Liberal or conservative, pro-gun or pro-gun control – there is one thing nearly everyone can agree on. The safety of innocent children must be a priority.
What can be done right now to better protect our children and teachers within Kentucky schools? Department of Criminal Justice Training Patrol Tactics Section Supervisor Shannon West recently sought to answer this question during a Current Leadership Issues for Mid-level Executives class in Barren River.
“It’s supposed to be a safe environment,” West said of schools. “We fought hard in our country for those very freedoms we have so we don’t have to worry about such things (as school shootings). And for the most part – in spite of what you see on the media – instances of these shootings are relatively rare. But it shocks our consciences when people kill kids.”
In the wake of deadly school shootings in Marshall County, Ky. and, just a few weeks later, Parkland, Fla., many community members have sought guidance from the law enforcement community to improve school safety. Even for those communities in which the conversations have not yet begun, West offered advice to start building relationships and raising awareness.
“For some of you, this is stuff you already know,” West said. “All I’m going to do is raise your level of awareness and hopefully make you more deliberate in the way that you go about doing business … maybe give you a new focus.”
Hardening the Target
When it comes to slowing down an active shooter, West emphasized that there is no single tactic that will prevent tragedy. Instead, he encouraged a layered approach that begins simply with locking the doors.
“If you look around – apart from ambushes growing – cops are getting killed doing the same things we have been doing for years,” West said. “When you really break it down and look at what we are failing to do, sometimes it is because we simply fail to follow fundamental tactics. It’s the same with school safety and security. We didn’t lock the door.”
Physical security of any school building must be a priority. Whether it is electronic, locking buzz-in systems or safety films applied to glass windows and doors to reduce shattering, securing the facility might provide the seconds necessary for survival.
“All we’re doing is buying time,” West said. “Time for officers to get there and a response to be made. A chance for [students and teachers] to escape, formulate a plan or maybe to fight.”
For many school systems, a conversation with law enforcement about the cost of implementing these items turns to a lack of funding when budgets are stretched thin.
“Many of these schools can’t afford to buy chairs for the kids,” West said. “They’re not going to want to spend a lot of money on school security. But what is the cost if you don’t do it? That is the way you have to sell this when you’re talking to administrators.”
Walking into a school-board meeting and giving directions about what should be done to protect schools is likely to meet resistance if it is the first time administrators have spoken to law enforcement. That’s where relationship building comes in, West said.
“When you’re mentoring, guiding and forming relationships with schools, you have to have enough empathy to understand why parents and school boards might be reluctant to do some of the most fundamental things when we talk about locking down schools,” West said. “It highlights the fact that we live in an evil world where there are men and women who would do harm to our children – and people don’t like that.
“We see it every day,” West continued. “We see some of the most despicable things one human being can do to another. What you forget when you lose empathy is that it is not a reality for these parents and schools. I see a lot of head butting between cops and administrators. Why? Because we come from two completely different worlds in terms of what we deal with.”
Part of this relationship building involves bringing all concerned parties together to communicate, West said. Law enforcement and school administrators can work together with mental-health providers, parents and prosecutors to form multi-disciplinary task forces. Task force members bring to the table their own area of expertise and perspective, and the team ensures accountability and follow through so nobody falls through the cracks, West said.
These multi-disciplinary task forces have been implemented and successful in sexual-abuse cases, West said.
“I would submit to you that years ago, we probably wouldn’t have thought this was needed for sex-abuse cases until it became a real problem,” he said. “This is becoming a real problem, and it’s something we need to consider. These relationships – talking to parents and teachers – that’s where it starts. You have to have a relationship.”
Detection and Prevention
There was prior knowledge of mental illness or issues with shooters in up to 80 percent of school shootings, West said. Many indicators were missed or overlooked. Detection and prevention are two areas where West said many communities are missing the mark.
“We have to be disciplined and deliberate in terms of being observant,” he said. “Think about this in terms of knowing what’s going on. The teachers, they are in those classrooms with those kids every day. They know those kids better than their parents, oftentimes. They know the kids’ baseline behavior.”
