The Importance of Sensing Danger

SEC’s experts believe that every person follows a specific path when responding to critical incidents or emergencies:

  1. Sense Danger
  2. Evaluate Response Options
  3. Commit to action

Step One, “sensing danger” seems straightforward – you can only respond to an emergency if you know that it exists. However, when it comes down to it, there are many roadblocks that can prevent people from sensing danger as quickly as might be possible. The faster people are aware that an emergency exists, the faster they can go through the rest of the response process and find their way to safety.

The five senses can be major roadblocks in sensing danger. How many times have we heard of someone confusing gunfire for “fireworks?” Historically, people have relied on their senses to alert them to danger – the sound of a gunshot, the smell of fire, the sight of a dangerous person. However, human brains are naturally predisposed to attribute sounds and other sensory observations to things more typical of daily life. This confusion can drastically slow down your response process.

Inability to share information can be another roadblock to sensing danger. Once one person identifies that an emergency exists, they can help other people by quickly sharing that information. If someone sees a gunman but has no way to share that information with the other people in their building, everyone else is at a disadvantage because they cannot begin to execute an emergency response.

The solution to effectively sensing danger is comprehensive alert systems. Unlike relying on your senses, an alert system makes it clear that danger is present. Alert systems can also disseminate information to many people at the same time. Institutions across all industries have set up alert systems. Think about severe weather alerts, alerts to suspicious activity on our bank accounts, or engine alerts on your car.

Schools have almost perfected their fire-alert systems. Schools have fire alarms that alert building occupants of a fire and automatically alert local fire departments of the emergency. All staff and students are trained to understand the alert, so when they hear it, they immediately sense the danger and can begin to respond in carefully crafted ways. It has been years since a child has died from a fire in a school building. Fire safety in school is proof that comprehensive alert systems do work.

While schools are increasingly well prepared for violent incidents including active shooter, fire preparation is generations ahead of where we are for violent attacks. We can take many lessons from the “fire-preparation” movement to apply to active shooter situations. Efficient alerts are one key concept.

In an active-violence situation, an effective alert will clearly and quickly inform others of the violence. Schools should utilize “plain-language” alerts (i.e. “Alert – there is a shooter in the building,”) or conduct drills to train students and teachers to immediately recognize alerts sounds. When the alert goes out quickly, people can begin to respond to the danger before they are physically confronted by it.

What specific alerts do we recommend? There are some great high-tech systems on the market, but many are not widely used or available. Your alert system does not need to be too elaborate or expensive. Phone PA systems, email, or text, are common alert systems, but keep in mind that these have their limitations. Many PA systems are not accessible by all, the speakers are not loud enough, and people don’t have the immediate enough access to phones and email to make those methods useful. Organizations can take lower cost steps by utilizing tools like boat air horns, coast guard whistles, or plain language voice alerts that can quickly be spread around a facility.

The key to a good emergency alert system is having a plan that is easily accessible and understood by all. How does your school plan to alert people in the event of an active shooter situation, or other emergencies? Develop a plan and share it will all stakeholders. If you need assistance developing a strong alert system, reach out to SEC.

 

Is Your Secure Entryway Really Secure?

During the several hundred site assessments Secure Education Consultants (SEC) has conducted throughout the country, we typically find schools and childcare centers employing tools to secure their entry. Unfortunately, we also find that said tools are not being supported by appropriate protocols or being used by people who are sufficiently trained. We find security lapses like doors being opened for visitors without any sort of vetting, cameras that do not provide an effective view of the entryway, doors propped open for convenience, and doors held open for more than one visitor. These lapses diminish the benefits that physical security systems can provide. At SEC, we believe that unless you align the physical and technical security measures with effective protocols and appropriate staff training, your secure entry system may just end up being an expensive doorbell.

 

Install Physical and Technical Security Systems

At SEC, we believe that minimally, a secure entryway must have the following components: locked doors, a clear view of the entryway (either via a window or camera), and a way to verbally communicate with visitors prior to allowing entry (such as through an intercom or phone system).

Additional components of secure entryways could include elements like glass supported with safety and security window film, ballistic glass, biometric readers, uniquely coded pin pads, and an additional locked door placed prior to entry into the main facility.

