Columbine: The 10th Anniversary

The State of School Security and Emergency Planning

(April 20, 2009)

April 20, 2009, marked the 10th anniversary of the tragic attack at Columbine High School.  Anniversaries provide an opportunity for reflection.  This Web site provides a look at the state of K-12 school security and emergency preparedness at the 10th anniversary of the Columbine attack.

What has improved? What gaps remain? How have budgets for school safety changed?  What key elements are missing from many school safety plans? What should administrators and parents do to improve and sustain school safety?  How should schools prepare for the 10th anniversary date?

Our insights on the Columbine 10th Anniversary are posted below in the following sections:

*Also see below Ken Trump’s Columbine 10th Anniversary interviews on ABC World News Tonight and on Channel One below

Watch Ken Trump’s interview with ABC World News Tonight Anchor, Charlie Gibson:

The State of School Security and Emergency Planning at the Columbine 10th Anniversary: Lessons Learned but Glaring Gaps Remain

“Today’s sophomores were in kindergarten at the time of the Columbine attack.  We also have a whole new generation of board members, superintendents, principals, and teachers.  Columbine is a distant, historic event to many in school today.  Schools need to refocus back on the ‘nuts-and-bolts’ fundamentals of school security and crisis planning,” said Kenneth S. Trump, president of National School Safety and Security Services.

Trump says many schools, academicians, and legislators also simply lost focus on the basics of school safety or followed myths and misguided perceptions about best practices. There have been many proposed quick fix solutions, such as proposals for arming teachers, bulletproof backpacks, teaching kids to throw books at armed intruders, and dozens of security technology products pushed by vendors as school safety solutions, Trump said.

A long-time critic of the over-emphasis on bullying and the basically useless nature of proposed state and federal anti-bullying laws, Trump also cited recent publications indicating that mental illness, not bullying, was a driving force behind the Columbine shooters. (See books by Dr. Peter Langman, a Pennsylvania child psychologist, and journalist Dave Cullen.)  While bullying is a legitimate issue warranting attention in a comprehensive school safety plan, Trump says that the over-emphasis on bullying as a cause of school violence, and anti-bullying as a cure all for school violence, is one example of how educators and legislators followed skewed perspectives that took attention away from comprehensive school safety planning.

Trump describes the legacy of Columbine at the tenth anniversary as a, “Mixed bag of lessons learned and implemented, with many glaring gaps and a lot of work remaining.”

The good news is that progress made on school safety in the past decade has included improved school climate, better threat assessment protocols, enhanced physical security measures, and a heightened awareness of the importance of school safety.  Schools have also created crisis plans and teams, added new drills, and enhanced relationships with first responders.

The bad news is that while many schools have invested money in security technology, they have been investing less time and effort in their people.  Time and training for school safety and emergency planning is harder to come by than money in many districts, Trump notes.

Academic pressures on teachers and administrators have resulted in less and less time for the delivery of prevention programs, school safety professional development training, and time dedicated to meaningful school emergency planning activities.  Limited investment on the people end of school safety, especially considering the current generation of students and school employees who were not in their current positions at the time of Columbine, has created a significant need to go back to the basic, fundamentals of school security and emergency planning.

“The first and best line of defense is always a well trained, highly alert school staff and student body.  Many schools have lost focus on the fundamentals while searching for a quick fix to security and emergency preparedness concerns,” said Trump.

National School Safety and Security Services emphasizes in training and consulting that every adult has a responsibility for school safety.  Too often many key adults are missing from school safety training and crisis teams.

In addition to competition for time, school safety officials continue to fight against complacency.   Time and distance from high profile incidents breed complacency and denial.  “There are still many people who believe, ‘It can’t happen here because it has not happened here’,” Trump said.

The bottom line:  “School safety professionals are increasingly competing for both money and time, and they are losing on both accounts,” said Trump.

Trump says that both resources and leadership are needed to make safety sustainable in local school districts.  Simply one or the other (or neither) will not result in a meaningful, long-term approach to school safety.

School Safety Suffers Budget Cuts: Reductions in Outside Funding and Local Budgets

“We are a nation of rollercoaster public policy and funding.  In the two years after Columbine, state and federal legislators were all on the school safety bandwagon. The terror attacks on September 11, 2001, came along and they all abandoned school safety.  We have seen federal cuts to school safety funding ever since,” Trump said.

