If the observance of the year since the horror at Sandy Hook Elementary wasn’t enough cause for reflection, the recent shooting at Arapahoe High School in Colorado furnished another one. It is fitting to ask whether we are doing everything possible to protect our kids from whatever threat they encounter at school.
Prior to Sandy Hook, I had been involved only casually by offering policy advice to my friend, Pat Sergott, who provides protection services to world leaders. He would explain over glasses of beer about how what he did abroad could also be applied here at home in our schools. Back then the topic was abstract and theoretical. Then Dec. 14, 2012 happened. Much like the Sept. 11 attacks that led to war and changed millions of lives, Sandy Hook affected the nation deeply and raised questions about what to do. Much of the dialogue has surrounded gun control and mental health – two important topics.
For me, it has focused attention on whether we are leaving our kids vulnerable in other ways. You can learn a lot in a year. There is a science that has developed surrounding how to, and how not to, protect people in the most hostile settings. I had never given any thought to the efficacy of investments in security cameras versus those in locking systems or response training. I knew nothing about the psychology of how human performance, even when doing mundane tasks, deteriorates as levels of complexity and stress rise.
“Operational stress reaction" is what the military calls it. The example most of us can relate to is when we are late for work and fumble inserting our car keys in our ignition. All of a sudden something so simple becomes a difficult task. In the school context, it makes one wonder if those lock-down simulations or the evacuation drills performed on perfect 70-degree days are really going to be that useful during a bona fide crisis.
I have concluded that we, as a country, have done very little of value since Sandy Hook to make schools safer. The most disturbing part is that no one realizes it. It is not that decision-makers have failed to respond; it is just that what they have done will make little difference. We have ignored the most important tool used around the world to elevate the protection of people inhabiting dangerous places.
The people on campus witnessing events firsthand have the best opportunity to influence the outcome. There is a simple reason people learn the Heimlich Maneuver and CPR – they might not have the luxury of waiting for someone else to address the problem. The same is true when something is going terribly wrong at a school. Therefore, faculty and staff need to have access to more meaningful response training and be better prepared to mitigate crises in their midst while they are still unfolding.
School systems have instead thrown money at cameras, for example, that no one monitors and that serve mostly to record events after they are over. These “upgrades” that you hear about in the news have done little more than give people a false sense of security. The event at McNair Elementary School in August is a perfect illustration. The young man with the assault-rifle simply walked past the cameras and through the fortified front doors while they were open.
A neighboring school superintendent, John Harper of Bartow County, was quoted as saying: “We’ve done all that I really know to do to be able to get our schools safe and secure for our children. We have safety buzzers on our doors; we have emergency switches in our offices; we have cameras all around…"
Mr. Harper stated it well. Most officials do everything they know, but just not everything a protection expert would do.
So what diffused the event in Georgia? Not the school's cameras or even first responders. It was a staff person, Antoinette Tuff, armed with her own skills. While not trained, she had the ability to “verbally de-escalate” the situation — a technique that is taught in formal protection training curriculums.
People need to understand there are established best practices used to protect world leaders that decision-makers in schools appear unaware of. They need to more fully utilize their most important asset – their people – to improve security outcomes.
So I am clear, do not accept the one-size-fits-all generic lock-down or evacuation drills that schools use. If you throw one curve ball into those equations, or a little “operational stress,” then the current plans collapse when they are needed most.
This has been an important and interesting twelve months. I am deflated, however, each day when Google Alerts fill my in-box with news about "school security upgrades" around the country. It reminds me that there is a terrible and on-going failure occurring. Tax dollars are expended, opportunities are missed, and parents are given a false sense that something has changed.
Maybe this time next year it will be different.
Geof Gradler is a Principal with Roberts, Raheb & Gradler and provides strategic advice to The Protection Institute.
Editor's note: This article has been edited to accurately reflect that John Harper is the superintendent of Bartow County, not McNair, as previously reported. The Reader regards this error.