Our children are priceless. There’s literally nothing most parents won’t do to ensure their health and safety. Mitigating risks to your kids and grandkids should be high on your priority list. This includes the time they spend at school. After all, while schools remain largely safe across America, nobody wants their kids’ school to become the next Uvalde or Marjory Stoneman-Douglas.
At the same time, a lot of folks don’t know what to look for in terms of good safety and security practices at school. Other parents have concerns about how to raise those questions without looking like a crackpot…or worse.
About the time I wrote “It’s time to hold your school officials accountable for security” a couple of months ago, I did my own “holding them accountable” as my twin boys started pre-K this year. I’m sharing this to help provide readers with a template that worked well in my case. Your district might be a different story.
My trail began with a short email to my kids’ principal. I asked for a sit-down to talk about security policies and procedures, “to make sure security here is a little deeper than locked doors and a subscription to the RAPTOR program.” RAPTOR provides a service to scan and track visitors as well as screening for sex offenders and non-custodial parents.
I invited others, including a school resource officer, to sit in with us.
The principal punted it to the district’s Director of Safety and Security, Rich Hirsch. On one hand, learning that our schools had a “Director of Safety and Security” impressed me. On the other hand, I’m old enough to know that bureaucracies sometimes have glorified paper pushers in important positions.
Instead of a bureaucrat, though, I found a retired cop with over a decade’s experience as a school resource officer in the Bloomington, Illinois schools. He lives and breathes his work. Like me, he’s a training junkie, always learning new skills and techniques.
As a cop, he’s worn many hats from K-9 cop to SRO. He’s also an instructor in best practices countering “active shooters.”
In our first phone call, we talked for easily half an hour, sharing some laughs and stories. We quickly found ourselves singing from the same hymnal.
He’s a go-getter, almost obsessed with school security and I learned why. Years ago, when he worked as an SRO, he got a call of “shots fired, unknown injuries” at his own kids’ high school.
“My mind sort of went blank as my training took over. I didn’t know if my kid was alive or dead,” he told me in that first phone call. They didn’t set up a perimeter, a la Stoneman-Douglas or Uvalde. They charged in with rifles, intent on taking out the bad guy with a gun.
Fortunately, a courageous teacher saw an opportunity after the first few “warm-up shots” and took down the would-be spree killer before anyone was hit, not too long before police arrived.
Fast forward a few weeks: Everyone I’ve met in the schools since that initial conversation has nothing but rave reviews for the guy. So I invited him to speak at a Guns Save Life meeting to help educate people on doing cursory evaluations, as lay people, of their kids’ schools.
Mr. Hirsch cheerfully accepted the invitation and the crowd of close to one hundred loved the presentation.
He began by introducing himself and explained how the incident of shots fired at his son’s school was a turning point in his career. He went from a conscientious SRO to a hard-charger, obsessed with learning all he could about active shooter response along with the best practices for securing schools to prevent future incidents and attacks.
He admits that not every district is like Bloomington’s. The SROs working in “his” schools aren’t “retired, on duty.” Far from it. Instead, they’re hard-charging SWAT officers who train folks both formally and informally on how to counter active killers. Hirsch contrasted them with school resource cops who don’t take the job seriously.
Even worse than that, some districts such as one just an hour down the road in Champaign (home of the University of Illinois) have actually paused their SRO programs because of a shortage of officers in the local department.
That’s right, Champaign, a city about six times larger than Uvalde, has no officers in its schools now. Suffice it to say I’m very pleased I moved to Bloomington from Champaign.
Rich indicated how he works every day to inculcate his enthusiasm for safety and security to teachers and staff. He encourages them to trust their instincts and to report anything suspicious. “If you see something, tell someone!”
As a former SRO and in his new position, he sang the praises of these police officers in the schools. He touted the relationships good ones build with the students as a friend, role model, and oftentimes a father figure to many.
As for meeting his “long lost brother” in some guy by the name of Boch, now a parent of a couple of District 87 students, Hirsch said he welcomes a responsible good guy outside that school during dismissal time. “Thank God he’s there,” Rich said.
He admitted that a vulnerability, shared by so many school districts, involves buses. Especially buses full of kids. He’s working on providing some training for bus drivers in mitigating risks and reacting to an attempted attack on a bus or an attempted abduction.
