Create an Enhanced and Intensive Focus on Improved Student Supervision

One of the most prevalent themes in successful school safety litigation involves safety and security incidents that take place because students are not being properly supervised.  Improving student supervision can often be easily accomplished and does not involve significant fiscal expenditures. One Safe Havens client school district achieved a more than a 50% reduction in expulsions and suspensions by using Geographic Information System (GIS) student surveys to make modifications in student supervision practices.  By moving personnel to “hot spots” identified by students in the site based surveys, a dramatic reduction in illicit student behaviors was achieved.

Because one of the most common types of school weapons assaults occur in relation to triggering behaviors such as fights, basic student supervision is important.  Enhanced student supervision can reduce the number of these types of incidents while also reducing the chances that serious injury or death will occur due to accidents and medical emergencies.  Improved student supervision also magnifies the ability of school staff to implement life-saving protective actions like lock-downs and reverse evacuations. 


Improve the ability of Staff to Address Common Medical Emergencies

While media reports focus intently on school shootings deaths from school shootings are actually extremely rare in the United States.  In fact, violence has never been a leading cause of death in American K12 schools.   Research shows that school-related murders typically make up less than 2% of all homicides among young people.  In reality, medical emergencies and accidents are statistically far more common causes of death.  While every school has the potential for mass casualty violence which must be taken seriously, the ability of school employees to quickly and effectively respond to situations relating to more common emergencies such as sudden heart stoppage or anaphylactic shock due to an allergic reaction to an insect sting or food allergy is also critical to life safety.

While medical emergencies do not involve the public outcry and media attention that is garnered by rare but catastrophic school shootings, in reality these types of situations claim more lives each year.  While most schoolteachers will never have a shooting in their school during their career, they will almost certainly encounter medical emergencies.  

Improving student supervision increases the chances that a child experiencing a life-threatening medical emergency will be detected and acted upon more rapidly.  Training on common life-threatening medical emergencies will improve the chances that a staff member who encounters a medical emergency will know what to do.  Of extreme importance in these situations are realistic training and drills which help staff learn and practice making life-saving decisions and effective rapid communications that can increase the survivability rate because critical emergency medical care will be provided in time.


Develop a Positive Connection between Staff and Students

While often thought of as beneficial in other ways, positive connections between staff and students have been demonstrated to improve school safety.  There are a number of proven strategies to help improve connectivity.  These include research-based approaches to student behavior management and physical adjustments like Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design (CPTED).      CPTED uses simple approaches to building planning, design, and use to make people safer from victimization and injury while also making people actually feel safer and more comfortable. The best results in an educational facility can be achieved by combining these design concepts with appropriate staff interaction with students and interaction with the building by all occupants.


Create a Greater Sense of Employee Empowerment

There are numerous instances of death from school crisis events that have been successfully averted because a school custodian, teacher, food service worker, secretary, or administrator did not hesitate to act and felt empowered to take immediate action.  Having emergency plans with specific components for each job role is one way of specifically empowering each employee to act during a crisis. While media reports naturally tend to focus intently on tragedies, there are numerous safety incidents that are prevented each school day.  For example, one school district in Georgia has successfully averted seven planned school shooting incidents involving gang members, as well as one planned bombing of a middle school and a double-suicide plot involving two high school students.  This district has also successfully stopped five different men and women who came to elementary schools with loaded guns intending to kill someone, or abduct a student by force.  Though it is a large school district in a high crime community this district is the only school system of its size in the state that has never had a student shot on school property.


Improve Natural Access Control

Designs that control access through a building by channeling visitors through areas where they can be observed by staff are part of what is referred to as natural access control.  School office designs that channel visitors through the main office are a common example.  Natural access control can reduce the chances that someone who plans to commit a crime or policy violation will attempt or be able to breach the security of an area.  For example, a non-custodial parent who plans to abduct a child from school may be deterred because they are unable to sneak past the office into the school to find the child. Natural access control measures also increase the ease of detecting illicit behaviors and effectively responding to them.



