Physical security at schools has become one of the most talked-about elements in childhood education in recent years. With the tragic rise in high-profile school shootings, and the often underwhelming ability to keep students safe in an emergency, a national debate has unfolded around how we keep our nation’s children safe. As a former Secret Service agents, we have found that many of the same principals of security that apply to protecting the President of the United States apply to schools. When it comes to protecting important assets, there are common principals that guide us to success.

What Does Good Security Look Like?

The United States Secret Service trains its’ agents to become the greatest physical security practitioners on the planet. Many people who see Secret Service agents flanking the President know they are experts in responding to emergencies, but overlook what is happening behind the scenes. The Secret Service is above all else experts in preventing emergency situations from ever unfolding in the first place. A flawlessly run Secret Service operation means those agents next to the President never have to lift a finger. Agents spend weeks and months in advance of any event running site assessments and building security procedures, preparing locations to be as safe as possible. The Secret Service is equipped with the most sophisticated of tools, but the general principles for emergency prevention are basic and easily replicable at schools and other institutions around the country.  

School Evaluations from a Secret Service Agent’s Eye:

At SEC we have conducted site assessments to evaluate hundreds of schools and found two problems to be most common:

  1. Too narrow a focus on physical hardware
  2. Too much emphasis on reacting to an emergency

Too narrow a focus on physical hardware

Schools are investing in powerful tools to keep their students safe. From camera systems to doors with sophisticated locks, there are countless products on the market. Some schools worry that because they can’t afford the latest technology they are leaving their students at risk. We have found that when schools put too heavy of a focus on investing in hardware, they can lose sight of their most important tool – humans. Technology is only as good as the people and policies governing them. A fancy camera system streaming to an empty desk is not effective. A sophisticated buzzer for the front door is just a super expensive doorbell if a human doesn’t perform some type of vetting before buzzing each person inside. Without tapping into your human potential, you are not getting the most value. Moreover, it is people who are best at preventative security; identifying warning signs, designing powerful security policies, mentally scripting an emergency scenario and training for the worst. People are you most powerful assets; invest in them before investing in technology. 

Too much emphasis on reacting to an emergency

The focus here is on “react.” The most effective security programs focus on identifying threats before they are threats and building policies to catch issues as early as possible. We can compare building your security plan to building a house. You could build your house with tinder and stock it with fire extinguishers to quell the inevitable fires, or you could build your house with concrete from the outset to make it more indestructible. Create your security plan with concrete, not tinder. Focus your efforts on preventing crises, not reacting to them. Good safety programs incorporate humans and technology, and start with robust, preventative policies and procedures. 

Treat Every Child Like the President

Our philosophy is to give the same consideration to our children as we do the President. This means taking lessons from the Secret Service and reinterpreting them for a school setting. By being prepared with security plans and putting special emphasis on human integration with physical security features, you can create a safe environment for your students. In the words of one of our former protectees, President Dwight D. Eisenhower, “Plans mean nothing, but planning is everything.”

Secret Services professionals spend far more time preparing for threats than responding to them. They are vigilant about seeking out and mitigating potential threats before they rise to a level where they pose an actual danger to those around them. As such, they are always on alert for individuals who pose a threat. An individual doesn’t have to make a threat to be a threat. Most individuals who commit acts of violence display warning signs before they commit their acts of violence. With a trained eye, it is possible to detect and respond to warning signs that may indicate an individual poses a threat. 

When we look back at individuals that have committed targeted acts of violence, we can often identify warning signs. Someone may have been noted to be going through extreme stress, have a history of not getting along well with others, or even known access to guns or other weapons. By paying attention to individuals who are exhibiting threatening behavior, you are acting proactively rather than waiting for something extreme to happen and reacting. Behaviors to watch for include:

  • Discussions on previous shootings/mass attacks
    • Empathy for an attacker
    • Sophistication/obsession with attacks
  • Veiled threats
    • “Everyone here is going to pay”
    • Words that indicate there could be a threat
    • “Don’t show up to work tomorrow”
    • “One of these days…”
  • Stalking
  • Weapons knowledge
  • Change in behavior
    • Becoming more isolated
    • Angry/political statements, easy to set off
    • Grooming changes 

Warning signs should be taken seriously and reported. Schools can act proactively by reaching out to those at risk and attempting to mitigate the situation. Schools should take warning signs seriously and create an environment that makes it easy for anonymous bystanders to report suspicious behavior. Counselors, Employee Assistance Programs, Annonymous reporting, and Threat Training can all play a role in keeping an eye out for violence.

