What Architects and Administrators Need to Know about Building Safer Schools, Part 2: Human Behavior

January 26, 2023|Drew Deatherage, Allen Lawrence & Jason Keller

As we discussed in Part 1 of our series on what architects and administrators need to know about building safer schools, good architectural design can be a useful strategy for mitigating the potential for violence at schools. However, many of the risks that schools face are the result of human behavior.

After all, schools can feature the most sophisticated design and advanced technology in the world, but without training on or adherence to response protocols, those investments are worse than worthless. A lack of clear protocols and consistent training can be downright dangerous.

Below are four key areas where human behavior can create safer school environments.

1. Reliance on security and emergency operations plans 

An emergency operations plan (EOP) – also known as an emergency plan, emergency action plan, emergency response plan or crisis plan, – addresses threats and hazards specific to each school. It addresses safety needs before, during, and after an incident. And, in many states, it’s required by your school district.

However, even districts that do have an EOP in place don’t always update or train on this documentation regularly. When CRUX performs school security audits, we frequently find that staff does not know where to find their EOP binder. In other cases, those documents may no longer be applicable because they cite roles that no longer exist. Updating those EOPs on a regularly scheduled basis, and practicing what’s in it, is of paramount importance.

  • Resources you can use: EOPs can be aligned with the national approach to preparedness efforts. Presidential Policy Directive (PPD)-8 defines preparedness around five mission areas: Prevention, Protection, Mitigation, Response, and Recovery. Schools can take action on prevention, protection and mitigation activities before an incident occurs, although these three mission areas have ongoing activities that can occur throughout an incident. For more information about PPD-8, visit the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) Learn About Presidential Policy Directive-8 webpage.

2. Forming the right threat assessment team

A school threat assessment team analyzes communication and behaviors to determine whether a student, faculty or staff member, or other individual may pose a threat. The team should serve as a central convening body to ensure that warning signs observed by multiple people are reported and not dismissed as isolated incidents. This body can identify when these warning signs may represent escalating behavior that could present a serious concern. If a student is exhibiting a specific type of behavior, action can be taken ranging from counseling to a psychiatric follow-up outside of school.

Threat assessment team members should include school principals, counselors, employees, medical and mental health professionals, law enforcement personnel, and school resource officers (SROs), where applicable.

A particular challenge here is that not all schools or school districts have access to the mental health professionals who can support adolescents who may demonstrate these warning signs. It’s important to talk with your community partners and state Department of Education to identify resources in the event that action may be warranted.

  • Resources you can use: The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) provides a threat assessment document that can provide schools with useful guidance. The Secret Service provides an operational guide targeted towards conducting threat assessments in the school environment.

3. Consistent training for all staff on district and campus safety procedures

Training is critical for ensuring that best practices are followed. We see this training in action in the fire drills schools have been conducting for decades. More recently this has expanded, in accordance with more encompassing EOPs, to include action plans for various natural disasters as well as response to active shooters.

The challenge is that every school district faces its own specific threats, and may have its own way of responding to these threats. So, in areas with mobile populations of teachers and staff, people may bring familiar practices with them from other districts. These conflicting practices can send mixed signals to students and fellow staff members. Regular training on district- and school-specific safety protocols, as guided by the EOP, is critical for ensuring a timely, consistent response to any emerging threat.

  • Resources you can use: The “I Love U Guys” foundation offers “standard response protocols” for a range of emergencies that can impact a school campus. Standard response protocols utilize standardized terminology to help everyone better understand the conditions and the appropriate response. Studies have shown that standard response protocols enable rapid response determination during unforeseen events.

This national organization has created a foundation for crisis response programs that is in use at more than 30,000 schools, districts, departments, agencies, organizations and communities around the world.

4. Ensuring systems and hardware work at all times

In June 2022, Texas’ Governor Abbott told the state’s education commissioner that school districts should conduct weekly checks of exterior doors to ensure they lock. This is an excellent practice for ensuring exterior doors are secured and functioning properly. However, this practice is only effective in the event that faulty hardware is reported and repaired in a timely manner.

Schools should evaluate their work order process and prioritize the requests. How quickly are repairs typically made? What sort of follow-up processes are in place to verify that repairs are made? Streamlining the work order process using an electronic submission process may be a good first step toward speeding these repairs, but it remains critical to have a verification process in place.

  • Resource you can use: The Partner Alliance for Safer Schools (PASS) offers free guidelines to help school administrators in assessing and prioritizing their school security needs. This includes guidance around door hardware. These guidelines are supported by a checklist that can help determine where security best practices may need to be implemented.

Put sound security practices in place

Schools can’t automate their way to a safer environment. As much as we may want to rely on cameras and card readers and other sophisticated solutions, technology alone can’t solve the problem. While technology can be an effective complement to school security policies, it’s critical to have people who are trained on how to do the right things, at the right time.

Fortunately, there are organizations just as committed to improving school safety as you are. In addition to the resources noted above, CRUX works hard to help create safer environments for our communities. Contact us to learn more about how we can help your school.

Categories: blog, school safety