Reflections on Sandy Hook
NBC flew Kenneth S. Trump, president of National School Safety and Security Services, to Connecticut the day after the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings for a live interview on The Today Show. He provided a number of cable news interviews throughout the day. “Nothing was more powerful than seeing firsthand the shell-shocked faces of Newtown’s residents and the images of a picture-perfect American community that will be forever changed,” Trump said. The following are his thoughts for district administrators.
Let’s first start with a look at what we do not need to do differently after Sandy Hook. We all heard a lot of potential solutions or attempts at solutions, and some of the more irrational and opportunistic calls for actions have included:
• Arming teachers and school support staff, an idea seized upon by gun rights special interests after gun control special interests leeched onto the Sandy Hook shooting to further their political agenda;
• Equipping kids with bulletproof backpacks and teachers with bulletproof vests, ideas floated by product vendors and some desperate parents, among others; and
• Teaching students to throw objects at armed gunmen and then attack them, an idea promoted by a Texas law enforcement tactical training company.
These and similar proposals raise lengthy lists of implementation questions and issues that illustrate a lack of understanding of school operations, school climate, and student age and developmental issues.
Voices of Reason
Based upon reports, Sandy Hook Elementary School had many of the best practices in school safety in place. From a buzzer-camera-intercom at the locked front door to trained staff and lockdown drills, the school appeared to be following practices we expect in a post-Columbine era of school safety. While sadly we did not see the desired outcome, many security experts believe that had these measures not been in place, the loss of life would have been even greater.
Throwing away the playbook of best practices in school safety is not the answer. We do, however, have to make sure that schools are fully implementing the fundamentals in this playbook. Here are some key security questions for your district:
• What steps have you taken to reduce access to your school including locking doors, training staff to greet and challenge strangers, improving door hardware and implementing physical security measures?
• Are your crisis teams named on paper only or do they meet regularly?
• When you conduct lockdown, evacuation, fire, and other drills, how often do you diversify those drills?
Our assessments and observations suggest that these and many other fundamentals in school safety are missing or are lax in many schools.
Voices of Reform
While we should not turn school security best practices upside down, the Sandy Hook attack should force us to acknowledge three major takeaways:
1. The day before the Sandy Hook shootings, you could hardly pay most school boards and administrators to get excited over school safety. In fact, many district leaders have been cutting security measures for years. Yet the day after the shootings, people could not stop talking about it. It is long past time for us to keep school safety on the front burner, when there is not a crisis in the headlines and parents are not demanding answers on student safety questions.
2. We have to painfully acknowledge that in spite of our best efforts, some tragedies will not be prevented. School leaders must take all reasonable steps to reduce security risks, while also preparing to effectively manage crises that cannot be prevented.
3. School leaders must have a greater voice with Congress in advocating for restoring eliminated federal funds for security and emergency preparedness. But boards and superintendents must also stop looking at school safety largely as a grant-funded luxury.
Just as schools budget for food services, transportation, custodial, and other support services, they need to incorporate security, training, and preparedness measures into their annual operating budgets.
Our commitment to school security and preparedness rests not in our rhetoric, but in our actions and budgets. It is time we stop talking the talk and start walking the walk—for the long haul.
Kenneth S. Trump is president of National School Safety and Security Services, and is author of “Practical School Security and Emergency Preparedness Planning” (Corwin Press, 2011).