Fidelity testing strengthens school safety measures

Simulations reveal how school personnel will react in a crisis
By: | October 16, 2018

American schools have become increasingly data-driven in many important ways. School officials often rely on measurement and data for long-term strategic planning, budgeting and curriculum selection.

However, they often do not evaluate school safety with the same level of care and accuracy.

In providing oversight for security, climate and emergency preparedness assessments for more than 6,750 K12 schools, I have found that it is still surprisingly common to see limited time, energy and money spent on safety procedures that have never been validated as effective.

Gap between theory and practice

One of the most revealing ways to identify and correct potentially devastating gaps in school safety involves a variety of processes I refer to as “fidelity testing.”

Fidelity testing measures the alignment between actual practice and the theory behind policies, procedures, training, drills, technology and equipment. Here are some examples of fidelity testing.

Scenarios gauge whether school employees can apply safety policies correctly. An example is presenting audio scenarios that indicate potential sexual abuse of students (by employees or other students) to see if employees’ responses follow mandatory reporting laws.

As one devastating case after another has demonstrated, it is still disturbingly common for school employees to fail to report even blatant indicators of these situations.

Real-time one-on-one text, audio or video scenarios show how well school employees respond to an array of crisis simulations. Since we began using this technique more than a decade ago, I have found this to be one of the most revealing assessment techniques.

Clients who watch us perform these simulations are often shocked to see their employees choose to attack a student threatening suicide with a gun, or decide to leave campus to attack an intoxicated man rather than take students into the school via a nearby door.

A simple and inexpensive pre-mortem exercise involves asking a group to explain why a process failed in a hypothetical exercise.

For example, have a student-threat management team review a past threat assessment of a student who was not deemed to be dangerous, but who carried out a planned act of violence. This technique can reveal gaps caused by personality conflicts, rivalries, silos, flaws in methodologies or other issues that even a highly experienced external subject matter expert might miss.

Observe and time a staff member demonstrating how they would lock down their workspace based on a scenario. It is often astounding to see the difference between what we think an employee will do and what they actually do, and how long it can take for them to implement a lifesaving action.

These are just four examples of fidelity testing concepts that can be applied to more effectively evaluate almost any policy, procedure, technology, equipment or training program relating to school safety.

Have you evaluated the fidelity of your life safety approaches effectively?


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