In recent weeks, two very serious and disturbing plots to commit a mass shooting at school were disrupted. Two middle schoolers in Lee County, Florida were arrested for conspiracy to commit a mass shooting. Four high school students were arrested for conspiring to commit a mass casualty attack which was scheduled to occur on the 25th anniversary of the Columbine massacre. Although incredibly troubling, thankfully these plots were identified, and law enforcement agencies were able to prevent them from being put into action.

Physical and technical security features, emergency policies and procedures, and safety and security training are all critical elements needed to create safe and secure environment for your school. At SEC, we believe, though, one of the best ways schools can help prevent a targeted act of violence from occurring is to have in place a well-trained and well-structured threat assessment team. Having the ability to identify, assess, intervene, manage, and monitor the threats to your school is essential.

Since the late 1990’s, the Secret Service’s Nation Threat Assessment Center (NTAC) has been researching targeted acts of violence in schools. One of the significant findings coming from this research is that the large majority of the individuals who committed or attempted to commit these attacks did not just “snap.”  More commonly, they walked a path from having the idea to committing the act that took days, weeks, or even years to complete. While on this path, most exhibited identifiable behaviors of concern that were observable to at least one person. In many cases, they were observable to multiple people. If behaviors of concern can be identified and assessed, and if intervention strategies can be put in place, it can greatly reduce the likelihood of future students reaching the end of their path.  That is what an effective threat assessment team can do.

In 2018, NTAC published Enhancing school safety using a threat assessment model. An operational guide for preventing targeted school violence. This comprehensive resource provides detailed guidance on strategies schools can follow to create and sustain teams that will allow them to be able to assess threats related to their students, staff, and facility. The guide is broken up into the following eight steps:

  1. Establish a multidisciplinary threat assessment team
  2. Define prohibited and concerning behaviors
  3. Create a central reporting mechanism
  4. Determine the threshold for law enforcement intervention
  5. Establish assessment procedures
  6. Develop risk management options
  7. Create and promote safe school climates
  8. Conduct training for all stakeholders

If you are an administrator who is interested in creating or updating your threat assessment procedures, I encourage you to review this guide and visit the United States Secret Service website at www.secretservice.gov to access additional reports and guides NTAC has produced relating to targeted violence in schools. Additionally, if we, at SEC, can be of any assistance related to your school safety and security needs, please feel free to contact us at www.secureed.com.

Don’t view the completion of your security upgrade project as crossing the finish line.

Over the past few weeks, we have discussed some of the common missteps we see schools make when undertaking significant security upgrade projects. In our first post on this topic, we discussed our recommendation that schools avoid identifying security solutions before they have identified their security challenges. In the following post, we recommended that schools avoid employing a “one size fits all” approach to their security solutions. Unique challenges require unique solutions.

As we end this series of posts, our final guidance is this: Avoid viewing the completion of your security upgrade project as any type of finish line. Instead, we recommend you view the completion of your security upgrade project as a starting off point.

Although completing these projects are significant milestones, we recommend administrators immediately transition to identifying the additional follow-up actions that need to be taken to ensure your school receives the full benefit from these upgrades. We recommend asking yourself the following questions to help identity what those follow-up actions might be:

  • Are there any adjustments to operating or emergency procedures that need to be made?
  • Has an auditing and maintenance schedule been established for any new technology?
  • Is there any training that needs to be conducted for staff or students as a result of this project?

Unfortunately, we too often see excellent technical or physical design features being introduced into schools without them being aligned with effective policy and procedures or supported by training.  

Where we see this occur most commonly is in schools that have attempted to create secure entryways. 

Often, we will find that the entryways have all the necessary technical and physical components to allow for the effective, safe vetting of visitors into the school. But in many cases, all those components, specifically the intercom feature, are not being routinely utilized. As a result, all the resources that were expended to create a safe entryway went to creating an expensive doorbell. Without training on how to use the new feature or make changes to your operational procedures, you risk losing the benefit of that specific upgrade.  

The introduction of the “stuff” that comes along with security upgrade projects is not the endgame. 

The endgame only comes when the “stuff’ is paired with policy and procedures and training.

