We all know that communities across the country expect and deserve a school environment where children can learn and develop while feeling safe. Today’s challenge is figuring out what we need to do to provide that cocoon of safety without unduly disrupting the K-12 education experience.
The first step is to gain an understanding of a school’s current security posture – what’s already in place and how it is being used to secure the campus. And the best way to do that is to conduct a school safety assessment.
Safety assessments, sometimes called security audits, are highly effective tools for mitigating, preparing for, responding to and recovering from a broad array of man-made threats and natural hazards. Put another way, they represent security risk management at its best.
A well-designed assessment answers fundamental questions like: What are the threats and hazards most likely to impact my school? How well are we protected, and what are our biggest vulnerabilities? What are the consequences of each adverse event? And what measures should we be putting in place to better mitigate these events?
Following the tragic school shooting in Parkland, Florida in February, political leaders in virtually every state in the US have been scrambling to determine the likelihood that such a mass casualty event could happen at one of their schools. Not surprisingly, a significant number of them are turning first to assessments as a way of finding out – a good start down the long road to improved school safety.
In Florida itself, the legislature passed a school safety bill less than a month after the Parkland shooting. Among other actions, the $400-million measure mandates a detailed safety assessment at each of the state’s nearly 6,000 public and charter schools. (Florida school districts have been conducting mandatory annual safety assessments for years.)
Five hundred miles north of Tallahassee, Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam has likewise proposed the first-ever safety assessment for all 1,700 of the state’s public schools, using ‘model security standards’ developed by his Department of Safety & Homeland Security.
School safety assessments are getting a fresh look elsewhere as well. Governors and lawmakers in Georgia, Maryland, Minnesota, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island and Wisconsin are considering or have approved increases in funding for school safety assessments, some under existing operations budgets and grant programs or through new state budget appropriations.
To be sure, many of these same states (including Florida and Tennessee) are devoting large chunks of their post-Parkland budgets to other school safety initiatives as well. Hiring more school resource officers (SROs) is popular, as are various technology hardware buys and access control projects to better protect campus facilities, students and staff.
As laudable as these initiatives are, however, it’s hard to see how they can be implemented without at least a basic understanding of the specific threat each measure is designed to mitigate. SROs — sworn law enforcement officers at city police departments and county sheriff’s offices whose ‘beat’ is the campus rather than the street — are clearly in short supply, but it is the assessment that will tell a district how many new SROs are required and at which schools they should be deployed. Cameras and other security systems should be installed where they are most needed — information ideally obtained from an assessment of the campus. The same goes for perimeter fences, hardened doors, single points of entry and other access control measures. In short, the information gleaned from an on-site assessment allows a decision-maker to put targeted improvements in place in an analytically defensible and budgetarily sound way, rather than flinging resources at some ill-defined or dimly understood problem.
What sets Florida apart is not just its broad embrace of district and school safety assessments but also the fact that the collection, analysis and reporting of the assessment data happens completely online. (Full disclosure: Haystax Technology’s online school safety assessment tool is in operational use as the Florida Safe School Assessment Tool; FSSAT is used both for best-practice assessments in each of the state’s 67 school districts and as of this year for the new legislatively mandated school assessments as well.)
The use of cloud-deployed software, combined with geo-location and digital data collection, has multiple advantages over the conventional pen-paper-clipboard approaches most assessors have used in the past. These include the ability to:
- Assess directly from on-campus, using handheld devices;
- Enter data faster and more accurately through the use of selectable drop-down answer menus and talk-to-text features;
- Capture and display geo-tagged assessment information and photos on a map;
- Generate custom reports from the data that is collected; and
- Instantly share assessment findings and security best practices across all stakeholder agencies and jurisdictions.
Most importantly, a digitized online assessment is ideal for ‘liberating’ the information gathered, taking it out of binders that sit unused in file cabinets and putting it in on-screen so that experienced security professionals can quickly access and analyze it, leading to a better understanding of what’s working and where the vulnerabilities are, as well as deeper insights into the most significant emerging trends and patterns and the best returns on existing security investments — all of which lead to better overall preparedness.
Amid lingering shock over the Parkland shooting, and despite how overwhelmingly perilous such an event may seem in the moment, it is likewise vital for experienced risk management leaders to remind their communities that active shooters are not the only danger they face. Gang violence, illegal drugs, sexual assault, major accidents and a variety of natural hazards also afflict schools on a regular basis, and a well-thought-out safety assessment should ask direct questions about all of them.
In Florida, for example, while the main concern this year is an active shooter scenario, last year and the year before the dominant issue across the state was a relentless series of tropical storms and hurricanes barreling in from the Atlantic Ocean. That’s why each statewide school safety assessment includes detailed questions, for example, on which schools are designated shelters and how long their backup generators will last — information that is vital during natural disasters.
No matter what the threat or hazard, school safety assessments are critical in giving leaders the information they need to make proactive decisions about where to focus their limited resources, so that responders are better prepared, facilities are better protected and technology can be better deployed in a balanced way for any likely eventuality. Anything short of that is at best mere guesswork.