“Dancing with the Devil”: How some education associations and school safety conference organizers are selling their souls and conference agendas to security vendors — and potentially increasing school safety and liability risks for superintendents and school boards

Posted by on February 18, 2024

“Unfortunately, we increasingly have to dance with the devil.”

More than a decade ago, these words were said to me by a now long-retired head of a national association for school leaders. He was explaining to me why he had to fill a few annual convention speaking slots with vendor-affiliated speakers rather than more experienced and independent presenters who were not vendor-affiliated.

What this meant, the former educator explained, was that as non-profit professional associations, budgets for annual conferences were tightening. Their organizations had to do what he called a “dance with the devil.” This meant catering to the vendors who purchased space in the exhibit hall and who sponsored various conference events such as breakfasts, luncheons, or evening social gatherings by providing them the opportunity to dictate specific conference presenters.

There was a point in time when there was a clear line between professional presenters and vendors, he explained. No, vendors are not devils, but things were not what they used to be. This new dynamic, he acknowledged, was not ideal for conference attendees. But associations had to bend to bring in more revenue to underwrite conferences and keep them profitable — or at least not lose money, he said.

Speaker and vendor separation helps keep professional school safety speakers and their content independent

Historically, education conference presenter content was separate from exhibitor influence.  Vendors stayed in the exhibit halls. Speakers were selected based upon their education, training, and experience expertise in school safety.

Professional presenters were either paid by conference organization hosts for their expertise and/or volunteered with no ties to vendors.  Superintendents, school board members, principals, school safety leaders, and other conference attendees had a reasonable expectation that presenter information was driven by best practices and lessons learned from the experiences of the presenter. It was not driven — openly or veiled, in whole or in part — by speakers whose presence was funded and/or otherwise associated with security hardware, product, or technology vendors.

This arms-length separation was like that of newspapers and TV stations. News organizations have traditionally had sales departments that sell advertising. Professional news editors and news directors produce news separate and independent of the advertisers.

Often intertwined with security vendors, some school safety presenters today are conflicted and lack complete independence

Today, at many education and school safety conferences, the lines between speakers and vendors are increasingly blurred.  Speakers are directly, and frequently in a manner veiled to the eyes of conference attendees, connected to specific vendors. Conference “sponsors,” or more softly labeled “partners,” underwrite the costs of keynote and workshop presenters, buying access to education and school safety conference members and attendees.

In some cases, business development specialists (aka: salespersons) from companies actually do the speaking in the capacity of being an “expert” in school safety. A number of vendors are hiring retired or otherwise former educators and school district security specialists to speak to enhance the vendor company’s credibility and access at education and school safety conferences.

These vendor-speaker links increase risks that conference speakers will not or cannot be fully transparent about gaps, limitations, and liabilities associated with hardware, products, or technology marketed to schools by vendors who underwrite conference speaker’s presentations or otherwise sponsor the conference. It is awkward for the presenter and the conference host.

I know speakers who have been chastised for making comments in their conference presentations that were not in line with the messaging and sales of conference vendors. I have also heard of conference vendors who complain and leverage pressure on conference organizers when professional speakers say something the vendors do not like, directly or indirectly threatening to pull their sponsorships from future conferences held by the associations/organizations.

Who wins and who loses? Superintendents, school board members, principals, educators, and school safety professionals who attend conferences lose when they receive skewed or otherwise tainted presentation information from salespersons disguised as school safety experts or presenters who cannot be comfortable and candid in professionally presenting their programs.

Educators need to be critical consumers and conference organizers need to be fully transparent with attendees about presenter-vendor relationships

One assistant superintendent recently shared with me that she attended a conference hoping to listen to a former school leader’s experience with a high-profile violent attack at that person’s school.  She was disappointed when the presentation veered off numerous times to a “lot of plugs for the company that paid for her to be there,” she told me.

Educators consistently tell us they are frustrated by the “noise” created by an ever-growing onslaught of school security vendors. Experienced independent school security consultants and presenters are increasingly voicing their concerns about how the intertwined relationships of presenters and conference vendors increases risks of information being provided to well-intended educators that are not aligned with best practices.

Superintendents, school boards, principals, and school safety leaders need to be critical consumers when considering and attending conferences.

  • Is the independence of the presenter information you are receiving being compromised by opened, veiled, or hidden affiliations with security product, hardware, or tech vendors?
  • Look for connections between speakers and vendors/exhibitors. Is a vendor “sponsoring” or “partnering” to provide the presenter?
  • Do presenter messages openly or in a veiled way point conference attendees to certain types of products, hardware, or technology?
  • Are presenters seen hanging around or speaking at specific vendor exhibits?
  • Are there other subtle red flags that you may miss if you are not consciously looking at this issue?

Conference organizer transparency with attendees is key

More than a decade since I was introduced to the phrase and idea of “dancing with the devil,” the financial constraints of education associations and school safety conference hosts have only intensified. Many, if not most, conference hosts will privately admit that were it not for the vendors/exhibitors/sponsors/partners (or whatever they call them), there would be no conferences. Costs for facilities, speakers, AV equipment, snacks or meals, etc. are simply overwhelming and cannot be built into conference registration costs for attendees.

The goal for conference organizers, however, should be to provide professional experts with the education, training, experience, and independence to present on topics in their areas of expertise. Should there be any speaker-vendor connection, these relationships should be openly and directly communicated to conference attendees.  Disclosures of potential conflicts of interests are common and even required in some professional areas such as academia and medicine. Why should school safety be any different?

Fortunately, there are education associations and school safety conference organizers whose leadership has maintained the delicate balance between meeting vendor needs while also meeting the needs of their conference attendees who expect professional expert presenters that are free to provide unfettered insights, analysis, recommendations, and opinions.

Parents, educators, and students expect their school leaders to be discerning in their school safety decisions. It is increasingful difficult to cut through the ever-growing noise around school safety.

To successfully do so, prudent school leaders and safety professionals must follow the “trust but verify” model of exercising their own due diligence and being educated consumers of school safety information.

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

National School Safety and Security Services

Experts You Can Trust!

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