As always, safety is our top priority. If you would like more information, please reach out to us at [email protected]

A common mistake made when upgrading security systems is making one size fits all or cookie cutter upgrades to each of your schools. Each school is unique and therefore should receive unique solutions.

As always, safety is our top priority. If you would like more information, please reach out to us at [email protected]

SEC has had the privilege of working with hundreds of schools throughout the country to enhance their prevention and readiness strategies related to school safety and security. Some of the opportunities we find the most satisfying are ones we are allowed to be involved from the very beginning when a school is starting the process of developing and executing a plan associated with a significant security upgrade project. When these opportunities present themselves, one of the first things we recommend to our clients is they take the time to make sure they have a very clear understanding of their threat landscape, the risk priorities and tolerances, and their current vulnerability exposures.

At SEC, when we think about threats from a physical security perspective, we focus on the human, natural, or mechanical/structural things that have the potential to cause us harm.

  • Human – Assault, Robbery
  • Natural – Hurricane, Tornado
  • Mechanical/Structural – Gas Leak, Building Collapse
  • When we think about risk, we are assessing the likelihood of something bad occurring and the potential impact if it did occur. For example, active shooter events in schools are, statistically speaking, relatively rare occurrences, but we also know that when they do occur, they can be incredibly devasting.

    It is not only important to examine our clients’ risk profile, but also their risk tolerances as well. Many factors can impact risk tolerance, but the most common factors are budget, culture, and convenience. If a recommended security solution is too expensive, too cumbersome, or would result in a significant change to the school’s environment or operations, it is likely that solution will not be adopted or will be adopted in a way that results in the client not receiving the maximum benefit from the solution.

    Vulnerabilities are the gaps, weaknesses, or soft spots that can allow a threat to cause harm if it arises.

    These can be identified by doing a granular assessment of the school’s existing physical and technical design features and a thorough review of existing operating and emergency policy procedures.

    By taking the time to get a better understanding of your school’s unique threat landscape, risk profile, and vulnerability exposures, you will be ensuring that the decisions you make related to your safety and security upgrades will be both well informed and well prioritized.

    As always, safety is our top priority. If you would like more information, please reach out to us at [email protected].

    At SEC, we have been gratified to see so many of our educational partners be able to begin the process of returning to in-person instruction. Speaking with several of our clients, we have learned that they have recently had the good fortune to access additional financial resources through grants, bonds, and other mechanisms, allowing them to upgrade their safety and security-related assets.

    Many of these clients have expressed some uncertainty about the best way to make decisions on how to get the most value out of these resources and how to prioritize the order in which these safety and security upgrade projects are initiated. 

    One of the most common mistakes we see is decision-makers focusing on the safety and security solutions without first genuinely understanding their safety and security challenges. We often use the comparison of going to the pharmacist to get a prescription filled without having visited a doctor to see what your diagnosis is.

    Therefore, over the next several weeks, we will be guiding you on how to maximize the benefits of these additional resources and how to maintain the value of these other resources in the months and years to come. In doing so, we will focus on the following three areas:

    1. Understanding the differences between threat, vulnerability, and risk
      Although oftentimes used interchangeably, these three elements are unique. As a result, when identifying and addressing your safety and security needs, it is critically important to gain a clear understanding of your unique threat landscape, risk priorities and tolerances, and vulnerability exposures.

    2. Avoiding the pitfalls of taking a “cookie-cutter” or “one size fits all” approach
      The location of your school, the size of your school, and the age of your students are just some of the many factors that can contribute to your school’s unique threat, risk, and vulnerability profile. Because your profile is unique, common sense dictates that the solutions related to your profile should also be unique.

    3. Installation and initial implementation are NOT the finish line
      When a new safety and security resource is introduced into your school, staff members who will have a role in utilizing that resource must be properly trained on how to do so. Furthermore, suppose the introduction of the resource results in a need to develop new or update existing emergency procedures or operating policies. In that case, it is recommended this is completed prior to installation.

    We’re excited that the new school year is here, and that many institutions are returning to in-person learning. With that excitement comes some caution, as the new academic year can bring with it some new safety and security challenges. Please know that we are a resource that you can use to help with these challenges.

