May/June 2018

Rick J. Kaufman, APR is the executive director of community relations and emergency management for Bloomington ( Minnesota) Public Schools.

Providing a safe and secure environment for students to learn and staff to work is critical to the success of any school district. Creating that environment while balancing the equally important welcoming atmosphere can be a challenge.

The tragic events of Columbine, Virginia Tech, Sandy Hook, and the recent school shooting in Parkland, Florida are painful reminders that schools will continue to be targets of violence. Schools are an integral part of their neighborhoods — a microcosm of the environment in which they reside — and therefore are vulnerable to the influences and factors present in the larger community.

School safety must reflect the community, its capabilities, and the unique needs of local residents and students. Parents and community residents expect their schools to be a safe haven for learning and growing. As such, schools and school systems are best served when they engage parents, staff, and other stakeholders in determining what is best for their schools.

There are no easy solutions. There are, however, intelligent alternatives to reduce the risks to life and property.

School shootings stir debate on a range of issues. We’re universally shocked, horrified, and frustrated. In the wake of these tragedies we’ll hear from stakeholders and leaders with a sense of urgency to “do something” to stop the violence. All too often, school districts will rush to launch untested response systems and one-size-fits-all training in an effort to demonstrate responsiveness.

School districts may well be suited to provide support and assistance during a crisis and in its aftermath. They must be equally adept at providing systems for mitigating or preventing incidents through early identification and intervention.

The affective environment

The most important steps a school district can initiate in preventing violence involve the affective rather than physical environment. Physical changes to improve safety and security should not be discounted, but rather incorporated into a comprehensive security plan. These affective environment steps include promoting a positive school climate and culture, teaching and modeling prosocial behaviors, and providing effective intervention when antisocial behaviors occur.

Of critical importance are procedures for detecting early warning signs of violence, school-wide screening procedures, mentoring or counseling programs, and threat assessments that enable school staff to identify and provide support to alienated or at-risk youth.

Students’ access to and use of high-tech devices and social media platforms continue to contribute to a wave of school closures and other disruptions. Students texting messages and malicious gossip, posting photos and video clips, and other forms of intolerant behaviors fuel rumors and misinformation that often create more anxiety than any actual threat or incident. School leaders must have a comprehensive crisis communications plan for managing rapidly escalating rumors around school safety incidents.

Students are often the first to be privy to a leak of intentions or rumors about planned or real incidents — even those where suspected perpetrators, when caught, brush their intentions off as playful or ill-timed banter. Therefore, students need to know it is okay to come forward. Getting that information to an adult or school official is a critically important mitigation measure.

Planning and training

Knowing what to do in a crisis can be the difference between chaos and calm — or even life and death. As educator Margaret Spellings once said, “The midst of a crisis is not the time to start figuring out who ought to do what. At that moment, everyone involved should know the drill.”

Knowing what to do, then, should be part of a well-defined crisis response plan, with clear procedures to successfully manage and guide staff to resolving the crisis, minimizing its negative impact, and restoring the teaching and learning environment post-incident.

The National Association of School Psychologists extols a view that, “Overcoming such impediments requires school leaders to recognize that crisis preparedness is not an option, but an imperative.” Crisis planning should not compete with the district’s educational mission. It supports it. And, effective crisis response builds on prevention and engagement.

While most school districts have well-intentioned crisis response plans, too many have incomplete, overly burdensome, or cut-and-paste documents that are nothing more than dust-collecting bookends on an office shelf. Many lack the best thinking and practices of the local agencies that must collaborate and cooperate in an emerging situation.

Worse, school officials believe staff members are prepared to act when a real-world incident occurs. Leaders who believe common sense will prevail and staff will rise to the occasion are misguided.

The reality is that in high-stress, high-anxiety, high-fear events, cognitive function and manual dexterity are impacted in varying degrees. In short, the brain is searching for a “trigger” to tell the individual how to react. As humans, we default to what we know and are trained to do in these incidents. When school staff train and drill, they create the cultural condition to know what to do in a real-world crisis. This is what will save lives.

Truth is , school districts and campuses are better prepared to prevent school violence and to respond to school emergencies. Here’s the reality: Bad stuff happens. There is no guarantee that schools will be violence-free. And, while there are no easy solutions, there are intelligent alternatives to reduce the risks to life and property.

The one constant must be a commitment to improve and strengthen all aspects of crisis prevention, preparedness, response, and recovery plans.

About the author

Rick J. Kaufman, APR is the executive director of community relations and emergency management for Bloomington ( Minnesota) Public Schools. He is a nationally respected consultant and trainer on crisis management and communication. He served as the Crisis Response Team lead for the Columbine High School tragedy in 1999, and continues to work with school districts across the country to manage and recover from school violence incidents, including Broward County Public Schools and San Bernardino City Unified Public Schools. Kaufman can be reached at