When school administrators hear that the 10th anniversary of the Columbine High School attack will arrive on April 20, 2009, most shake their heads in disbelief. They are amazed that 10 years have passed since this watershed event, which changed the landscape of K12 school safety.
Anniversaries typically mark a time of reflection. A decade later, what lessons have truly been learned from the Columbine attack? Did these lessons result in any substantial changes in the safety of our nation’s schools?
The State of School Security and Emergency Preparedness
The good news is that in general, our nation’s schools today have a higher level of awareness of safety issues and preparedness for emergencies than they did prior to April 1999.
Administrators and boards have reduced access to schools, implemented visitor management systems, improved communications capabilities, boosted the number of surveillance cameras, and taken security into account with new school design and remodeling. School leaders have also zeroed in on school climate improvements, engaged students in school safety programs, created threat assessment protocols, implemented new drills, exercised and tested emergency plans, trained teachers and support staff, and formed ongoing partnerships with first responders and other community partners.
The bad news is that much of the progress made in the months and early years following the Columbine incident has stalled and even slipped backward in recent years. Funding for the Safe and Drug-Free Schools state grant program, the COPS in Schools program that put police officers in schools, and even school emergency planning dollars have been dramatically scaled back or eliminated over the past decade.
School officials also face increasingly limited time for school safety efforts. The academic demands resulting from No Child Left Behind have left school administrators with less time for noninstructional activities, such as the delivery of prevention support services and staff training on school security and emergency preparedness issues.
The most challenging obstacle in many school communities is complacency. Time and distance from a major high-profile tragedy breeds complacency and fuels denial. Absent a major school shooting in the news or a politically hot school safety situation, it has become far too easy for day-to-day education activities to overshadow safety, security, and emergency preparedness planning.
The result is a mixed bag of many lessons learned and implemented, as well as many remaining gaps in security and emergency preparedness. How schools stack up in school safety best practices varies from district to district and from school to school within each district. It also varies over a period of time and with changes in school leadership and staff.
Security Lessons Learned
Schools around the nation have beefed up their security in a number of areas. Common strategies for improving physical security include:
? Reduced school access. Administrators struggle with maintaining a warm, welcoming and reasonably accessible school for legitimate users while reducing access to school facilities by those with ill intentions. School leaders have reduced the number of doors that can be opened from the outside during school hours, designated main entrances clearly marked by signage, replaced older doors and locks with newer door hardware and locking systems, and installed electronic access control devices such as proximity or swipe card readers. They have also trained students not to open doors for strangers and have trained staff to greet, challenge, and/or report strangers on campus.
? Visitor management systems. A growing number of schools are employing visitor management systems to identify and record visitors to schools. While some schools use relatively basic sign-in logs and visitor identification badges, others have invested in technology that allows the scanning of drivers’ licenses to check visitors against sexual offender databases and produce visitor identification cards.
? Surveillance cameras. The main entrance of many schools, in particular elementary schools, are now equipped with cameras and accompanying speakers and electronic door openers to better monitor the schools’ primary entrance points. Cameras often monitor entranceways, hallways, stairwells, and other common areas such as cafeterias and parking lots.
Many school districts provide local law enforcement agencies with emergency remote access to their school cameras for potential use in a tactical response situation. School bus cameras help deter misbehavior by those students who can be deterred, and serve as evidence against those who choose to violate school rules and/or the law.
? Communications enhancements. Improvements have been made to facilitate classroom-to-office communications, strengthen two-way radio communications capabilities among key administrators and staff, maintain public address systems and speakers, and expedite communications messages from schools to parents in an emergency. A number of schools have enhanced communications links between their schools and local law enforcement.
? Renovation and new school design. Many schools now have school renovation and new school construction projects reviewed by security experts. Lessons from the field of crime prevention through environmental design (CPTED) have been adapted to schools. Results include reconfigured main entrances that funnel visitors to and through the main office, improved lines-of-sight in hallways, and new washroom designs in elementary schools that feature washbasins positioned outside of the doors leading into separate toilet areas to enhance adult supervision capabilities. Enhanced lighting, intrusion detection systems, and other measures have also received closer attention by school districts in the post-Columbine era.
The attack at Columbine High School served as the impetus for improvements in school emergency planning nationwide. Emergency planning strategies include:
? Crisis teams and plans. Most schools have some type of written crisis plan and school safety/crisis team.
? Drills and exercises. Lockdown, evacuation, and shelter-in-place drills have joined traditional fire and tornado drills. First responders are given access to schools to conduct tactical training when school is not in session.
? Computerized floor plans and blueprints. Mapping system technology is being used for improved school and first responder access in an emergency.
? Threat assessment training and protocols. Schools have created threat assessment teams and protocols, trained staff, and partnered with police to better evaluate threats.
? Training for professional development. Administrators, teachers and support staff have received professional development training on school security and emergency planning details.
? Relationships with community partners. Schools have strengthened proactive partnerships with police, fire, emergency medical services, emergency management agencies, mental health agencies, and other community partners.
Administrators work hard to improve school climate and culture, upgrade mental health support for students, encourage student reporting of safety concerns, and strengthen prevention and intervention resources to prevent crises.
Even with all of the positive strides over the past decade, glaring gaps remain. Some of the more common gaps include:
? Staff, student, and community awareness. The first and best line of defense is always a well-trained, highly alert staff and student body. The time and funding for staff training have steadily decreased, particularly following the introduction of No Child Left Behind. People will always be the weakest link in school security and emergency plans. The question is, how weak will we allow them to be?
? Crisis plans on the shelf. Most schools have crisis plans, but many are outdated and collecting dust upon school shelves. Plans are still not being put together by diverse teams, nor are they reviewed and updated annually, which is a best practice.
? Emergency plans with questionable content. Many school plans reviewed by school safety consultants have questionable content. Schools typically know, for example, that parents and the media will add the greatest pressure in a school emergency response. Yet parent-student reunification and media management are often two underdeveloped areas in many crisis plans.
? Exclusion of support staff in training and planning. School support staff tend to be grossly undertrained and underutilized in school emergency planning. Food service employees, office support staff, day and evening custodians, and school bus drivers are often not included in faculty meetings, on crisis teams, and in drills and exercises. Yet these support staff groups can play critical roles in a school emergency.
? Decreased funding for school violence prevention, security, and emergency planning. Federal and state legislators rode the “school safety bandwagon” in the months following the Columbine incident, providing new laws and funding streams for school safety. Following the terrorist attacks of 9/11, most legislators jumped to the “homeland security bandwagon.”
Unfortunately, they have never come back to school safety and, in fact, have actually repeatedly cut funds for school violence prevention, security, and preparedness. Combined with complacency, denial and school-community politics, these and other gaps remain as obstacles for improving school crisis preparedness and can leave a school vulnerable.
Schools in general are more secure and better prepared for emergencies today than they were prior to the Columbine attack in 1999. But glaring gaps in prevention, security, and preparedness remain.
How quickly and effectively those gaps will be closed rests with the most valuable resource we have for school safety: our people. Future school safety progress lies in the hands of educators, students, parents, first responders and others who work in schools and/or with students.
Kenneth S. Trump, M.P.A., is the president of National School Safety and Security Services (www.schoolsecurity.org), a Cleveland-based national school security and emergency preparedness consulting firm.