    As always, safety is our top priority. If you would like more information, please reach out to us at [email protected].

    In our most recent posts over the past few weeks, we have gone into additional detail relating to some of the fundamental concepts we cover during our Critical Incident Response Training (CIRT) course. So far, we have stressed the importance of obtaining both environmental awareness and situational awareness when in new and crowded places. The final fundamental concept we will be discussing is the importance of developing response options while you are in those environments.

    How do you develop effective response options? Very simply, it is taking that information you gathered during your initial environmental assessment and continue to monitor through your situational awareness efforts to answer the following question: “If this happened, what would I do”?

    We encourage you to run through some simple scenarios when asking yourself the “what would I do” questions. For example:

    • Where would I go If I needed to leave here in a hurry?
    • What could I grab if I needed to defend myself?
    • What is the best and closest location if I needed to find shelter?
    • What are the materials I could use to either cover or conceal myself?

    When answering these questions, we want you to visualize yourself carrying out the movements associated with each answer. For example, picture yourself moving to the nearest exit, then imagine yourself moving to a secondary exit. By doing this, you will not only have reinforced your knowledge of the location of these exits, but you will have also developed the appropriate response option if one of these two exits is inaccessible to you.

    This practice is commonly referred to as mental scripting. As we mentioned in one of the previous posts on this topic, critical thinking and decision-making can become very challenging during an extreme emergency. That is why, whenever possible, it is important to think and make decisions before an incident occurs. By visualizing yourself performing those actions associated with the answers to your “what if” questions, you will be providing your brain with a script that can be more easily accessed during the actual emergency.

    As we close out this topic, it is essential to remember that extensive training and years of experience are not the only factors that can successfully enhance your ability to navigate a critical incident. What we believe is equally, if not more, important is maintaining motivation to effectively respond and developing consistently good habits that will allow you to do so. If you believe it is possible, maybe not likely — but possible, to be exposed to a critical incident, you will probably be able to retain your motivation to stay prepared. This motivation will allow you to consistently practice good habits associated with the acquisition and maintenance of environmental and situational awareness and the development of effective response strategies.

    Running through test scenarios and asking yourself, “If this happened, what would I do?” is an excellent habit to get into, as this can be crucial in formulating a response to a critical incident.

    As always, safety is our top priority. If you would like more information, please reach out to us at [email protected].

    In our most recent post, we discussed the importance of obtaining environmental awareness to increase your capabilities to effectively navigate a critical incident which we teach in our Critical Incident Response Training (CIRT) sessions. At SEC, we believe it is equally important to develop consistency in maintaining an appropriate level of situational awareness. What’s the difference? For us, environmental awareness is having a solid understanding of the different elements, such as physical design features, of the environments in which you find yourself. Situational awareness is simply being aware of what is happening in and around these environments.


    For example, say you find yourself in a 10′ x 10′ room. The room has plain white walls. Its contents are limited to only a cot, a sink, and a simple chair. The walls are made of cinder block, and the only way in or out is through one door. The recognition of these elements is your environmental awareness. Shortly after your arrival into this room, the door opens, and another individual joins you. Nothing about the environmental elements of that room has changed due to the addition of another person. Still, your situation has changed dramatically because you are no longer alone. To help protect yourself in different scenarios, it is essential to develop and maintain an awareness of both the environments and the situations you are exposed to.

     

    We suggest thinking about the levels of situational awareness as if they were on a spectrum. On one end of the spectrum would be being oblivious. The opposite end of the spectrum would be being on high alert. Neither of these extremes is ideal. Being oblivious does not allow you to identify threats that have entered your environment. Continually being on high alert is unsustainable due to the physical and mental toll intense focus places on your body. When practicing situational awareness, if you can remain calm and relaxed while still being in tune with what is going on around you, you have probably landed on the right baseline level for you.

     

    When practicing situational awareness, it is also important to remember to trust your instincts. Most of us have experienced a sense of unease about a situation or person even though the data our senses are sending to our brain in the moment are not providing an obvious answer as to why. That sensory data you are processing in that particular moment is being compared to the sensory information you have collected and stored throughout your lifetime. When your subconscious self warns your conscious self, don’t ignore it, especially in situations that don’t allow further information gathering or deliberation.