Installing security features can be overwhelming for school administrators and childcare center owners. There are no one-size-fits-all solutions. Physical and technical security features need to be tailored to the individual location. Is the camera in an acceptable place in the entryway? Is the camera monitor in a location that can be effectively viewed by staff? What type of glass or film should be installed on the windows? Where is the appropriate location to place the remote release button for the front door? Schools and childcare centers can consult with SEC to discuss and physical or technical security features. We have found that our customized, proven training techniques enable schools to get the most out of their physical and technical security features. We have also found that allowing us to partner with architects and builders from the onset of construction or renovation projects allows schools to effectively maximize the fiscal resources they are dedicating to security features.

Establish Entry Protocol

Once you have the physical and technical elements in place, schools and childcare centers need a formal policy that dictates what staff should do when a visitor arrives. This protocol should include:

  • Entryways that are monitored by a person or a camera at all times.
  • Clear signage should be posted to direct visitors and advise them on appropriate entry procedures.
  • Staff members should have a clear understanding of who is allowed entry into the school.
  • Visitors should be vetted by staff members prior to entry using a combination of visual and audio tools.
  • Once visitors are allowed entry, front office personnel should do additional vetting including obtaining additional information regarding the purpose of the visit, asking for identification and requiring visitors to sign in prior to allowing access to the main facility.
  • Staff members should not allow entry unless they feel confident about both the person and the purpose of the visit.
  • Staff should be well-versed on people who may not be allowed to enter the building. Custody battles and domestic disputes have the potential to turn someone who was once a safe visitor into a potential threat. In our most recent blog, When Problems at Home Create Danger at School, we reviewed the April 2017 San Bernardino school shooting. The school staff allowed the shooter to enter the school without question because they were unaware that the shooter’s relationship with the teacher at the school had become estranged.
  • Staff members should have the capacity to call for assistance from either other staff members or first responders in an efficient manner.

 

Train the Staff

Schools must provide comprehensive training to all staff members responsible for monitoring entryways. Staff must be comfortable utilizing the physical and technical design features and be fluent on the proper entry protocol. The staff must also be able to effectively vet visitors and to identify suspicious or potentially dangerous behaviors. People who are about to commit a violent act are likely to present observable signs. Such people may be dressed inappropriately for the weather. A big coat on a hot day could be a way to conceal a gun. The suspicious visitor may be sweating or shaking. These are just a few examples of what staff should be trained to look for. When the staff is able to recognize these signs, they are able to question suspicious-looking visitors more thoroughly.

In training, one of the most important concepts to reinforce is to not be afraid of inconveniencing people. In our culture, we are often uncomfortable making a visitor wait outside for any period of time. We also don’t want to seem impolite, which is why we hold the door for others, even though they may be unknown individuals. When our SEC staff arrives at a new schools or childcare center, we are often allowed entry without any questioning. It is important to train staff to give them the confidence to take the time they need to do the appropriate vetting. Staff should ask as many questions as necessary until they feel comfortable.

When a trained and empowered staff follows well-established protocols in a school with well-designed and employed physical and technical security features, the building becomes a safer place for everyone. The integration of these three elements is what makes a secure entryway truly secure.

When Problems at Home Create Danger At School

Problems at home have a certain way of spilling over into the school space. We refer to this issue as domestic spillover. Domestic spillover can occur in many forms. As an education professional, you may be forced into the middle of a dispute over which parent can pick the children up from school. You may encounter a parent in the middle of a custody battle who becomes a potential kidnapping threat. An estranged husband of a teacher may visit the school looking to confront his wife. Any instance of domestic spillover poses a great threat to the individuals involved and the safety of the school as a whole. To combat domestic spillover, clear and open communication on behalf of all parties is key.

Why are schools a prime location for domestic spillover? Schools are a constant in the lives of teachers and students. An estranged husband may not know where his family is living, but he knows where his children go to school, or where his wife teaches, and he knows what times they will be in the building. The consistency makes school a prime target. Both teachers and students are susceptible to bringing domestic spillover into the school. Below we will discuss the reasons behind and ways to combat domestic spillover from both teachers and students.