Improve Natural Surveillance

Increasing the ability for people to see and be seen by others is called natural surveillance.  Most people who are covertly violating laws and rules seek privacy and attempt to blend in as they engage in, or prepare for, their activities.  Efforts to open up lines of sight in and around schools can make it easier for staff and students to spot someone who is about to commit a crime or policy violation.  For example, by simply tipping the window shades in a classroom window so students and staff can see a suspicious person who is outside the school, the opportunity to identify a dangerous person in time to take action is increased. It is also very important for school employees to understand that offenders are often deterred by good natural surveillance.


Improve Territoriality in the School Environment

Creating a sense of ownership among students, staff, and the community is a CPTED concept known as territoriality.  Improved territoriality in schools can be achieved on the campus through the use of signage, landscaping, and fencing to indicate what is school property and what is not. Territoriality also sets the tone for what is acceptable behavior.

On the inside of the school  building, territoriality is commonly achieved through measures that tie legitimate building occupants to the school through murals, artwork, color schemes, and a variety of building design features. While it is very rare to see a school that does not have some good examples of positive territoriality in the form of student artwork, most schools have opportunities to improve in this area.  Positive territoriality in stairwells and student restrooms, as well as in hallways, cafeterias, and classrooms, is desirable. In the example on the left, students designed and painted a mural highlighting the unique learning programs at the school.

A valid concern of many students, staff, and parents is the fear of creating a prison-like environment in the school and making it less inviting through enhanced security measures.  Improvements in positive territoriality not only make students, staff, and parents more comfortable and connected, but can also help to reduce the negative perceptions sometimes associated with school security technologies such as security cameras and buzzer access systems.  Many schools with intensive security approaches feel welcome and warm because of significant efforts to treat people politely, combined with excellent territoriality.  In school safety, sometimes the culture of how things are done can be as important as what is done to make people safer.  Positive territoriality combined with respectful staff interaction can help to prevent what would otherwise seem to be a prison-like environment.


Reduce the Presence of Targeting Indicators  

The average school employee or parent is not aware that aggressors sometimes attempt to locate and kill or abduct victims in the school setting using what we refer to as target identifiers.  Target identifiers take a variety of forms and can help a dangerous person quickly determine the location of an intended victim.  The most common examples seen in schools include teacher's name on their classroom door, student names and/or photographs posted outside the classroom, and parking signs that clearly indicate the title of the person who parks in this location.  While positive territoriality is desirable, staff and students have been victimized in schools because aggressors have been able to locate them when target identifiers are in place.


Prevent Gravity Hazards

While serious injuries and deaths from gravity hazards in schools rarely garner significant media coverage, they do result in tremendous suffering.  For example 2013, a six year old child was killed when she climbed on a unsecured bookshelf in her Virginia classroom.  The bookshelf fell over killing the child in front of her classmates.  Like the majority of these types of incidents, the event was not reported in the national news because only one child died.  These types of easily preventable school safety incidents often result in successful litigation against school employees and their organizations. 



Add Important Life Saving Emergency Protocols to Crisis Plans

While many schools have focused on fire evacuation and lock down protocols, there are other life-saving emergency protocols that should be developed, trained, drilled, and evaluated.  Three particularly important functional protocols that many schools lack are reverse evacuation, sheltering in place for hazardous materials incidents, and the room clear procedure. These simple yet important functional protocols should be considered for a well-rounded approach to school crisis preparedness.




Increase the Focus on the First Thirty Seconds of a School Crisis Event


Upon review of seven active shooter incidents in U.S. and Canadian K12 schools and hundreds of other school crisis
events, combined with more than five thousand one-on-one controlled crisis simulations by Safe Havens analysts, we
have noted the critical importance of seeing that all school employees are trained, drilled, and empowered to take
immediate life-saving action in the first critical seconds of an emergency. More than 100 students and staff have died
in situations where school personnel did not take immediate actions in life and death situations because no supervisor
was present to give a “go ahead” and direct their actions.

Though many people assume school employees will know what to do, or that an administrator will be able to direct
staff to perform life-saving actions, actual incidents have proven these to be deadly assumptions. In many situations,
the untrained actions, or inaction by the first staff member to become aware of a life-threatening emergency have
resulted in loss of lives or in the prevention of death. Plans, training, and drills that are structured to prepare all
employees to take immediate action to protect themselves and others, as well as to communicate the presence of
danger to others, are of vital importance.