     

    Finding the right point on the spectrum of situational awareness is crucial in achieving an excellent response to a critical incident. Be on the lookout for our next blog, covering the third topic of our Critical Incident Response Training (CIRT) sessions, Developing Response Options.

     

    As always, safety is our top priority. If you would like more information, please reach out to us at [email protected].

    One of the most important things we stress to our Critical Incident Response Training (CIRT) participants is the importance of having a solid understanding of the different elements of the environments in which they may find themselves. This is especially important when in crowded public spaces. Identifying and understanding the different strengths and weaknesses of these environments, from a vulnerability standpoint, can make you much more efficient and effective in navigating a critical incident should you find yourself experiencing one.

    Critical incidents, especially violent ones like mass shootings, can be very disorienting. Typically, people can easily process all the information our senses are sending to our brain when we are in calm and peaceful settings. In violent or chaotic scenarios, it can become very challenging to process the huge increase in information our senses are sending. The inability to process this sensory information is commonly referred to as sensory overload. Additionally, stressful and dangerous events can cause an elevation of the heart rates of the individuals that are nearby. Elevated hearts rates can negatively impact an individual’s decision-making capability.

    Someone who is both disoriented and has a diminished decision-making capacity is going to have a very difficult time making the right choices to protect him or herself during a violent incident. That is why it is so important to gain that environmental awareness. Knowing details about where you are can allow you the ability to remain at least partially oriented. 

    Asking yourself a few simple questions about your environment when things are calm and peaceful can assist in making the right choices if things become dangerous and chaotic.

    Getting a good awareness of your environment, as it relates to critical incident response, does not have to be an exhaustive process.  It can be as easy as asking yourself 4 to 5 basic questions such as:

    • Where are the exits near me? (Identifying at least 2-3 is preferable)
    • Where is the closest securable space to me? (Identifying 2-3 is preferable)
    • Are there any materials around me that I can utilize to quickly cover or conceal myself?
    • Are there any materials in close proximity I could utilize to help defend myself?
    • Where is the best place for me to go during a severe weather event?

    At SEC, we firmly believe that committing to making a habit of developing environmental awareness can potentially make a huge difference if you ever experience being part of a violent critical incident.

    The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) recently released a report analyzing all the active shooter events in the United States during 2020. The FBI defines an active shooter event “as one or more individuals actively engaged in killing or attempting to kill people in a populated area.” According to this report, 40 active shooter events occurred in 2020, which is the highest number in the past four years and is double the number that occurred in 2016.

    The Gun Violence Archive, a nonprofit research group, has cataloged every incident of gun violence in the United States since 2014. Their data indicates, to date, the United States is on pace to experience a higher number of mass shooting events in 2021 than in any of the past six years. They define a mass shooting as an incident when four or more people are shot or killed, excluding the shooter. At the time of this writing, the number of mass shootings that have occurred in this country is 20 percent higher than it was at the same time in 2020.

    Over the most recent 4th of July weekend, according to multiple media reports, at least 150 people died due to over 400 shootings across the country. In the city of Chicago alone, 108 people were shot, 17 of them fatally.

    Because these disheartening trends do not appear to be abating any time in the near future, over the next few weeks, we will be providing reminders of some of the fundamental concepts we emphasize during our Critical Incident Response Training (CIRT) sessions. Like the other topics we have recently covered in our most recent series of posts, we will focus on three main topics. The topics will include the following:

    1. Assessing Environments – The effectiveness of your critical incident response can be greatly enhanced by having a better understanding of both the strengths and weaknesses, from a vulnerability standpoint, of the environments in which you may find yourself. For example, taking the time to find at least some of the entrances and exits within proximity can improve your ability to evacuate from that area if efficient.
    2. Maintaining Situational Awareness – It is not only essential to getting a solid understanding of the elements of the environments in which you may find yourself, but it is equally important to have an appropriate level of focus on what is happening in those environments. Additionally, the process of obtaining situational awareness can begin long before you are actually in the situation. 
    3. Developing Response Options – Decision-making can become incredibly challenging during high-stress violent incidents. It is why it is essential, whenever possible, to develop response strategies before an incident occurs. By simply asking and answering questions about what you would do if certain situations occurred, you will be giving your brain a script that you will be better able to access and follow during an actual emergency incident.

