School safety post-Sandy Hook: Focus on “How?,” not on “Wow!”
More than nine months have passed since the December 14, 2012, school shooting attack upon Sandy Hook Elementary School in the Newtown, Connecticut, school district where 20 children and 6 school staff members were left dead.
The horrific nature of the attack upon our youngest and most vulnerable children — elementary students — served as a punch in the gut for parents and educators worldwide.
In the months following the Sandy Hook shootings, many educators, parents, media and others have been searching for the “Wow!,” but not focusing on the “How?,” as they grasp for an understanding of how to address school security and emergency preparedness in preK-12 school settings.
Some of the extreme, questionable and even alarming “Wow!” approaches proposed by some to improve school security and readiness for emergencies have included:
- Bulletproof backpacks for students;
- Bulletproof whiteboards for teachers;
- School active shooter kits containing stun guns, pepper spray, hatchets, escape ladders, smoke grenades, strobe lights, glaring alarms, and more;
- Arming principals teachers, custodians and other support staff with guns; and
- Teaching students to throw things at, and to attack, armed gunmen — even to the point of telling elementary school children to bring soup cans to school to keep in their desks to throw at gunmen,
People are understandably still emotionally raw from Sandy Hook. Some will jump to these and other extreme, knee-jerk responses that provide an emotional security blanket. But unfortunately, such measures fail to provide the real security blanket they are so desperately seeking.
We understand how some educators, parents and even first responders may feel they need to “do something different” since they were employing many positive, similar school safety measures as those at Sandy Hook where a massive number of lives were still taken on December 14, 2012. But “doing something different” for the sake of doing something different, and doing something that makes one “feel” safer but may not actually make them truly safer, can be risky.
There is no doubt, for example, that the previously listed “Wow!” approaches (bulletproof backpacks and whiteboards, teaching kids to attack gunmen, etc.) may make people feel more “empowered” than they felt prior to Sandy Hook. But when you shift the conversation to a discussion of “implementation” of those ideas, it does not take long for most people who understand preK-12 school climate, culture, operations and school-community relations to see that these ideas may be well-intended, but they are not well thought-out.
- If a child truly needs a bulletproof backpack, shouldn’t he/she also be equipped with a bulletproof frontpack, an armored helmet and a Captain America-style shield?
- Can 26 children in a classroom really line up quickly behind a teacher who must precisely hold an 18-inch by 20-inch bulletproof whiteboard so as to deflect a series of bullets to protect them all from being shot?
- When a group of sixth-graders “swarm” (translated: attack) an armed gunmen, what happens when the gunmen is strapped with explosives? How can a school administrator allow the teaching of students in a 45-minute or less session to throw things at, and to attack, armed gunman without a thorough evaluation of the implications of age and developmental issues, special needs children (emotional and behavioral disorders, autistic children, medically fragile students, those who are mobility impaired, etc.), and other practicalities of a child-centered facility? Should this model not be first reviewed and approved under Individual Education Plans (IEPs) for special needs children? Are you willing as a school principal, superintendent and school board member to accept the responsibility, liability and destruction of your credibility with parents for training students in a matter of a few minutes for what police train their entire career to do and still make life costing errors?
and the list goes on — a list which includes high-risk propositions that could give students, teachers and school support staff a false sense of security and put them at a greater risk of harm.
Following any school shooting, there will always be well-intended people who propose new, but questionable, ideas. There will be well-intended vendors with products to sell, along with many opportunists who have dollar signs in their eyes when they look at every school. And there will be consultants who will talk out of both sides of their mouths on hot-button issues such as arming teachers, stretch their own credibility and self-worth to remotely align themselves with what is going on in Connecticut even if they only worked somewhere else in the state, or reinvent their professional beliefs in pursuit of the almighty dollar.
Having a framework in mind for avoiding knee-jerk reactions and emotional-driven errors, tomorrow we will begin a deeper look at the proven prevention, preparedness, response and communications best practices for school safety. Proven, tested methods that work when implemented will truly empower school leaders to take action that makes their schools safer, better prepared and well-positioned for meaningful school-community communications on safety and crisis issues.
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