At the local level, too many school boards and administrators still look at school safety as a ‘grant-funded luxury’ where they will only spend dollars on prevention, security, and emergency preparedness if they land a federal or state grant.  They fail to recognize that parents, media, and a judge or jury will not forgive them for doing nothing simply because they did not get a grant to do things that needed to be done to make their schools safer, Trump said.

Trump said school boards should show ownership of school safety in their budgets, not just in their rhetoric.

“Boards can say that school safety is a priority until they are blue in the face, but if it is not reflected in their budgets, it is not truly a priority,” Trump said.

Trump, who testified on school safety funding needs to two Congressional committees in 2007, said that today’s federal budget is thinner for a number of school safety programs than it was right after Columbine.

The state grant component of the Safe and Drug-Free Schools and Communities program, in the federal budget at $650 million around FY02, is now under $295 million in FY09 federal budget.  The Department of Education’s Readiness and Emergency Management for Schools (REMS) program, which awarded $39 million in grants during its first year of operation in 2003, now ranges from $24 to $26 million in awards per year.  The Justice Department’s COPS in Schools program, which once funded police officer positions for schools around the nation, was virtually decimated.

Trump called upon President Obama and Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, to reverse the decline of federal school safety funds by restoring and expanding these and other school safety initiatives.

Reasonable steps school boards can take in budgeting for school safety include:

  • Incorporate reasonable, dedicated line-items in the district operating budget for prevention programs, physical security measures (the hardware),  school safety professional development training, school security consultation services, and school emergency planning needs.  What is “reasonable” needs to be assessed on a district-by-district and school-by-school basis over time.
  • Avoid looking at school safety costs as dollars being taken away from instructional activities.  Look at safety dollars as an investment in safer environments that will contribute to academic achievement.
  • Recognize the big picture:  Dollars spent proactively on school safety, when added up, are typically a small percentage of the overall district operating budget.  Divide total safety and security expenditures by the total number of students and staff, and you will find it to be a relatively small per-person investment.

Watch Ken Trump’s interview on a Channel One special on the 10th Anniversary of Columbine:

Nuts and Bolts Fundamentals Missing in Many Safety, Crisis Plans

“We often find huge disconnects between written board policies and plans, and actual day-to-day practices on school safety in many districts.  Boards and superintendents are often very exposed to potential legal and financial liability,” Trump said.

“It is the missing nuts-and-bolts fundamentals in school security and emergency planning that come back to bite school boards and administrators every time. Most of these situations are preventable with the proper training and time allocated to doing the leg work involved in meaningful planning,” he added.

Examples of how schools lack some practical, fundamental planning details include:

  • Many school safety are unaware of how to call 9-1-1 on their school’s phone systems.  Do you call 9-1-1 direct or dial 9 first, then 9-1-1?  Also, what is the physical address of your school building?  Many school staff have spent decades in their building and cannot immediately provide the address of the school off the top of their head.  The address is important to know if 9-1-1 dispatchers try to verify the location of the caller.
  • Support staff is critical to school security and emergency planning, but often are not at the table for training or crisis planning. Secretaries will take bomb threats made to schools.  Custodians will encounter suspicious people in buildings and on school grounds.  Food services workers will be called upon to feed children in the event of an extended shelter-in-place or when receiving students evacuated from another school.  Bus drivers are the first and last school employees to see many students each day.
  • Support staff are typically undertrained and underrepresented on school crisis teams. Many support staff personnel are not only the eyes and ears of the school, but also know their children because they live in the same communities as the students.  Yet they are not included in school safety planning and training.
  • Schools typically have designated nearby evacuation sites that students and staff can walk to in an emergency, but minimal planning and exercising around logistics such as mobilizing transportation and food services to manage evacuations requiring them to distant sites outside of the entire area. Many school crisis teams and school faculty have also never visited the site. Some students and faculty may have physical impairments and special needs that will not allow them to walk to a nearby site and plans do not address these needs. Some schools have done a good job, even though most are not nearly this detailed.  One elementary school principal had student classrooms assigned to sit in specific pews if evacuated to their nearby church!