Use a Wider Array of Emergency Drills and Request that the Fire Service, Law Enforcement as well as Emergency Management Personnel to Observe Drills

Many schools focus primarily on fire drills and lock-down  drills, but there is considerable research to indicate that conducting a wider array of different types of emergency drills will better prepare students and staff to survive actual crisis situations of any type they might encounter. The human brain has an amazing ability to function rapidly when people are properly prepared.  Extensive research performed by Dr. Gary Klein shows that people who have a wide base of knowledge can rapidly adapt to high stakes situations through proper experience and training with a clear understanding of how the mind works under stress. Conducting a variety of types of drills can increase the ability of students and staff to react to any given situation rather than relying on them to instantly know what to do in situations they have not  practiced. 


Carefully Evaluate how well Staff are able to Communication During an Emergency Situation

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Effective emergency communications involves appropriate technologies, such as internal and external public address systems, duress buttons, and portable radios.  However, it is just as important to prepare all school employees to utilize these communications tools properly and rapidly while under the extreme stress and time pressure of an actual event.  Conducting surveys of staff to identify gaps in communications and addressing these gaps by providing staff development on effective emergency communications can truly make the difference between life and death.  Local public safety personnel can often help school officials learn how to communicate on school radios more effectively.


Resist the Urge to Focus Intensively on Active Shooter Incidents


Research show that a total of 50 students and 12 school employees were murdered in active shooter events on K12 school campuses between 1998 and 2012.  For contrast, a careful comparison reveals that a single attack using fire as a weapon in 1958 killed 95 people – more than all of the active shooter incidents in the past fifteen years combined. The 1958 arson fire attack at the Our Lady of Angels Sacred Hearts School killed 92 students and 3 staff members. We can gain additional perspective by considering that the National School Safety Center reports 232 violent school deaths on U.S. K12 school campuses from the years of 1998 to 2010, indicating

that active shooter events are not the leading cause of violent school death in America. 


Carefully Consider ways to Improve Preparedness for Medical Emergencies


Common medical emergencies such as heart stoppages, choking, allergic reactions, and asthma attacks are among the most common causes of death for students and staff at American K12 schools.  This means that school officials should thoughtfully consider how staff are prepared for these life and death situations through training and equipment. Items such as Epipens, clotting bandages, and a functioning AED (Automated Electronic Defibrillator) are much more logical to have on-site and accessible in the event of an emergency than

plans or equipment that are designed specifically and solely for active shooter events.


Conduct an Annual School Safety, Security, Climate, Culture and Emergency Preparedness Assessment in Cooperation with Local Law Enforcement, Fire Service and Emergency Management Personnel.

One valuable tool that can help school officials identify and more effectively address risk is to conduct an annual school safety, security, climate, culture, and emergency preparedness assessment with the assistance of area public safety officials.  While school safety consultants can be of assistance when school officials have adequate funding, many school systems and non-public schools lack funding to pay for these types of assessments on an annual basis.  A number of school districts in Maine and around the nation have had good success in conducting their own school safety assessments by partnering with local public safety officials.  These types of assessments will be more effective when representatives from law enforcement, fire service, and emergency management are on hand to assist.  Practitioners from each of these disciplines look at schools in different ways.

 Past events demonstrate that reliance solely upon officials from one discipline is less effective than a multi-disciplinary approach.  For example, when considering that the most lethal attack ever recorded at a U.S. school involved fire as a weapon, it becomes clear that fire officials can provide valuable input to this process. At the same time, fire officials typically focus on emergency egress issues and are not as cognizant to security related issues as law enforcement personnel are.

When school safety consultants are utilized to assist in facilitation of these assessments, local public safety officials should still be invited to assist as they have knowledge of the local risks, resources, and response capabilities that external consultants will often lack.  One approach that has been widely and successfully utilized across the nation is for outside consultants to provide school safety assessment training to a local team that will conduct assessments internally.  This can enhance the level of expertise at the local level, while dramatically reducing the cost of performing school safety assessments.  In addition, this approach can create the sustainable local capacity and knowledge base required in order to perform quality in-house school safety assessments.   


