Emotional responses to security often fail

How district leaders can maximize the time, energy and money spent on safety
By: | Issue: March, 2019
February 21, 2019

The devastating attacks at schools during the 2017-18 school year have caused understandable and unprecedented levels of anxiety among students, parents, school officials, and local, state and federal officials.

An alarming number of schools have adopted an ever-increasing array of safety and security measures that have not been validated or found to be effective.
To be blunt, we are seeing the implementation of a wide array of security products and hardware, software programs, and training concepts that not only lack evidence of their effectiveness, but also can and do cause serious injuries.

Perhaps of greater concern is we have seen implementation of measures that can sometimes significantly increase, rather than decrease, the chances of fatalities.

Dangerous responses

With three decades of experience providing post-incident assistance in more than a dozen school shootings, I am deeply concerned about the way in which many schools address the threat of active assailant attacks. The patterns of dangerous responses by school staff that we have seen in thousands of controlled one-on-one school crisis video and audio simulations are unlike anything I have seen before.

As a result of poorly conducted active shooter training programs, there have been millions of dollars in emergency room bills for injuries as well as workers’ compensation claims, lawsuits by injured employees, and examples of trauma to students and staff.

In my experience, the demand that we “do something” has been driven by fear, and has resulted in considerable misallocation of limited time, energy and fiscal resources. While anxieties must be addressed, school leaders cannot afford to squander these precious resources in an attempt to make their schools safer.

I am deeply concerned about the way in which many schools address active assailant attacks

Common pitfalls

While school officials have generally been thoughtful stewards of these resources, we have countless examples of school leaders who, with the best of intentions, have implemented unsound approaches due to pressure from stakeholders. In our experience, this has occurred due a variety of factors:

  • desire for simple “solutions” to active assailant events and other complex dangers
  • emotionally driven pressure from parents, students, staff and public officials
  • reliance on the popularity of an approach, rather than on a proof of concept
  • reliance on poor quality and inflated data on school violence
  • reliance on security assessments that are not tailored to the school environment, are focused on active shooter events, are not data-driven, and rely on evaluation processes that do not address the most common causes of serious injury and death on school campuses
  • unrealistic desire for absolute security, rather than a focus on realistic probabilities

Serious and repeated breaches of White House security are among many examples demonstrating the limitations of even the most extensive security measures.

Proper evaluations should help school leaders to focus their limited time, energy and fiscal resources, and avoid these common pitfalls. Emphasizing strategies that align with actual risks and have a positive track record is important. The more emotional the rationale is for adopting a school safety measure, the greater the odds that the measure will be ineffective and, in the most concerning cases, potentially dangerous.

The author of 27 books on school safety, Michael Dorn serves as the executive director of Safe Havens International, a nonprofit K12 school safety center. Dorn welcomes reader questions and feedback at www.safehavensinternational.org.