In terms of behavior analysis, West said there is no specific profile of an active shooter. However, many were perceived as angry, frustrated or expressed emotions prior to the event.
“There is no individual template you can lay over every human being to give us all the answers,” West said. “It’s about their baseline. You have to know what that is.”
Beyond being observant of these warning signs, West stressed the importance of reporting concerns and sharing potentially-volatile information. School children often know if their friends are making threats or if something is not right with a classmate. If a student notifies a teacher about another kid’s behavior, West said there is nothing that prohibits teachers and administrators from sharing that information with law enforcement or mental-health professionals.
Many people believe HIPAA (Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act) prevents these conversations from occurring. West and DOCJT Staff Attorney Shawn Herron said that simply isn’t true. Confusion over what information is allowed to be shared leads to failure to report.
“No one wants anything to do with anything that could possibly put them in liability’s way,” West said. “We have to get over that. That inhibits communication, it inhibits notification. If you’re not notified that these kids are having problems, guess what? You’ll get a notification. And it’s the sound of a .223 going off in the hallways.
“We can no longer be so fearful of litigation and all that garbage that we are not talking about these kids who are threatening to kill,” West continued.
Further, once these complaints and notifications are made, West said documenting and disseminating that information is critical to the investigative process. In many cases, an officer’s hands are tied when a complaint doesn’t rise to the level of criminal activity. But these complaints should not be ignored. They should not only be documented, but shared with concerned parties and evaluated.
“You guys remember down in Florida, how many times did that kid have contact with the police?” West asked. “Thirty-plus times? You know what happens, you get somebody who has made a complaint, he has made some kind of a threat or a veiled threat on Facebook. Or he said something to somebody or he has a gun. What are our limitations there? Often there’s nothing legally we can do. There’s this thing called the constitution. And that constitution is not there when it’s convenient for us, it’s there all the time. It inhibits us from doing certain things, and that’s the way it has to be.
“But I hope you’ve got something written down on a kid you have had contact with 30-plus times,” West continued. “I hope you have some good answers and can lay it out later for CNN.”
School Resource Officers
In Kentucky, there are approximately 270 school resource officers in 176 school districts statewide, West said. There still is not one in every district, though. Despite the expense of funding school resource officer positions, West said it is another layer of protection that should be considered.
When funding is available for a position, the individual chosen to serve within the schools is not one that should be made flippantly. The officer’s training, background and attitude all should be taken into consideration. An effective school resource officer should be someone who can communicate well with students and administrators and be empathetic.
A school resource officer who has invested time into relationship building with teachers, parents and administrators can deliver a consistent, professional and tactical school-safety message without trying to shove it down anyone’s throat, West said.
“You have to have good people to do that,” he said. “Not a guy or gal who is looking at Facebook and biding their time to retirement. That is not a good option for our kids. That is not a layer of protection – it is a façade. I don’t think any of us can stand the scrutiny of that.”
Herron also recommended employing a properly-qualified LEOSA (Law Enforcement Officers Safety Act) officer who is able to carry a weapon within the schools. Make sure school administrators understand what options are legally available to them for having trained law enforcement personnel within their schools. This is just another critical part of communicating the message of safety, West said.
“The best way to implement a consistent message is with someone who has a good relationship with you and knows your first name,” West said. “That’s where it’s at. I don’t care if it’s a big or small issue, they need to trust you and know you have a passion for these issues and want to make a change. That’s where it starts.”
Harden the Target: Physical Security of Schools
The following measures are suggestions that can be made to school systems to implement layers of protection against school shooters gaining access to the building.
- Control outside access to all points of entry
- Consider metal detectors
- Install electronic locking or “buzz-in” systems to remotely monitor primary entryways
- Install cameras and video-intercom systems
- Lock the doors – exterior and interior
- Install safety and security film on windows and glass doors
- Consider all available forms of emergency communication, from public address intercoms to cell-phone notifications