Take Advantage of Free School Safety Resources

While properly screened and qualified school safety consultants can provide superb value there are numerous free resources that can make schools safer.  For example, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) offers high quality free online training as well as free live training at the Emergency Management Institute at Emmitsburg, Maryland.  FEMA not only provides live training at no cost, but will also cover airfare, meals, and lodging for teams from local communities.  FEMA offers a multi-day live training program on all-hazards school crisis planning.  School officials can contact local public safety agencies, the Maine Department of Education, and the Maine

Emergency Management Agency to learn about other free government resources relating to school safety. The authors of this report were also asked to author a FEMA Independent Study course as part of the White House 2013 School Safety Initiative.  The course, titled IS-360:

 Preparing for Mass Casualty Incidents: A Guide for Schools, Higher Education and Houses of Worship is available along with more than 180 other free courses at


Request that Law Enforcement, Fire Service, Emergency Medical Services, and Emergency Management Personnel Assist you in Developing and Improving your School Safety Plans.

Another way local public safety personnel can provide invaluable free assistance to school officials is by working with school officials to update school crisis plans.  As with other efforts, superior plans can be developed when local fire service and emergency management personnel are involved along with area law enforcement officials. Full scale exercises coordinated with these agencies are the culmination of this long term process of needs assessment, plan development, training, and practice. The time to meet your responding police, fire, medical and emergency management personnel is before rather than during a crisis.



Share Safety Success Stories Between School Districts.

It is very common for staff at one school in a public school district to develop excellent strategies to improve school safety.  At the same time, it is important that these strategies be shared with other schools in the same organization.  One simple way to share these and other successes is for school officials to “shadow” their counterparts at other schools in the same district or in other school districts in the region during drills and exercises. The same holds true for student supervision techniques, physical security improvements, and many other risk reduction techniques.  We have seen this type of opportunity for improvement frequently in Maine schools as well in school districts across the nation.

For example, the authors of this document recently conducted a school safety assessment project for hundreds of schools in a large school district.  The analysts noticed that there were severe traffic hazards at several schools in the district with similar school designs.  They also noticed that the staff at one particular school had developed a variety of simple but highly effective strategies to dramatically reduce risk while also significantly reducing the amount of time parents had to wait to pick up their children each school day.  By simply having staff observe how one school was handling traffic challenges, every school in the district can be made safer while making the process faster for parents and more efficient for the school.  


Focus on School Safety Efforts that have been Demonstrated to Work

The intensive fear resulting from mass casualty attacks in  K12 schools has resulted in numerous calls for action.  Most people feel that something must be done to address school safety concerns.  However well-intentioned and understandable, visceral and solely emotional calls to “do something” without deep thought on the substance of our response can result in a reduction of logical approaches and even lessen the actual level of safety and security in the school. More startling is the fact that ineffective or misguided measures can even increase the probability of violence and preventable deaths.  In recent years, hundreds of new concepts to improve school safety have been developed.  While some of these concepts will prove to be effective, others will likely be found to be ineffective as time passes.  Real lives of students and staff are sometimes endangered because of these untested approaches.

 Though it is helpful to always search for new and more effective ways to make schools safer, there are a number of approaches to school safety that have been consistently proven to work that are, unfortunately, still not in use in many schools.  One of the most prominent examples of this on the prevention side is the concept of multi-disciplinary threat assessment. Using structured approaches to evaluate situations where students communicate threats to harm others, numerous planned school shootings and bombings have been successfully averted. One model, the Virginia Student Threat Assessment Guidelines, has been rigorously evaluated over the course of two field trials and four controlled studies involving more than a thousand schools.  One study showed a 65% reduction in long-term suspensions, an 87% reduction in alternative school placements, nearly a 400% increase in the use of counseling, and a 250% increase in parental involvement in school using the program. This program is the only threat assessment model listed in the National Registry of Evidence-based Programs and Practices.