A threat actor starts small and walks the path to violence. Proactivity can identify at-risk individuals and help move them off the path, onto another path of peace.

“Too traumatizing.” “Too intense.” “Too unlikely to be necessary.” As lockdown and active shooter trainings become more commonplace in schools, we hear pushback from some parents and communities. Are lockdown drills really necessary? Are options-based trainings where participants are taught to secure, escape and confront really necessary? At SEC, we believe both trainings are vital to the safety of the school, and can be conducted in a safe and benign way that assuages many of the concerns commonly associated with the training.

What Drills Are We Talking About?

Two of the more controversial trainings are lockdown drills and options-based trainings. Lockdown drills prepare for a situation when the threat is outside of the building. In a lockdown, you secure the perimeter by locking and barricading doors and windows. Options-based trainings prepare for when the threat has made it inside the building. Your options are to secure yourself in a safe place by hiding, escape the building by running, or in a worst-case scenario, defending yourself by fighting and confronting the threat.

Why the Controversy?

Some parents, teachers and community members have expressed concern that students will experience unnecessary trauma by participating in the drills. They argue that the threat is so unlikely that the emotional cost of participation in the drill does not outweigh the potential benefits of the practice. After all, the emergencies they train for are infrequent. 

There have been some examples where drills are taken to the extreme. We hear stories about schools that use projectiles to simulate gun violence or don’t announce that a drill is being conducted in advance, leaving the school under the impression the threat is real. We agree that these situations can cause undue stress for teachers and staff.

There are appropriate ways to conduct the trainings that will inform, but not traumatize, for both lockdowns and internal threats. It is important to know how to respond to threats located both inside and outside your building and we cover both in our teacher trainings.

Our Recommendation

SEC operates by training school teachers and staff, empowering them to pass on the information to their students how they see fit. Teachers understand their own classroom and are best able to adapt the lesson to the age and maturity of their students. We do conduct lockdown drills with teachers. We also conduct an active shooter scenario with teachers where they are able to practice the “Secure, Escape, Confront,” method. Our simulation is benign – there is no blood, gore or projectiles. We never conduct our active shooter simulations when there are students in the building.

We know teachers know their students best and leave the training specifics to their discretion, but we do pass on a few general recommendations. We recommend every student participate in lockdown drills. All students can benefit from practicing walking to the designated lockdown area and remaining quiet. We do not recommend any additional simulation elements are used to make the experience seem realistic, and we encourage that all drills be announced in advance.

While lockdown drills prepare for external threats, we recommend using the lockdown drill to discuss with students a plan of action for the event of internal threats. Rather than exposing students to a simulation, teachers can describe the plan of action (Secure, Evacuate or Confront) in the event of an internal threat. Teachers can tailor the students to their specific students.

The value of the training is immense. In the Secret Service, we preached that you don’t “rise to the occasion” in an emergency, but rather “sink to your level of training.” In emergencies, fine motor skills and the ability to do any sort of high-order thinking or decision making go out the window. Having preexisting knowledge of what to do in a situation — that is automatic and rapid — saves lives. Every second counts and wrong decisions can be costly. Those who perform best are the once who have mentally scripted a scenario, participated in trainings, and have playbook already in their heads. 

When conducted in an uninstructive, safe and informational manner, the cost of trauma disappears and the benefits of the drill are plentiful. Drills can empower students, teachers and communities and SEC encourages all schools. For more information about our training, please email us at [email protected]