    Many schools also fail to identify distant, out-of-the-area evacuation sites in the event they must leave their neighborhoods, and little planning or testing has been done on mobilizing transportation in the middle of the school day when drivers are normally not working between regular shifts.

  • Schools often grossly under-estimate the impact of parents and the media, as well as parent-student reunification logistics, in both real emergencies and in the growing number of text-messaged rumors of threats.
  • Schools often lack relationships with county emergency management agencies and are often absent from countywide emergency planning processes.  Many school transportation directors and staff are often not aware that their school buses may be designated in their county’s emergency plan for commandeering in a community-wide emergency.
  • Tabletop exercises conducted by school safety experts often find school crisis teams, especially at the elementary level, too quick to evacuate or lockdown in an unfolding scenario.   While school safety experts have often expected an under-reaction by school staff, a growing number of tabletop exercises using hypothetical scenarios have revealed a tendency for overreaction by school crisis teams too early into an incident which can put them in a less safe situation as an incident unfolds.

and the list of gaps goes on and on.

“School administrators and crisis teams need to think cognitively, not emotionally, in a crisis.  Having solid crisis guidelines that have been developed with attention to nuts-and-bolts fundamentals, exercised, and reinforced through staff training are the keys. This is what keeps the focus on cognitive and not emotional decisions in a real crisis,” Trump said.

Practical Steps School Boards and Administrators Can Take to Keep School Safety on the Front Burner

Trump recommended a number of practical steps school boards and administrators can take to stay proactive on school security and emergency preparedness issues:

    • Better identify gaps and disconnects between board policy and day-to-day practice by requiring internal audits of prevention, security, and emergency preparedness measures.  Periodically engage outside evaluators to conduct independent assessments of district security practices and emergency plans.
    • Establish a school board committee or subcommittee specifically for policy, planning, and oversight on school security and emergency preparedness issues.
    • Educate your board on school safety.  Attend training on school prevention, security, and emergency preparedness best practices.  Then ask the “right” questions:  Intelligent, informed questions based on a better understanding of the issues.
    • Require school security and emergency preparedness to be a component of district-funded professional development training for administrators, teachers, and support staff.
    • Incorporate security and supervision requirements into facility use agreements for outside groups.  Require school security and crisis preparedness training in contracts awarded for outsourced support services such as transportation and food service providers.
    • Require administrators to provide board members with data and briefings on school crime and discipline incidents, as well as prevention, security, and crisis preparedness activities in the district.
    • Dedicate a portion of school board meetings at least four times a year to give public reports on district school safety initiatives, highlight school safety success stories from individual schools, and take public comments on school safety concerns.
    • Train school staff on violence prevention, intervention, security, and emergency strategies.
  •  Assess and refine security measures to meet new challenges.
  •  Exercise emergency plans to make sure that written plans would actually work in a real emergency.
Trump stresses that school safety planning is an ongoing process, not one-time events after a particular tragedy.  Schools must have warm, welcoming, and supportive climates with prevention, intervention, and mental health support for students.  But they must also have basic security and emergency preparedness measures in order to have a secure environment in which to deliver other prevention, intervention, and education services.

Parents and School Safety

Parents, in general, are better educated on school safety issues than they were in the pre-Columbine era.  Still, Trump says, “Most parents don’t know what they don’t know, and no one is rushing to tell them.”Trump says schools have historically taken a posture of “downplay, deny, deflect, and defend” when it comes to discussing the true discipline and crime challenges they face in schools.  Concern has long focused on maintaining the school’s image. Columbine helped improve school crime reporting and collaboration with first responders, but there is still a great deal of room for improvement in candor with parents and the school community on school crime, violence, and safety, Trump says.

Trump gives this advice to parents:

“Parents should make sure that their schools not only have crisis teams and plans on paper, but probe to make sure that the crisis team meets regularly, its members are trained, and emergency/crisis plans are actually exercised through tabletop exercises.  Parents should also talk with their children about their safety concerns on campus, and evaluate issues such as access control to their child’s campus.  Finally, parents should be visibly supportive of school safety measures and demand that their elected officials support school safety through needed legislation and funding.”

For a checklist of 10 question areas, see our Parents and School Safety page.
How Did School Safety Change in the Two Years Immediately After Columbine?  

High-profile school violence incidents changed the way in which many Americans look at safety in our schools.  AtNational School Safety and Security Services, we define school safety in three eras: Pre-Columbine, post-Columbine and post-9/11.