Domestic Spillover Surrounding the Child

Who is allowed to pick up the child from school? Are there any adults in a child’s life who could pose a danger? These are questions often made more complicated by issues like parent separation, divorce or custody battles.

At the beginning of the year, parents will fill out forms authorizing certain people to pick up their children but, as the year goes on, circumstances may change. It is essential that the front office stays aware of any. To keep all children at your school safe in the event of a domestic disruption, the parent and the school each have unique roles to uphold:

Parents are responsible for keeping the school informed of any and all changes that affect the people authorized to pick-up and see their children.

Schools must be aware of changes to enforce them.

Parents are responsible for sharing all legal documents.

If there is a restraining order or another legal document that will impact the child, parents must present the school with a physical copy. At SEC, we get calls from clients when parents verbally share the details of a restraining order. Schools can not and should not enforce a restraining order until they receive a physical copy.

Schools are responsible for enforcing all legal documents:

If a parent has presented the school with a restraining order, the school must enforce it. If the parent does not present the legal document, schools must follow whatever plan is currently in place for the child.

This seems simple enough, but we often run into trouble with parents who are reconciling. Imagine Dad has a restraining order against Mom and he has presented it to the school, preventing Mom from picking up their children. The school must enforce the order, no matter what. Even if Dad calls and reports that he and Mom have worked things out, and requests for Mom to be able to pick the children up again, the school cannot allow this. The school can only allow Mom to pick up the child again if Dad presents the school with legal proof that the restraining order has been lifted. This protocol helps keep children safe and helps the school avoid being put in the middle.

Schools must ensure all appropriate staff is aware of new arrangements.

“Appropriate staff” to be made aware depends on the unique situation. If there is a parent who is considered especially dangerous, it may be important to let the entire staff know to be on the lookout. Failing to keep the staff informed could cause problems, especially if a parent who is familiar to the school staff is no longer allowed entry.

Consider a family with parents going through a divorce. Mom typically picks the kids up from school, but Dad picks them up a few times per month. Teachers are familiar with this arrangement and know both Mom and Dad. During the divorce process, Mom takes out a restraining order on Dad and he is no longer allowed to pick the children up from school. It is critical in this scenario that all teachers be made aware of the change so they would know there was a change to the routine.

Schools are responsible for making these responsibilities policy.

If it is not already included, schools should update their policy booklets to include the protocol surrounding domestic disputes. The school should clearly communicate the policy to all new families and to any parents who share safety or custody struggles with you.

When in doubt, call for backup.

Separation, divorce and custody battles are stressful times for families and situations can seem less than black and white. Our clients are welcome to contact us for guidance. The police are also a great resource. If you have any questions about documents, your responsibility, or feel a child is in immediate danger, you should consult the authorities.

Domestic Spillover Surrounding the Teacher

On April 10, 2017, a gunman opened fire at an elementary school in San Bernardino, California, killing one student and one teacher before taking his own life. This was not a random attack –  it was a tragic instance of domestic spillover involving a teacher. The shooter, Cedric Anderson was in an estranged relationship with the victim, special needs teacher Karen Elaine Smith. Anderson likely did not know where Smith was living, but he did know where and when she was teaching. A school is a known and consistent location in the lives of teachers and students.

How could this tragedy have been prevented?  The shooter did not even have to force himself into the building. According to San Bernardino Police Captain, the shooter signed in normally at the front desk, as he was familiar with the front office staff. Had the front office staff known about the estranged relationship between Anderson and Smith, they might have turned the gunman away at the front desk. While parents may be more likely to bring security concerns surrounding their children to the school’s attention, it is equally important for teachers to raise concerns about their own safety.

Encouraging teachers to share domestic concerns is a delicate task. There is a fine line between asking teachers to share critical safety information and forcing them to reveal personal details about their lives. Schools must work to create an environment where teachers feel safe sharing if there is someone that might put them and the school in danger. Even minimal details can be lifesaving – a teacher could provide a name, vehicle type or license plate model to look out for. We have found it is effective to be clear with teachers about the reason you are asking them to share personal safety concerns. No one wants to be the person to bring danger to the school.

 

Knowledge is power and, by sticking to clear policies and creating environments of trust, you can create a safer school for everyone in your building.