Updated: Mar 17
What Can Be Done to Keep Our Children Safe at School?
Prepared by: Frank J Kitzerow, Chief of Police, Retired
President, The National Association of School and Campus Police Chiefs
According to most experts, it is not a matter of if a school shooting or catastrophic event will occur on a school campus, it is more precisely, a matter of when a targeted act of violence happens.
This is a sobering thought or outlook, especially as it relates to our most precious resources, our children. Unfortunately, all too often, school districts, parents, communities, and sometimes even law enforcement let themselves be lulled into a false sense of security, believing that a catastrophic event could never occur in their schools. The consequences of this type of thinking can have devastating results.
Recently, there have been many targeted acts of violence occurring on school campuses. According to NPR (National Public Radio), just recently, on September 1, 2021, there was a shooting on a high school campus in North Carolina, during which a student lost her life. In their report, NPR wrote that according to the North Carolina Governor, Roy Cooper, this was the second school shooting that occurred on school campuses during a one-week period in his state.
In South Florida, Newslocal10.com, reported that three Broward County School students were arrested during a 48-hour period for potential targeted acts of violence directed towards their schools. Two of those students threatened to terrorize the school and were allegedly involved in planning an attack. According to News 10, in an unrelated incident, a third student from the same school district was also arrested for bringing a gun onto a school campus.
Similarly, TC Palm News reported that in Martin County Florida, law enforcement officials are investigating a person who threatened to bring a gun to school so that the student can shoot the intended targets. On the heels of this event, according to WPTV.com, two Lee County Florida middle school students are accused of planning a Columbine- style school attack at their school. Fortunately, these events were discovered and stopped before anyone was injured or killed. See our updated feed of even more recent incidents across the United States.
The school district in Newport News, Virginia was not as fortunate when they experienced a school shooting at Heritage High School. According to CNN, the shooting occurred on a Monday morning and resulted in two 17-year-old children being shot and sustaining non-life-threatening injuries. Two others were taken to local hospitals because of minor injuries associated with the event.
Unfortunately, given the unprecedented circumstances the pandemic has created, there is a strong likelihood that these types of events will be on the rise. The Police Executive Research Forum (PERF), in their daily briefings on September 16, 2021, included a story published by The Trace, which reported that since August 1, 2021, there have been at least 22 shootings at schools across our country.
Similarly, in their September 23, 2021, daily briefings, PERF referenced a New York Times article reporting that the murder rate, across the United States, rose by almost 30% in 2020. According to the New York Times, this was the biggest increase in murders since the start of the FBI’s crime reporting in 1960. This increase should concern all of us, especially those who have school aged children, and those of us who are responsible for the safety of our students on school campuses.
Many experts have been forewarning an increase in school related targeted acts of violence. Unfortunately, these incidents lend credence to that prediction and paint a dismal picture of what may lie ahead for us in terms of school safety. Through my experiences and education as a 42-year law enforcement officer, including 18 years as a police chief in both the municipal and school-based policing environments, the record setting increase in FBI murder rate is alarming.
What Can Be Done to Help Prevent School Violence?
Fundamentally, school safety begins with a recognition and buy-in to the fact that keeping our children safe at school must be a priority for all of us. It is widely accepted that when our children feel safe at school, their opportunities to learn and thrive are significantly increased.
Collaboration is the most important key for effective school safety. Keeping our children safe is akin to that adage, “It takes a village to raise a child.” Similarly, “It takes a village to keep our children safe.” School safety is not just the responsibility that is shouldered by one group, it belongs to all of us. We are all school safety.
Meaningful safety planning involves multiple components, operating in tandem, to be leveraged as both proactive and reactive keys for addressing complex safety issues. Building an effective school safety ecosystem, or plan, should involve several key components.
It begins with a commitment from the district or organizational leadership to develop a substantial school safety plan that is collaborative and includes key stakeholders from the onset.
Success will depend heavily on efficient communication protocols during the building stages and is especially critical before, during, and after a crisis.
The planning process should begin by considering the challenges associated with the most complex and significant event the school district may have to confront.
The basics of that plan can always be reengineered to meet the demands of less complicated issues easier than having to adjust up to meet the pressures associated with more complex crises.
Clearly defining everyone’s role in the plan is essential. Be sure to include key stakeholders such as the school district leadership and staff as well as parents, students, first responders, and other groups that may play a role in the successful outcome of the crisis you are planning for. It is critical that along with the plan, strong policies and procedures governing expectations, including accountability components are established and adhered to.
Effective school safety begins with a commitment to our students and that their security while at school must be a priority for all of us. The key stakeholders should be identified and involved early in the planning process. Ultimately, the plan should focus on being both proactive and reactive in nature.
Proactively, attention should be paid to components such as prevention, intervention, and diversion strategies. A significant investment in these dimensions directly impacts the opportunities for a catastrophic man-made event to occur at a school. In fact, the greater the investment in proactive strategies, the less opportunity for a targeted act of violence to occur, reducing the potential for placing our children’s lives at risk on a school campus. It is important to note that success in this regard requires a strong collaboration between mental health professionals and law enforcement, which does not always equate to an arrest. Being able to mitigate a potential attacker’s underlying grievance can have a long-term positive impact on maintaining the safety of our students. In short, we are never going to arrest our way out of this problem.
If we are not successful on the proactive side of the equation, it is important to have a robust toolbox in place that is capable of isolating, neutralizing, or eliminating the threat. In this regard, time works against us in terms of the numbers of lives that can be saved. The amount of time it takes to identify a threat, make the proper notifications, and respond effectively directly impacts the outcome, especially in the number of lives that are saved.
A robust toolbox should include prearranged, collaborative response plans that include elements relating to safety, security, unified command, reunification, technology, training, policies, and accountability. Having been through many crises throughout my forty-two-year law enforcement career, as the intensity of the situation arises, the greater the reliance on preplans and training.
Success or failure will rely heavily upon the investments you made before a catastrophic event occurs.
Simply, it is like an emotional bank account, it is important to keep making deposits into the account so that you can cover a major withdrawal, if needed. Make the investment upfront, don’t be bankrupt on the day that a catastrophic event at a school comes calling for you.
Question: As a superintendent or school administrator, what should I be doing now to better prepare my staff and key stakeholders to effectively handle a catastrophic event in my district?