Design and technology can only do so much, experts note. The human factor always plays a significant role, which means that people—faculty, staff, and students—must be educated about security issues, including everything from threat assessment to response.
Unfortunately, it may take a tragedy for schools to emphasize training. “We wait until we feel some pain. So training is not happening much. We don’t have the time to do it, and there are not a lot of great trainers,” says Timm.
Training must be inclusive. For awhile after Columbine, schools were focusing on training teachers and administrators on how to react to a threat. However, the training should reach beyond those personnel to include substitutes, staff, and students. For example, a janitor might see threats on a bathroom wall. Instead of just cleaning up the graffiti, that staff member must understand the importance of documenting and reporting the incident.
What schools need to do is train personnel to spot behaviors that might lead to incidents, says Dorn. Nicoletti, agrees. He advises schools to take every threat seriously, because, particularly in violent incidents, students often provide signs before they strike.
Schools should be aware of the ways in which students may send signals of impending issues, such as via the Web sites Facebook and YouTube.
Nicoletti says that schools have improved at picking up on signs of potential behavior and violence issues. But, he notes, “One of the mistakes schools and companies make is they start focusing on mental illness and those types of things. And that doesn’t correlate with violence because there are many mentally ill people who don’t become violent. So if schools start looking for depressed people and loners, that’s the wrong thing to do.”
Instead, Nicoletti advises that schools look for the threat-making “and what we call practice sessions, developing a hit list and dehumanizing their target. Those have the highest predictability.”
Ellis says Fairfax County has had its administrators and psychologists go through a comprehensive threat assessment program to pick up on student threats. And Linda Watson, of security consulting group Whirlaway Group LLC, advocates having teachers complete threat assessment programs.
Another aspect of training is ensuring that all the school members are on board with security plans. For example, if a school wants a closed campus, students and staff have to know that it’s unacceptable to prop open doors. Additionally, everyone must be trained in what do to if they see someone they believe does not belong on campus; there has to be an accepted protocol for how to ask the person who they are and for funneling people to the front door rather than letting them in the side doors.
Once intruders know they are being monitored or once they have been approached and questioned, they are less likely to stick around and commit a crime, according to experts.
Weicker says that something schools have to get away from is their tendency to be appeasers. He says that any incident should be reported to law enforcement or school authorities, because violent behavior is typically not the first offense. Reporting these earlier, seemingly small, incidents can provide signals of more significant impending problems.
Schools must also work to establish trust among students, faculty, and school resource officers to whom students can report concerns. In many situations, students are the first ones to know what is going to happen. Nicoletti recommends “safe to tell” types of programs through which students can be confident that they won’t get in trouble or be disregarded by authority figures.
Peter Pochowski, executive director of the National Association for School Safety and Law Enforcement Officers (NASSLEO), agrees. “If you get your kids and your staff accepting that safety in a school is everybody’s responsibility all the time, not just the adults, the kids will pick up information. They want to be safe.
They hear things that are going to happen,” says Pochowski, adding, “We’ve got study after study that showed that practically every one of the school shooting incidents, somebody knew about it before it happened. And in some cases, kids came forward and stopped it by reporting it to adults. So one of the most important factors in keeping a school safe is that your staff is approachable.”
There are several incarnations of these programs, including anonymous tip lines and peer-to-peer programs.