School safety deja vu: Columbine lessons still apply 15 years later

Posted by on March 21, 2014

The shooting deaths at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, sent shockwaves across the nation in December of 2012. This was not the first time that educators and safety officials received a punch in the gut and a major wakeup call to assess school security. But the lessons from the first punch still ring true 15 years later.

A new generation of school leaders, students and safety officials since Columbine

The attack at Columbine High School in Colorado in 1999 sent school administrators, public safety officials and government leaders scrambling to beef up school security and emergency preparedness measures. But now 15 years later, we are finding a new generation of school board members, superintendents, principals, police officers, educators, and students holding new roles that they were not in back in 1999.

While speaking with school superintendents from across Ohio at a state conference last week, I asked participants to raise their hand if they were in the same leadership position today that they were in back in 1999 when Columbine occurred. Out of a filled conference room, only one person raised his hand.

This reinforced what we have been seeing nationally: A new generation of superintendents are leading school district, a new generation of principals are running schools, and a new generation of students are in classrooms who may not have felt the same impact of Columbine in the same way that their predecessors did back in 1999. Many also do not recall the lessons learned during, and immediately following, the attack at Columbine.

Sandy Hook shooting sent educators and safety officials looking for new answers to questions already answered

During the year that has followed the Sandy Hook Elementary School attack in Newtown, many of us who were in the school security field at the time of Columbine have found ourselves shaking our heads at some of the actions taken, or not taken, in response to school security incidents. These include:

  • Far too many schools have been automatically evacuating in response to bomb threats when the best practice is to conduct a threat assessment with local law enforcement before doing so if there is not an imminent threat identified.
  • School leaders and safety officials have evacuated and closed schools on a whim in response to generic threats written on bathroom walls or spray painted on the outside of the school the night before with little-t0-no assessment of the threat.
  • Legislators and educators have rushed to throw up new security equipment and other costly physical security measures without investing in training their people.

These responses are understandable when one takes into account that the well-intended individuals making the decisions do not have the institutional memory to recall that many of these very same issues arose immediately following Columbine. But still, we do not need to reinvent the wheel.

Columbine school safety lessons still apply 15 years later

While far too many people have been looking for the “Wow!” without thinking about the “How?” after Sandy Hook, we need only to go back to the post-Columbine era for many of the answers to today’s school safety questions.

  • Should we automatically evacuate every time there is a bomb threat? No, not unless there is an imminent threat. The best practice established after Columbine is for school administrators and their public safety partners to assess threats instead of automatically evacuating. Federal law enforcement officials (BATF&E) have held similar actions as best practices for years.
  • Do we close schools for days when a threat is scribbled on a bathroom wall? No, again the best practice rests in threat assessment and continuing with heightened security until the investigation reveals the offenders if there is no imminent threat.
  • Do we scrap lockdowns, teach kids to attack heavily armed gunmen, and arm teachers? Again, the answer is no. Properly implemented lockdowns save lives. Diversifying the timing and conditions of school emergency drills teach educators to think on their feet and improve their skills. School Resource Officers(SROs), not armed teachers and custodians, are the best answer to providing an armed presence on campus with specially-trained school police officers.

What is old is new again. Don’t reinvent the wheel.

School administrators, school safety professionals, public safety officials, and legislators do not need to reinvent the wheel as they assess how to tackle today’s school security and emergency preparedness. They do need to look back at the proven best practices and balanced legislative responses that followed the Columbine attacks in 1999. Those lessons learned laid the foundation for cognitive, age-appropriate, and comprehensive approaches to school violence prevention, security, and emergency preparedness.

Ken Trump

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4 thoughts on “School safety deja vu: Columbine lessons still apply 15 years later

  1. Fred Ellis says:

    Ken…once again you’ve articulated well the positions of many of us in this field. While understandable, the politically expedient response after a tragedy of “Do Something, Do Anything, Do It Now!” is not helpful. Disregarding the best practices and advice of seasoned professionals is not the route to sustained success.

    1. Ken Trump says:

      Amen, Fred. That was just my message to lieutenant governors here in DC this morning at a session I presented to for their Association meeting.

  2. Thank you Ken. I agree with Fred. One thing I’d also like to note is that in Colorado, the state legislature passed SB 08-181 which requires every school to have a robust emergency management program in-place. They, however, did not provide funding to do this, nor did they implement any “enforcement” requirements per se. As a result, compliance has been very spotty, at best. A national policy in this area would go a long way toward helping schools maintain the level of preparedness, and even some mitigation, they need, in my opinion. Again, thanks for doing what you do.

    1. Ken Trump says:

      Sadly, the Feds even eliminated the school emergency planning grant program. I doubt we’ll ever see anything good that would be mandatory from the Feds.

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