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Jan 07

Guarding School Security

I am writing this as I sit in a small classroom where my son attends Hebrew school. There are approximately 20 children learning today and it is the last class before the winter recess. The school is located in a quiet community and there is no particular reason to believe that violence in any form will visit this building. Yet here I sit and I will do so as long as my son is in attendance. I wish with all my heart that I had been sitting in the Sandy Hook School when Adam Lanza forced his way into the building and I know my feelings are shared by tens of millions of others. Can parents continue to simply send their children with a kiss and a lunch bag and trust that a similar horror could not be perpetrated in the very school they are sending their kids to? They cannot and must not.
The deliberate slaughter of children is, unfortunately, not a new phenomenon. Every Israeli remembers Ma’alot; every Russian Beslan. In the US these once isolated acts seem to be increasing in frequency. Our politicians are as impotent with respect to this issue as they are with most others. The best they can do is pass anti-gun legislation which will do absolutely nothing to address the issue. Recall that the assault weapons ban was passed in 1994 and did not expire until 2004. Columbine occurred in 1999. Do any of our politicians get it? No, they will reject any attempt at meaningful legislation aimed at the offenders and take the politically expedient path. I will state with 100% certainty that no act of congress nor that of any state legislature will make any difference. Only action at the local level will matter. It all comes down to parents and local school officials.
Every single parent must take personal responsibility in speaking with school officials in order to make sure nothing like this can happen again. No security is fool proof. No amount of planning and preparation can be 100% effective in preventing the acts of evil, twisted fiends. What can be done, however, is to make it as difficult as possible for any sociopathic goblin to succeed and the effects of any attack can always be limited. Maybe we cannot guarantee safety 100% of the time but we can get pretty close to it. Prevention and mitigation is possible and parents must demand action. There is nothing more important than the safety of our children and their educators. The cost of taking action is modest. The cost of not doing so is incalculable. Ask the parents of Sandy Hook.

SchoolSecurityYesterday I received an email from our local school system discussing the tragedy. The missive said most of the right things. Counseling will be available and security measures will be reviewed in light of the tragedy. The email went on to state that to simply focusing on security is pointless. The root causes of such acts must be eradicated in order to prevent such attacks. If I may respond with all due respect to the well-intentioned school administrator and say you are wrong. Root causes are not your concern unless you are referring to trying to identify individuals capable of such acts as they move through the school system. Others will worry about root causes. Your job is to harden the school and make it as difficult as possible for anyone intent on doing harm to our kids to get in the building. If it means one less smart board in the school or if the kids cannot go on a field trip or two, so be it. If teachers and administrators have to forego the next salary increase then it must be so. Nothing takes priority over safety. Here are a few thoughts on where schools must start:

Step #1:
Physical security comes first. Not cameras, buzzers or metal detectors. Schools must be locked and the doors substantial enough to resist determined forced entry. Glass doors or doors with enough glass to either allow access or allow someone to reach into the door and manipulate the lock need to be changed yesterday. Every class room door must also lock and resist forced entry. This means determined forced entry. The length of time needs to be determined by the response time of the local police department. It should also be ballistically effective, that is resistant to gunfire.

Step #2:
The initial encounter with a visitor must occur outside that door. Perhaps many of you share my experience of going to a school and pressing the buzzer and gaining immediate access. No interview occurs outside. The visitor is buzzed in and simply walks to the desk where they are then asked the nature of the visit. This is unacceptable. A brief interview needs to be conducted while the visitor is still outside. Anyone monitoring access to a school needs to understand that this brief encounter is perhaps the most important facet of the security program. It is in the human interaction that evil intent is often evident and school employees must learn the verbal and non-verbal indicators of impending attack. This is the bulwark against attack. I have long said that many of the counter-terror strategies employed by the Israelis have direct applicability to criminal assault as well. One thing they have learned is to use technology but rely on the human element. There is no substitute for intuition; no replacement for human assessment of interaction.

