During the past half-dozen or so years, I have done an increasing about of expert witness and litigation consulting on pK-12 school security-related lawsuits. These types of cases have included high-profile active shooter cases, such as my retention by the defense for the Sandy Hook Elementary School litigation, as well as rape and other sexual assault, child abduction, gang-related assaults, and other safety matters. While the facts and merits of each case vary, one common thread across the board is that the allegations tend to be on claims of failures of people, policies, procedures, and/or systems, not alleged failures of security hardware and products.
Still, some advocate for a skewed focus on target hardening while neglecting the time and resources needed to spend on professional development training, planning, behavioral and mental health intervention supports for students, and other best practices. Research and experience consistently shows that a comprehensive approach is needed for school safety programs. But it also shows that schools struggle in implementing these approaches. While there are multiple reasons behind this struggle, we know that it takes consistent resources but also consistent, focused leadership over time to implement and sustain such comprehensive and balanced approaches to school safety.
Security hardware and product industry hijacks school safety
The security hardware and product industry has hijacked school safety, especially following the Sandy Hook and then Parkland school shootings. They have become increasingly organized in their lobbying of Congress and state governments for funding focused on physical security hardware and products under the name of “target hardening” schools. Their focus includes having school security taken out of the hands of education agencies and put under the authority of homeland security departments which, by their nature, tend of focus on the physical security measures and infrastructure hardening. While well-intended, homeland security officials often have little frontline experience in working with pK-12 schools, child-oriented educational settings, or school climate, culture, or school-community relations dynamics.
An interesting and informative recent AP investigative story focused on the security industry lobbying. The 74 also provided a thorough examination of the infiltration of the security hardware and product industry in its 2018 story, Inside the $3 Billion School Security Industry: Companies Market Sophisticated Technology to ‘Harden’ Campuses, but Will It Make Us Safe?
Advocates, activists, and experts: There is a difference
Parents tend to generally have no clue how political school safety is and what hidden agendas are at play behind school safety policy, programs, and funding, especially at the state and federal levels. In addition to the school security industry, gun control and gun rights advocates have politically hijacked school safety to advance their respective agendas following school shootings especially since Sandy Hook.
There are also the voices of advocates, such as parents and educators who have suffered losses from specific school shooting incidents, and activists — those advancing political and social agendas. These voices should not be dismissed, but they must also be distinguished from experts with education, training, and experience in identifying proven best practices in school safety, security, and emergency planning. Voices of the experts in school safety, such as school leaders on the front lines of education, school security and policing specialists, school psychologists, and school safety academic researchers, have increasing been overshadowed by the advocates, activists, and political/special agenda groups who are pushing recommendations based upon single-incident tragedies, security industry business interests, and reasons other than data-driven and proven, established best practices.
Commission recommendations mostly reinforce already known best practices
The media and other have recently asked if recommendations from groups such as the MSD Commission from the Parkland, Florida, shooting provide new information. While some of the findings of commissions like these have some new political twists such as arming non-law enforcement professionals (which I oppose), the majority of recommendations from commission after commission and task force after task force following high-profile school shootings tend to reiterate best practices that go back nearly 20 years to the post-Columbine era. They are not breaking a lot of new ground.
Instead, these recommendations just tend to point to the fact that many of the best practices for school safety have long been established, but have also not been consistently implemented and sustained over the years. Focusing on reasonable lockdown drills versus over-the-top drills, providing increased behavioral and mental health intervention support for students, and implementing threat assessment teams, training, and protocols are among the many best practices established nearly 20 years ago after the Columbine High School attack. We do not need to reinvent the wheel. We simply need to implement and sustain the best practices consistently and in a balanced, comprehensive approach over time.
Time for action on proven best practices, not quick fixes
So why are schools not following these best practices? It is challenging today because we have a whole new generation of school administrators, school board members, teachers, school-based police and security, first responders, and politicians who were not in the current roles back 20 years ago after Columbine. They don’t know what the established best practices are for school safety. Many don’t know what they don’t know. They’re not getting the professional development training on these best practices. They’re not looking at research and documented best practices from the past.
Perhaps most challenging is that they’re hearing a lot of different voices and advice, often not knowing who to listen to and who to trust. Focusing on advice garnered from single incidents or political and social agendas typically does not equate to good, comprehensive school safety policy and practice. The school safety field today, nearly 20 years after Columbine and one year after Parkland, is more convoluted and hijacked by special interest agendas than ever.
Some of the most effective school safety best practices are less visible or even invisible when compared to trendy, quick-fix fads. Quick fixes may be popular, but what is popular is not always right and what is right is not always popular. Does your school community focus on proven best practices? Do your school and safety leaders even know what these best practices are and where to turn for credible information?
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