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Professional Opinion

The role of planning in mitigating safety and security threats

No school is immune. Every school faces risks of harm, loss and vulnerabilities in their operations, with their staff and students, or against their facilities. The daunting task faced by administrators lies in knowing how to identify and proactively manage those risks to ensure the safety and security of staff, minimize the disruption to school or district operations, and mitigate the negative impact when adverse incidents occur. While basic safety plans satisfy legal requirements set forth by OSHA, the ADA or other governmental mandates, they are rarely sufficient to guide action in a true crisis and may not address security issues at all. The key to successfully weathering crises of any type starts with effective planning.

Less than effective

Many schools and district offices develop the most basic safety and security policies and procedures to merely comply with the minimal, legally-mandated requirements. While preferable than no policies or procedures at all, this approach leaves too much room for interpretation to truly equip personnel to respond effectively in the face of an incident. To better ready staff, it is important to take the next step and build a plan around the school’s policies, procedures and available resources. The plan should account for additional measures such as security for staff and students, as well as confidential information, which may also be at risk in the event of a crisis.

Why the gap?

Often the basic policies and procedures aren’t expanded due to a lack of incidents in the school’s or district’s histories that would flag areas of vulnerability or demonstrate the need for improved planning. Other times, administrators are aware of the need to fill in the gaps and make planning a priority, but they lack the proficiency to do so themselves and are not likely to have a law enforcement officer on site as an advisor. Another reason for the gap is due to the lack of fiscal resources allocated to safety and security planning.

The value of planning

Relative to the fiscal and emotional costs, the investment in developing and implementing a comprehensive plan to address safety and security is nominal. In particular, the cost associated with conducting assessments is very low. In fact, many times simple and inexpensive measures can eliminate or greatly reduce exposure to risk once identified.

Operating as an educational institution implicitly means exposure to risk. Having measures in place to prevent, mitigate and remediate risk, however, is commonly not elevated to a high priority until an unfortunate event necessitates it. Consequently, administrators, superintendents and their respective organizations are generally bereft of the right tools when they are most necessary. Worse still, this means responses are driven by panic or shock, or at best, colored by them. Decisions made in the midst of a crisis are of significantly lower quality than those made with careful thought and analysis. A plan is only a plan when prepared in advance, and is well-worth the investment of time and resources.

Who’s on the job?

While ensuring the safety of staff and students and security of building assets and data is a responsibility incumbent on school administrators, the role may be filled in many ways. School resource officers assigned to the building by the local law enforcement are an excellent resource given their familiarity with the specific building and personnel, unless their employer prohibits them from making recommendations due to liability concerns. If no resource officer has been assigned—or is prohibited from actively supporting the effort—and if the skills necessary to develop a comprehensive plan are lacking in the school or district’s own staffing mix, contracting with a professional security consulting firm can provide the guidance necessary to develop and implement a plan with the benefit of expertise.

An ounce of prevention

According to the Association of Threat Assessment Professionals, schools and other organizations face five general types of risk: disruption of service and operations, damage to reputation, corruption of data, exposure of confidential information and liability. Planning is a deliberate and methodical process, involving multiple steps, designed to probe the possibility of exposure to each type of risk.

The first step in the risk assessment process is to determine the needs of the school—the specific things that should be protected, such as property, assets, data, students and staff. Next, vulnerabilities in the physical structure or existing security measures are identified. Evaluating the current state of the organization and determining whether threats are being made to the school or its students or leadership, and the method by which those threats could be enacted, is another critical step in developing a comprehensive plan. Finally, natural disasters and environmental hazards of operating in a specific geography are evaluated for their potential impact on the school. Once all the assessments are conducted and compiled, they are used to craft specific, actionable policies that will enable the school’s administrators and staff to deter, detect, respond to and mitigate the damage associated with crises of any variety. With such policies in hand, the goal of resuming normal academic operations in the wake of such an incident will be much more easily achieved.

Simply developing a comprehensive plan puts any academic institution more than a few steps ahead of their counterparts who don’t. An effective plan isn’t relegated to a binder sitting on a shelf or archived deep in the district’s intranet; an effective plan reaches maturity only when a full-scale implementation occurs. Implementation requires communication of the right information to the personnel to whom it is relevant, in a timely fashion. Conducting drills ensures the entire staff knows and can execute their key responsibilities. Perhaps the most critical component of implementation is reviewing what’s been learned from each exercise, whether the drill was merely a table-top discussion, a walk-through or a full run-through with students in the building. In such evaluations, gaps in the plan are identified and, more importantly, can be closed. The plan will yield greatest benefit when drills and the associated after-action reviews are conducted on a regular, on-going basis.

A pound of cure

While schools of all sizes are vulnerable to a myriad of risks, many of the risks can be anticipated, and more importantly, mitigated with diligent, knowledgeable planning. The full value of a good plan is only realized in the midst of a crisis. In such moments, the hours and dollars spent in planning are returned with incalculable dividends. School operations can resume more expediently; the financial impact of damages can be curtailed; and, of utmost importance, the safety of students and staff can be improved with adequate preparation based on assessments to determine needs and vulnerabilities. Policies and procedures that have been developed into a plan and practiced can also facilitate a more expedient recovery from a crisis event. Even unanticipated situations will be handled better when staff and students have been trained and drilled in other scenarios and are thus able to respond in a level-headed manner. While safety and security issues sometimes involve a reactive component, there’s no question that they are more effectively addressed through proactive prevention. In any case, they are definitely worth the investment of time and money involved to reduce and eliminate risks.

David L. Johnson is President of ITG Consultants, providing training, consulting and security management services. He is the author of Advance – The Guide for Conducting a Protective Security Advance. For more information about ITG Consultants visit