School personnel will be taught to engage each visitor in conversation and evaluate the encounter. Is the visitor answering appropriately to the questions asked? What is their demeanor like? Do they appear agitated or nervous? Is this behavior consistent with what is normally expected from a visitor to the school? The responses are the single most important element to be considered. Do they make sense? Does the story change or remain consistent? Is the little voice inside your head telling you something is not right? Answers that appear a little “off” are cause to subject the visitor to additional scrutiny. Look at the person as a whole. Are they carrying anything or are they dressed inappropriately for the weather? In addition it is critical to note that perhaps half of all human communication is non-verbal. The body may be saying something completely different than the mouth and it is vitally important for those safeguarding our schools to understand this language. Every law enforcement academy teaches it and it isn’t hard to learn. I have included a brief list of non-verbal indicators threat indicators taught to law enforcement officers and have included only the ones I believe apply to school security:

  • 1000 yard stare
  • Subject ignores you
    • Avoids eye contact
    • Responses are inappropriate (Very important for school security)
  • Excessive movement
    • Rocking, pacing, moving up and down on balls of feet
    • Clenching /unclenching hands or jaw
  • Subject ceases all movement (after exhibiting excessive movement)
  • Heavy breathing w/o exertion or blowing (Short explosive exhales)
  • Chest “puffing”
  • Facial Clues
    • Glowering, showing canines
    • Facial wipe or aversion

Step #3:
Armed guards. Recently retired law enforcement officers or military veterans with specialized training should be utilized. They are responsible with weapons, are pre-trained and have that sixth sense that a career in law enforcement gives you. Most schools average 180 days per year. Depending upon where the school is located, such a guard will cost the school less than $60,000.00 per year in the most expensive settings; approximately $45,000.00 in more affordable areas (Using former military personnel will provide jobs for veterans returning to private life and would even be more cost effective). The additional value in utilizing former law enforcement officers for this role is manifold. They will screen the visitors to the school. They have already learned many of the indicators mentioned above and have employed them during their careers. All that is required is some additional training that focuses on the school security mission with extensive coverage of the major shooting incidents experience over the last 15 years. Adam Lanza was initially confronted by a brave principal who tried to stop him and lost her life doing so. She was unarmed and had only her will to protect the children under her care. A well-trained, armed guard would have ended the incident. One thing to note is that the type of firearms and tactical training required for an active shooter response by a solitary officer providing security in a school setting is quite specialized and is not part of the standard training provided at any police academy in the US.

Step #4: Emergency Action Plans & Training
This issue would take a book rather than an article to address but a few points are worth noting. Every school in the United States has a fire safety plan. Most have Emergency Action Plans (EAP) that provides procedures for non-fire emergencies. Among the emergencies planned for in the school EAP is a response to a dangerous individual in the building and, worse, an active shooter. The time has come to make such plans universal and to revisit the response which has traditionally been to put the school into lockdown. This means to have all students get into a classroom and have the doors locked behind them. The idea is to deny or at least delay the assailant access to our children. This is a good strategy but will not work unless each classroom is built to be a safe room. In Sandy Hook some doors couldn’t be locked. Other doors could be forced open. None provided any ballistic protection at all. The shelter in place protocol only works when you have a shelter appropriate for the threat.

Is an evacuation strategy ever appropriate? Generally, the active shooter scenario argues against evacuating. Occupants have no way of knowing where the shooter is or whether the evacuation route is safe. Students told to evacuate may well be running right into the path of the shooter or shooters. I will make this point, however. Recent school tragedies have taught us that children and teachers are killed inside the building. The attacker has the victims trapped and needs to merely move from room to continue killing. Kids that have been able to climb out a classroom window and run from the area have survived. This alternative to shelter in place needs to be considered.

Training needs to be thorough, repetitive and frequent. At the first sign of alarm every single person in the building needs to be sure of what to do. Remember that in every emergency the single biggest failure is communication. Do not assume you will hear an alarm or announcement. Indeed, the first warning for many at Sandy Hook was the sound of gunfire and screaming. Another important thing to consider in training is teaching the kids what to do if their teacher is either incapacitated, frozen or absent when the emergency occurs. Many kids at Sandy Hook acted with bravery and clarity on their own and survived. All our kids need to know what to do not to simply wait for their teachers to provide them with instruction.

David S. Katz is a former US Federal Agent and the founder and Chief Executive Officer of Global Security Group, Inc. (www.globalsecuritygroup.com). He may be reached at dkatz@globalsecuritygroup.com.