The losses of life and injuries at Columbine High School, along with other school shootings in the late 1990s, impacted school safety in a number of ways from April of 1999 to September of 2001, including by:

1.   Placing school safety at the top of the agenda in K-12 schools.

2.   Raising student, staff, parent, and community expectations for safety in their schools.

3.   Creating shockwaves across the nation, especially in areas such as threats, bomb threats, homemade explosives, and other “spin-off” cases of violence.

4.   Shifting a greater emphasis upon school security measures and crisis preparedness strategies, in addition to the traditional approaches to school safety of school climate, school discipline, and school violence prevention and intervention programs.

5.  Changing the manner in which school, law enforcement, and other officials assess and manage threats.

6.  Generating closer relationships and cooperation among school leaders and public safety officials.

7.  Generating increased referrals of youth for mental health services and further heightening awareness about the understaffing of school counselors, psychologists, and related support staff.

8.  Increasing the use of school safety as a peg for political debates, campaign platforms, and other political agendas and political exploitation.

9.  Increasing the “business” of school violence prevention, increasing the number of overnight experts and charlatans claiming to be school safety experts, and in turn increasing the vulnerability of schools for exploitation.

10.  Changing the political climate in schools from denial of school violence to a climate where it was “politically incorrect” to not be addressing these issues.

Unfortunately, the progress made during this time began slipping backwards following the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on America.  Attention shifted from school safety to terrorism.  Attentions and budgets shifted from school safety to terrorism and international events.  In recent years, other high-profile issues ranging from Presidential elections to the domestic economy, along with other hot topics of the times, has left school safety behind in public policy, public funding, and public minds.

By the 10th anniversary of the Columbine attack, a new generation of students and educators, a nation focused on a plethora of hot button issues of the day, an economy carving deep into local school budgets and outside resources previously dedicated to school safety, and similar issues have stalled the progress and momentum of the two years immediately following the Columbine attack.
How Should Schools Prepare for the 10th Anniversary of Columbine?

The April 20, 2009, Columbine 10th Anniversary will generate national media attention and local media stories related to the anniversary.   Media and community attention may shift to what local schools are doing to keep schools safe.  It is possible that some school communities may experience threats, hoaxes, and other inappropriate behaviors by individuals who seek to gather attention and/or to disrupt schools on this date.

Considerations for school officials in preparing for the anniversary include:

  • Hold a meeting with all teachers, support staff and administrators to discuss guidelines and resources for classroom instruction, mental health services, heightened security procedures and to review school crisis guidelines prior to April 20, 2009.  Discussions could include issues related to age-appropriate communication, limitation of television viewing that may include excessive revisiting of graphic sites from the Columbine attacks, classroom curricula and discussion parameters, methods for responding to threats and hoax incidents, and other related topics.
  • Establish a heightened sense of security in and around the school while not going to extremes unless specific threats warrant extreme measures. Work with local public safety agencies to coordinate special attention needs and to review emergency plans. Anticipate the possibility of threats, hoax incidents, and unlikely — but possible — legitimate school violence incidents.
  • Encourage a heightened awareness among administrators, faculty members and support staff as to the importance of adult visibility throughout the campus.  School officials should be prepared for threats, hoax incidents, and other security concerns that could result from pranksters and others who may capitalize on the sensitivity of the day.  A serious and timely response should be given to all incidents, real and hoax, with appropriate consequences for all inappropriate behavior.
  • Communicate with parents, media, and the broader school community about the positive school safety measures already in place.  Talk about prevention and emergency preparedness measures, heightened awareness to school safety, plans for assessing and updating school safety and crisis plans, the importance of students and others coming forward to report threats and safety concerns, and school district relationships with first responders and community partners.  Make available and advertise mechanisms for students, parents, and others in the school community to report any safety concerns.
  • Have school counselors and psychologists prepared to talk with students and parents, as well as staff,  who may have any concerns on this anniversary date.  Encourage counselors and psychologists to have resources available for parents, students, and staff who may seek assistance.

A balanced approach of heightened awareness and preparedness, without overreaction or overly emphasizing the Columbine 10th Anniversary, is recommended.

For additional information on the Columbine 10th Anniversary, contact Ken Trump.