I wish this wasn’t an article I had to write, and this wasn’t a subject I had to be an “expert” in. However, the reality of present-day America overwhelmingly dictates otherwise as there were 42 school shootings in the 2021-22 school year. Despite the president recently signing the Safer Communities Act, the same talking points are being heard ad nauseam from the media, law enforcement and politicians, which can leave anyone feeling as though nothing will change.
But there is one thing we can control, and that’s making sure schools are as prepared as possible for security emergencies.
In the aftermath of recent school shootings, we’ve learned where school safety measures have failed—and this is not an issue specific to the schools where the tragedies have taken place. In school districts around the country, I’ve seen the same common mistakes in school safety plans, due in large part to “anchoring bias.” In this case, schools are anchored in their initial understanding of what to do in an emergency and continue to teach outdated (and thus dangerous) tactics that are thought of as “best practices” rather than letting new research and data guide them.
With that in mind, I want to share the five most common mistakes I’ve seen schools make and, more importantly, how to correct them.
1. Traditional lockdowns are outdated and must change to “multi-option” responses.
Traditional lockdowns, originally designed as a response to drive-by shootings, focus on a single location (the classroom), and a single response (pretending you are not there). However, after multiple incidents where the response failed, the federal recommendation is now a multi-option response to make a lifesaving decision based on your circumstance—evacuating the scene, locking a door, and barricading a room to prevent entry, and as a last resort, contact with the threat.
2. One size does not fit all.
School districts typically have a district-wide safety plan, but district-wide plans don’t take certain variables into consideration, such as the layout of the building, the school’s outside environment, and students’ locations. Each building within the district needs a customized response plan developed specifically for the building’s infrastructure, surroundings, and the capabilities of its students. Also, safety drills should be practiced at varying times of day with students and staff in various locations.
3. Operate as a team.
A common mistake made by school districts is to appoint one individual to develop and oversee a safety plan—from identifying any and all safety threats to implementing appropriate actions. The most effective safety plans include an entire team of participants who undergo the same training and work together to develop a collaborative plan customized to their school. Operating as a team increases efficiency for the shared goal of keeping schools safe.
4. Continuous training.
Proper, ongoing training is the foundation for any successful violence prevention program. As new information becomes available, it’s important to provide updated training so everyone understands the modifications and can practice the new tactic in the next scheduled drill.
After each drill, gather feedback from teachers and staff and make adjustments so corrections can be implemented.
5. Communication is key.
It is imperative that everyone within the school community—students, parents, and staff—are aware of the school’s safety plan. Announce drills in advance so parents can help children prepare for a scary situation, as well as process what they’ve learned afterward.
Behavioral threats are a comprehensive issue for everyone, not just students. Employees have crises, too, and forgetting this could have a detrimental impact.
Many school districts approach behavioral threat assessments and training in a piecemeal manner that consists of outdated—and potentially dangerous—tactics. While I’m a proponent of telling people not to believe everything they hear, in this case, I hope you’ll take these tips to heart. They could just save lives.