Mass shootings first entered the national conscience on April 20, 1999 when two teens* killed 13 people and wounded 24 others at Columbine High School in Colorado. National debates ensued about gun control, bullying, violence in video games, and mental health. Following Columbine, many schools instituted airport-like screening procedures at entrances and “zero-tolerance” policies to violence. However, school safety did not improve, and most of those schools rolled back some of the more extreme measures they had put in place.
On April 16, 2007, a gunman* opened fire on the Virginia Tech campus, killing 33 and injuring 23. It was the most violent mass shooting in modern U.S. history. The national debates were the same, but the response of higher education was very different. After the Virginia Tech shooting, and the mass shooting that followed less than a year later at Northern Illinois University, college campus administrators responded swiftly by:
- creating multidisciplinary teams to address the breakdowns that had occurred in communication
- forming threat assessment teams and providing training to faculty and staff in an attempt to identify people who might be on a path to violence
- ensuring campus and local police had the training and capability to respond to a shooting in progress
- putting mostly sensible physical security and mass notification systems in place
In short, higher education took a decidedly holistic approach to preventing campus violence.
Arguably, the advantage higher ed had over K-12 was, despite the internal silos existing on college campuses, all the people necessary to the safety conversation were all still part of the same institution – part of the same team. Most colleges and universities have dedicated security or police and dedicated counseling services. Faculty or professional staff of some sort are involved in nearly every aspect of an undergraduate student’s time on campus. Getting representatives from these areas together was instrumental for creating a safer environment.
To address violence in K-12 schools, district administrators need to take a similar approach. But this can be challenging when the people who need to be at the table are not all from the same institution. School districts primarily rely on local law enforcement for safety and security on their campus. While some larger school districts might have security staff, it is the police who respond during a crisis. Police have an entire community to serve, and it’s unreasonable to expect them to adopt the culture of a particular school district on their own. Rather, school districts need to work with an expert who understands both cultures.
When addressing safety, the first thing a school needs to do is get an overall assessment from an independent professional. This evaluation would examine:
- physical security (cameras, alarms, access control, etc.)
- policy and procedure (building access, emergency response, threat assessment and management)
- training protocols for faculty and staff
Receiving an unbiased, independent review from someone who not only specializes in school safety, but who also is not selling any of the products or services the district might need to buy, gives a district superintendent the proper foundation for producing an effective safety and security “master plan.”
As a former police chief at a major university in Milwaukee, I understand both viewpoints – that of the police and that of the academic institution. Speaking the language of both cultures, I serve as an intermediary between law enforcement and school administration, helping both parties understand what the other one brings to the table, as well as the unique challenges each face in responding to security threats. Together, we can develop a unified approach to help keep students and staff safe.
* More often than not, perpetrators of mass violence are seeking notoriety. Thus, commentary on school shootings in this blog will never refer to a shooter by name.