How do you prepare your youth program to respond to a gun-wielding intruder?
Youth programs and schools are anxiously asking themselves this question after the shooting in Parkland, Florida, that left 17 people dead.
Many are rushing to security consultants, said Michael Dorn, executive director of Safe Havens International, a nonprofit that helps schools and after-school programs improve crisis preparedness. The phones in his office are ringing nonstop.
After a mass shooting, school districts often hire the first consultant they can get, Dorn said. Don’t, he advised.
The best action for many youth programs and schools is to consult the local police department, fire department and emergency management agency to develop a plan that is good for the entire range of safety hazards, he said. The plan must be locally based and multidisciplinary.
Avoid a “plan in a can,” a security plan that can be bought or downloaded, Dorn said.
And avoid the simplistic “active shooter” trainings such as “run, hide, fight,” he advised. In test simulations, school personnel have not been able to use this approach effectively, he said.
Dorn said an effective approach is the plan Safe Havens created for the Maine Department of Education: Twenty Simple Strategies for Safer and More Effective Schools. It uses the knowledge of local educators, social workers, public safety experts and school facility directors.
Among its strategies:
- Improve the ability of staff to address common medical emergencies.
- Channel visitors through areas such as a main office where they can be observed by staff.
- Conduct an annual safety and emergency preparedness assessment. Local law enforcement, fire service, and emergency management personnel are a valuable resource.
- Add the following protocols to your emergency plan: reverse evacuation, shelter in place and “room clear.”
- Focus on improved student supervision.
- Develop positive connections between staff and students.
- Improve “territoriality,” the sense of ownership of the area by students, staff, and the community.
- Improve natural surveillance, the ability for people to see and be seen by others.
Active shooter is only one risk
Why not train specifically for an active shooter?
Fewer than 8 percent of deaths in K-12 schools have been from active shooters, Dorn said.
“It seems like we’re seeing active shooter events left and right, but that’s been ongoing since the 1800s,” he said in November after the shooting at Rancho Tehama Elementary School in Tehama County, California.
In 1927, a local man bombed a school in Bath Township, Michigan, killing 44 people. In 1958, 95 people were killed in an intentionally set fire at a Catholic elementary school in Chicago.
When too much attention is focused on active shooters, people are likely to ignore the things that cause a lot more deaths, Dorn said, such as medical emergencies and tornadoes.
As a result, “many districts are not doing what we know works,” he said.
Organizations don’t necessarily need to hire a consultant; in fact, many small youth-serving programs can ill afford it, Dorn said.
There are fewer than 100 consultants across the country with extensive experience in K-12 safety, according to Dorn. After the Parkland shooting, “most are booked solid for the school year,” he said. Others consultants aren’t well-versed in K-12 security, he said.
Emergency management agencies specialize in emergency preparedness and are a free resource, he said. The Department of Homeland Security is also a resource, he said.
The role of gun control
Dorn’s organization has worked in 24 countries, including those where guards carry guns at school (Israel) and in countries that outlaw guns outright (China). Mass shootings happen in both types of places, he said.
“Let’s focus on things we know work that can be implemented by an actual site,” he said.
The debate occurring now over gun control is a good debate to have in a democracy, Dorn said. But on each side of the debate, “we don’t have proof those approaches are going to be effective,” he said.
And if certain weapons are banned, quick implementation won’t happen. For example, there are about 1 million AR-15 rifles in the United States, he said.
Creating a plan
Kenneth S. Trump, president of National School Safety and Security Services, a nonprofit safety consultant, agreed that after-school programs should consider active shooters but also consider other potential safety and security threats.
Program leaders need to assess potential threats, examine their physical settings, train their staff and know what to do should an incident occur, he wrote in an email.
He included the following steps:
- Evaluate your physical setting. This includes asking what potential hazards exist, such as nearby railroad tracks or chemical plants. Is the program isolated from others who might not see a need for assistance? Is it close to other programs whose problems could spill over?
- Plan and train with your staff.
- Create clear procedures.
- Provide good supervision of youth.
- Communicate safety and emergency preparedness expectations and have regular reviews of the plan.
After-school sites on school property
About 88 percent of schools have written emergency plans that include school shootings, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. But those plans may be inappropriate for an after-school program, such as when they direct adults to call the office in case of emergency.
After-school programs located on school property should make sure they know whether a school’s emergency plan applies to them.
An after-school program that has a contract with a school or district may be legally required to follow the school’s emergency plan, Dorn said. The after-school organization may not be aware of this — or even aware of the plan, he said.
“This is a common problem,” he said. “Programs often have volunteers and a lot of turnover,” reducing staff awareness of the emergency plan.
For example, at Sandy Hook, one new teacher had not received keys to her door and had not been provided with the emergency plan, he said.
“Whatever plan you have, put it in your on-board process,” Dorn said. It’s important for volunteers and staff to be trained in the plan when they first come to the program.
Important protocols to add
The lockdown is a crucial tool, he said. It’s important, for example, if the threat is a child abduction by a noncustodial parent, he said. But it’s not the only tool.
Another important part of a crisis plan is a room clear, he said. This means students in one room are directed to leave the room and move to another designated space in the building. It can move students from an area in which an intruder is present or it can clear space for medical assistance.
Sheltering in place is important in the case of a hazardous material incident, he said.
Evacuating the building is part of an emergency plan, but reverse evacuation can be overlooked. A reverse evacuation quickly moves students inside when a danger exists outside, Dorn said. It must be practiced in order to be done effectively, according to Safe Havens.
A lot of times, children may be told to simply run, Dorn said. But running slows down evacuation in some conditions. It can cause bottlenecks at doors. And not every student has the capability to run, he said.
“What we teach is a brisk walk,” he said.