    Be on the lookout for more details about these fundamental concepts in the next few weeks. As always, if you would like more information, please reach out to us at [email protected].

    Over the past few weeks, SEC has provided guidance on creating an effective crisis communications plan. We like to break down our crisis communication plans into three key elements. Thus far, we have covered the first two: the difference between an emergency and a crisis and the importance of how decisions made in the initial stages of a crisis can impact the outcome.

    The third critical element in crisis communications is the audience. This would include determining who the key audiences you need to communicate are, deciding on what they need to know, when they need to know it, who will be doing the communicating, and how it will be communicated. These audiences can usually be broken into two groups: internal and external. Although it may not be accurate in every situation, an advisable general rule of thumb is to start with internal audiences before moving to external ones. Ongoing crises that could impact public safety, though, such as a severe weather event or an active violence situation, are some examples in which external communications may take precedence.

    One of the most common mistakes organizations make in crisis communications is not including an audience group that should have been informed. This may not always be easy to determine, so it is essential to be deliberative when making those determinations. Excluding a key target audience often leads to anger, resentment, and mistrust and can result in a backlash that can exacerbate the crisis. You want to avoid receiving questions such as “why weren’t we informed earlier?” and “what are you trying to hide?”.

    When dealing with both internal and external audiences, it is essential to remember some fundamental concepts of crisis communications:

    • Who is going to speak, through what medium will they be speaking, and when are they going to say it? The who in this scenario could be a Public Affairs Specialist, Chief of Police, or School Superintendent. The next step would be to determine in which format this person will be communicating, whether it is through a press release, press conference, or an in-person, telephone, or televised interview. SEC recommends, when possible, speaking through a written statement. Written statements can be reviewed and edited by others and limit the opportunity for immediate follow-up questions.

    • What do you want the message to be? The content of the message is obviously the most important component of crisis communications. SEC recommends settling on 3 or 4 key points that you want to get across to the audience. It is important to, as much as possible, not expand on or stray from these main points, as this is when you can lose control of the message. If you cannot communicate something at a specific time, provide an explanation as to why. There could be a number of reasons as to why you would not be able to communicate something, such as the crisis is in its early stages and the information about it is evolving, the desire not to impact an ongoing investigation, privacy laws, or organizational policies. Also, remember it ok to say you do not know something if you do not. This will prevent you from speculating or providing inaccurate information.

    • Set expectations about how you are going communicate in the future. Whether it is committing to providing additional updates at predetermined times or when more accurate information is available, it is important to set expectations as to when you will be communicating further. Your initial communication may not be satisfying to all your targeted audiences because they want as much information as soon as possible. Often times, though, this dissatisfaction is unreasonable. Much like a child who is upset that they cannot have something or do something exactly when they want it, your audiences may experience similar anger or frustration because they are not receiving everything they want when they want it. But like with the child, letting them know when they might receive it and under what conditions can often help to diminish the anger and frustration they may be experiencing.

    • Highlight what you are committed to doing. Talk about your core values and how you have demonstrated in the past and will continue to demonstrate now and in the future your commitment to upholding these values. Continue to reiterate what your organizational priorities are. For example, if you are a school leader whose school has experienced a safety or security issue, a statement such as “Nothing is more important than the safety and security of our students and staff” would be appropriate. Finally, clearly explain what you will be doing moving forward. Describe your commitment to being as transparent as possible about explaining what happened, why it happened, and what you will be doing to ensure that it does not happen again.

    At SEC, we always emphasize trying to solve problems before they arise. You may not know when a crisis will occur, the exact nature of the crisis, or its impact, but there is a great deal you can do to be as well prepared as possible to mitigate its impact. As always, please feel free to reach out to us if we can be of assistance in fleshing out your crisis communication plan and please look for our additional posts on this topic as we will be providing additional guidance on crisis communication strategies.