Parents’ & Grandparents’ role: How to approach school administrators
As part of his presentation, he discussed how parents and grandparents can do their own evaluation of security where their kids and/or grandkids attend school. The number one thing to look for: are all of the entrances locked?
Locked exterior doors with controlled access is the single best way to protect kids in schools.
Go early and watch the little things before school or at dismissal time. Little things add up to make a big difference. If you see doors propped open or unlocked, contact the school administration.
Look for other obvious security failings like allowing random people free access to school buildings, perhaps through service doors (especially if those walking in can carry things like backpacks, or containers that a long gun would fit in). Contact the school administration right away to remedy these issues. Ditto if you observe suspicious behavior. Be polite and courteous, but make the call.
If the school administration isn’t responsive, contact the superintendent. Explain what’s going on and ask for a sit-down meeting with our without your principal.
If that fails, visit the school board and talk at the public comments period. If done tactfully and respectfully, that will sometimes spur action.
After all, school shootings and mass casualty incidents are on everyone’s mind right now. No sane school district administrator is going to risk the publicity and potential liability of ignoring requests for security shortcomings to be remedied.
Locally, Hirsch says some of the things they do include parking a police squad car in a prominent location outside the junior high and high schools. They also have conspicuous signs saying that armed police are present, along with overt, easy-to-spot cameras.
Entry is limited to a single location with an intercom system for entry and, of course, self-locking doors. They also screen visitors against sex offender databases using RAPTOR.
Even if you visit your kids’ school and don’t see shortcomings, you can still contact the school principal with some proactive questions about the protocols and policies in effect. Ask for a meeting to discuss them. If nothing else, it will let them know that at least some parents are watching and engaged.
Here are some questions you can ask ahead of your meeting, so they have an idea of what you’re looking for and so they can prepare accordingly. And yes, you get to “grade” their responses.
1. Has our school ever had a vulnerability assessment done?
2. Does our school work with local law enforcement and emergency responders in crisis planning and training? How recently?
3. When was our emergency operations/crisis management plan last reviewed?
4. What types of drills are conducted at our school and at what frequency?
5. Are all exterior doors of our school locked during instructional hours? Are classroom doors locked during instructional hours?
6. Are all visitors to our school required to check in with the main office?
7. Are students and staff trained on how to identify and report suspicious or concerning behaviors/comments?
8. Does our school have a behavioral threat assessment team?
9. If there is an emergency, how and when are parents notified?
10. Do we have designated security personnel assigned to our school? If so, are they armed/unarmed?
11. Do our bus drivers have training on what to do in emergencies, including active shooter incidents or attempted abductions?
12. This one is state-dependent: In more and more states (but certainly not Illinois), schools allow for armed staff members. If your state allows it, you might also ask about whether the school district permits armed staff to carry. (Uvalde Schools, for instance, still has a “no guns” policy despite Texas law allowing armed school staffers to carry.)
If your local schools don’t have an SRO, advocate for one to the administrators, the school board, and local government.
By the same token, if your kids’ school has a school resource officer who isn’t proactive, or has one foot out the door waiting for retirement, contact the police chief and have a meeting to share your concerns.
Believe it or not, there are still schools that don’t secure entrances during school hours. Or they have other vulnerabilities that could be remedied for next to nothing in terms of expenditures.
Safety and security protocols work in real life
Taking steps to mitigate risks isn’t some untested theory. They make a difference and they work. In fact, earlier this school year, a shooting at a St. Louis high school showed how taking security seriously and best practices greatly mitigates threats. And in a worst-case scenario, they limited the carnage.
From CBS News . . .
A woman and a teenage girl were killed Monday morning in a shooting inside a St. Louis high school, authorities said. The gunman was also killed in the shooting, police said, and six others were taken to hospitals with injuries…
Schools Superintendent Kelvin Adams said seven security guards were in the school at the time, each at an entry point of the locked building. One of the guards noticed the man was trying to get in at a locked door, but couldn’t. The guard notified school officials and ensured that police were contacted, Sack said.
“It was that timely response by that security officer, the fact that the door did cause pause for the suspect, that bought us some time,” Sack said.
Evaluate your kids’ school for obvious vulnerabilities. Contact school administrators if you see vulnerabilities or deficiencies. In fact, contact them even if you don’t see any problems to get a good handle on how serious they take safety and security. Let them know it’s important to you and that you’re paying attention.
Because once again, one of the lives you save might be that of your own son or daughter.