entitled, “Buyer Beware: What to look for when hiring a school security consultant.” I would have never thought at that time that the topic would be as relevant, if not more so, eleven years later — but it is.

The issue recently came up in a conversation when a long-time education professional chuckled while telling me he saw promotional material from one unnamed consultant that included what he believed was a “testimonial” quote credited in the maiden name of the consultant’s wife.

“Couldn’t the consultant find one person not related to him to give a legitimate testimonial?,” the educator asked.

I responded by telling him that I once said I was going to take my then-pre-school aged child and market my kid as an “international expert on pre-K school safety.”  It would have probably gone over well since some self-proclaimed “highly credentialed” school safety experts over the years could have incorporated everyone but their dogs into their businesses  as school safety experts with little-to-no scrutiny by some gullible educators who hired them.

Well-intended educators often fail to recognize some rather obvious red flags in the promotional, marketing, and/or biographical materials of some consultants. Many times simply stopping and thinking about some claims should raise some obvious questions. For example:

  • If a consultant represented himself as having written dozens of “books” in a short period of time, did he really write “books” or perhaps a series of short pamphlets or booklets instead of real books?  Did the consultant actually write the books or were they written by ghostwriters? Hint: Very few book authors, including the best of academicians and researchers, have actually authored dozens of books in just a year or couple back-to-back year periods.
  •  If a consultant claims to have held multiple top titles in multiple organizations over a short period of time, might this not suggest that the person was resume-building, job-hopping, and/or a politically-appointed person who held no single position very long?  Ask individuals not only what titles they had, but how long they held those titles.  It is easy for someone to say they held a leading position in an organization, but it may be a bit more difficult for them to explain why they only held it for only a year or less, or perhaps why they changed jobs three or four times over a period of three or four years.
  • Do consultants questionably represent their firms as “non-profit” organizations or “research institutes” when in essence they are little more than private consulting businesses in disguise that would have difficulty passing the muster of a investigation as to whether they were truly a “non-profit” or “research” organization?

These examples and others illustrate how educators who are critical thinkers can move past the hype of self-promotional consultants.

The same applies to individuals representing themselves in litigation as school safety / security expert witnesses. As a provider of litigation consulting services, I have increasingly taken a closer look at whether some individuals putting themselves out as experts in school safety and security could really survive challenges from a well-prepared opposing attorney.

  • Did the “expert” actually work in K-12 school settings specifically on safety, security, and emergency preparedness issues or were they employed in capacities where, at best, they were remotely involved with such responsibilities? A person may have been an excellent day care center aide, but that does not make her/him an expert in school safety.
  • Could a review of the “expert’s” personnel files from government agencies and specific questions about his/her past public employments withstand close scrutiny, especially in terms of being consistent with his/her consulting promotional and marketing claims? Would a good investigation and/or line of questioning reveal any indiscretions or conflicts that arose during that employment, especially if the opposing counsel was advised by legitimate school safety experts who knew what questions the opposing attorney should ask the expert in a deposition?
  • Has the “expert” publicly exaggerated his/her “credentials” or other qualifications, or the credentials and qualifications of those who work with him/her?

These and other questions could prove to be rather embarrassing and costly to attorneys, educators, and other well-intended individuals who fail to exercise due diligence in hiring their consultants and experts. There are a number of published resources on selecting a school safety consultant, so there is no excuse for not exercising some due diligence in hiring a school safety expert.

There are many credible, qualified, and competent school safety experts. Educators and attorneys should do their homework. Those experts who claim expertise in everything often could turn out to be legends in their own minds — something educators and attorneys need to know sooner, rather than later, when they need credible professional support services.

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