Focus forward with a tactical pause: Recognize limitations of “single incident expert” school shooting and other school safety recommendations

Posted by on September 5, 2023

We glean lessons from each school shooting, but the next may follow a different fact pattern. School leaders should exercise caution and restraint in making abrupt changes to safety policies and practices based upon the fact pattern of one (or even several) low-probability/high-impact incidents.

A school central office administrator responsible for district school safety recently commented that after attending one of the numerous school safety conferences put on at the state and national levels this summer, the administrator went back home and immediately changed policies and practices based upon one point made by a couple of the conference speakers who presented from their single-incident school shooting experiences.  The administrator heard a couple of conference presenters say that schools should do XYZ and rushed to immediately make changes.

Change can be good. The best change often comes with friction, debate, and collaboration.  But superintendents, principals, school board members, and other leaders need to take a tactical pause — a deliberate break to look, listen, and analyze — before making dramatic changes to school safety policies and practices.

Consumer beware: A cottage industry of single-incident expert conference presenters

We have increasingly seen a cottage industry of speakers and organizations represented on the school safety conference circuit whose presentations are often skewed heavily to a case study of one specific higher-profile school shooting or violent incident. Most are passionate and genuinely advocating for school safety awareness. A number have publicly acknowledged that speaking across the nation is both their advocacy and part of their personal healing process.

Some recommendations from speakers may be transferrable and worthy of consideration.  Others may be driven by their personal beliefs founded upon their viewpoint and personal experience in a single tragic incident. All of their voices should be heard, but that does not automatically equate to justification for making abrupt changes to school safety policies and practices in your schools and districts, and it certainly standing alone does not justify state or federal law mandates.

For example, a presenter may believe that had doors at the school from the school shooting they present on had bullet resistant film on windows or other hardware criteria, the shooting would not have occurred. Another presenter may believe if school staff had been armed, the shooting would not have occurred. Yet another presenter may believe that every school should be required to give all staff panic buttons because had that been the case at their school, their incident would not have occurred.

While worthy of research, discussion, and perhaps consideration, these examples do not justify going back to your school after a conference and making sweeping overnight purchases and policy changes because that is what you heard at a conference.

There are many highly qualified and competent school safety presenters. There are also many “business development” specialists (aka: sales representatives) and other vendor representatives speaking at conferences because their companies participate in “pay-to-play” sponsorships of conference breakfasts, lunches, or cocktail gatherings, or by funding the speakers you hear at conferences so the conference hosting organizations do not have to pay them to speak. Because they buy access does not mean that their presentations (or veiled sales pitches) justify making sweeping purchases and policy changes because of a single incident expert perspective or vendor-underwritten sales pitch.

Education and safety leaders need to consciously be aware of the many different voices giving school safety advice. Awhile back in a blog post, I wrote about how many fall into one of four categories: Activists, advocates, experts, or opportunists. When an expert witness is qualified to opine in state and federal school safety (and other) lawsuits, the factors considered are the expert’s education, training, and experience.  Consciously examine the lens of conference speakers.  Good speakers will share up front the multiple lens from which they view school safety that provide the basis for any recommendations they make in a presentation.

Take a tactical pause, make a comprehensive assessment of the issues and your school’s security and preparedness posture, and then act

The concept of a “tactical pause” can be found in military, first responder, and corporate contexts. Simply put, it means when things are moving fast, leaders should take time to look, listen, analyze, and discuss issues under consideration before acting. School leaders need to assess and then react, not react and then assess.

One of the few concepts I recall from high school physics is that for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. When you change school safety policies and practices, implementing the new changes (especially ones not well thought-out) can and do present new and unanticipated challenges. I increasingly find myself using the phrase “unintended consequences” when examing school administrator school safety decisions that have gone awry.

So take a tactical pause, breathe, and think. The next time you attend a school safety conference, scrutinize the presenters to determine if they are activists, advocates, experts, or opportunities. Listen to them all, but avoid knee-jerk school safety policy and program changes as soon as you return home.

And follow the money behind the speakers. Probe to see if they are vendor-sponsored or are from an organization, including “non-profits,” that are heavily funded by security hardware, product, and technology vendors. Be critical listeners, learners, and thinkers — the same thing you teach your students to do!

Then when you get back to your school or school district, take another tactical pause.  Breathe, research, think, and collaboratively process the information and issues. Use skills such as “Red Team Thinking“* to consider how things will be implemented and what could go wrong. Then act once you have assessed.

You don’t need “paralysis by analysis,” but abrupt knee-jerk school safety policy and practice changes based upon emotions from a conference presentation can be risky.

Don’t get stuck dwelling on the past.  Focus forward and be strategic school safety leaders

School leaders and school safety training providers must glean lessons from prior school shootings and other high-profile incidents, but avoid dwelling on the past. School leaders must pivot to thinking more strategically about tomorrow. School security and emergency preparedness requires strategic school administrator leadership.

School safety training and conferences must shift to better support school and safety leaders in focusing forward, not dwelling endlessly on single incidents of the past.  We must provide superintendents, principals, and school boards with greater support to be better educated consumers of school safety information and products, hardware, and technology.

Leadership sometimes means exercising restraint.  A tactical pause along the way can lead to meaningful, strategic school safety decisions.

[*Disclosure: Dr. Ken and colleague Chuck Hibbert have completed Red Team Thinking training and find value in the model, but have no financial interests or gain in referencing the programs herein.]

Dr. Kenneth S. Trump is President of National School Safety and Security Services  

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