The 'teachable moment' of Ahmed's clock: what we need to do about bomb threat protocol in schools

A lot has been written last week about Ahmed and his clock “bomb”. While relevant points and needed discussion has been engendered about racial and ethnic bias, zero tolerance, over-reacting schools etc., perhaps a critical point has been lost in the shuffle – the deplorable state of most schools’ bomb threat policies and procedures.

We talked last week about how schools need to be equipped with training and tools in order to determine what student behaviors actually pose a “real” threat, but put that issue aside for a moment.

Here, it didn’t matter whether Ahmed’s clock posed a “real threat” -by involving law enforcement, it was treated as one by the school. Yet despite this fact that, and that teachers were purportedly “concerned” about the clock (i.e. telling him not to show anyone else, confiscating it, etc.) and its potential to be a “bomb”, it does not appear that any formalized protocol was used.

  • Who exactly in that school was trained to determine if the item was a bomb? (No one- and the bomb squad was never involved)

  • Did evacuation of the area near the supposed “bomb” take place? (No)

  • Was law enforcement involved in determining the validity of the supposed “bomb threat” or were they just around to charge Ahmed later at the schools request? (Law enforcement never involved the bomb squad or enacted bomb threat protocols)

In all the second guessing and critiques of the school’s potentially biased response, is anyone concerned about whether or not this organization (and schools just like it across the country) has the capability to respond appropriately to a legitimate bomb threat – or to an actual explosive device?

Most if not all bomb threat protocols in use in schools (if they even have one) are predicated on how to respond to a “threat”, not how to respond if an actual bomb is in play. It’s very similar to how our fire evacuation protocols are really just procedures for leaving the building during a drill instead of considering how we would exit in a real fire, with smoke everywhere, blocked exits etc.

A close look at Columbine, a pivotal school violence event, shows us that if the perpetrators had been better bomb makers, it would have been a catastrophic bomb event, not a school shooting. Since then, we have spent a lot of time and effort discussing and practicing for a school shooter, while completely ignoring the greater peril – a mass casualty incident resulting from an explosive device that can be built using items from the local hardware store with directions from the internet.

Many safety experts believe, and rightly so, that the next “Sandy Hook” event will be a bombing event – and schools are not even remotely prepared. Let’s use the spotlight of the mishandling of Ahmed’s case as a catalyst to a greater good – evaluating, updating, or in some cases, implementing effective bomb threat response protocols. 

#IStandWithAhmed and what we can do about it.

It's great that "#IStandWithAhmed" is going viral , but there is a reason schools keep making poor decisions about student “threats” that end up on the news, in court, or going viral (see also: kid with ‘magic’ ring, kid with pop-tart ‘gun’, kid with finger ‘guns’ etc etc).

Few if any K-12 schools have been trained in the effective and evidence-based method of identifying, assessing, and managing student threats. When schools utilize threat assessment management teams, they are able to quickly gather facts and indicators to determine: “Is there real danger here?” “Do we need to involve law enforcement?” “What do we need to do to keep kids safe?”.

In Ahmed's case, that should have been a "no", "no", and "nothing".

Schools today face a difficult barrage of angsty Facbook posts (is that a threat?) off-hand comments (is that a threat?) Snapchat "jokes" about planning school shootings (is that a threat?) and just kids being kids. Somewhere in the dizzying array are the very rare, yet very real, instances of actual school shooters.

When schools have a formalized, efficient means to analyze, assess, (and if necessary manage with appropriate supports and interventions) students who might be at risk for violence against themselves or others, they can more readily determine that students like Ahmed, or the student wielding the “one ring to rule them all”, don’t actually pose a danger. Educators can quickly pull together the knowledge that is out there to determine if a student is really, truly a threat.

To be clear, Threat Assessment Management isn’t a magical cure-all to prevent violence in our schools. The shooter at Arapahoe High School seemingly was “screened” by a rudimentary process resembling threat assessment, and the educators there made the difficult, and ultimately incorrect judgement call that he was not a danger to others.

However, a 15 minute meeting of a Threat Assessment Management team in Ahmed’s case should have quickly resulted in an internal investigation and the finding of facts clearly showing that the “threat” posed by Ahmed and his clock was no threat at all.

Conversely, had a Threat Assessment team convened to discuss the shooter at Sandy Hook’s 5th grade writing, “The Big Book of Granny” (about a grandma who shoots kids using her gun-cane and taxidermies them) they would have looked at ALL the facts and circumstances in his life, and noted that he was already engaging in behaviors that caused concern. (We know from the Safe School Initiative Study  that 87% of school shooters engaged in behaviors, prior to the event that caused concern.)

According to the U.S. Department of Education, Threat Assessment Management is “one of the most useful tools” schools can use to keep ALL kids safe at school. Does your school or district have a trained Threat Assessment team? Probably not. If you #StandWithAhmed , click the button below for more information about how YOUR school can implement Threat Assessment Management.

The Educator’s School Safety Network is a national, 501(c)(3) non-profit organization that provides school safety training, resources, and technical assistance to schools and universities throughout the US and Canada.

A $15,000 sensor might tell schools where the shooter is, but does nothing to prevent or respond

A California High School is spending $15,000 on sensor that will detect when shots have been fired in the school. For half that expenditure we could train every staff member, student, and parent in a variety of crisis response techniques that will prevent violence, help them to survive a violent event, and prepare them for much more likely crisis events. 
If a school has that kind of money they should spend it on empowering their people, not purchasing a sensor that tells you the *&&^ is hitting the fan!


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The $101,000 Safety Question

While the Chester County Sheriff, a private security firm, and the administration of Chester County Schools are arguing over whether to spend more than $101,000 annually  on sheriff’s deputies or private security guards to protect the children of Chester County, no one seems to be considering the most efficient and effective expenditure of all – putting training in the hands of those who will need it – the teachers and staff.  The district has spent almost $1 million on security measures such as door locking mechanisms and surveillance cameras.

The real million dollar question is whether even a dime has been spent on training school stakeholders on how to effectively use the hardware. For just a fraction of the cost of either of these reactive measures, every staff member, student, and parent could be trained in proactive prevention and response measures such as threat assessment management, lockdown enhancements, visitor engagement, and strategic supervision.  


Research as well as past violent events indicates that teachers and students will be the ones who will need to know how to respond to crisis incidents.  While having a law enforcement or security presence in schools is a great supplemental measure, adequate resources of time and money should be allocated first and foremost for the training and empowerment of school stakeholders. The central argument   between the sheriff, the security firm, and the school is what approach will keep students safest. The answer – none of the above- train and empower teachers, students, and parents first.

Ohio Board of Building Appeals Rules Against Door Locking Devices

Ohio Board of Building Appeals denied a variance request by Southwest Licking School District for a security device that blocks classroom doors during a lockdown event, saying that the device violated state fire codes.

There are numerous door blocking devices on the market, many of which raise questions about whether a district might be trading one problem (preventing an intruder) for another (limiting the capabilities of occupants to evacuate a classroom).  Another equally pressing question also needs to be raised – could the money being spent on buying “stuff” be better spent training staff and students in (no-additional-cost) effective strategies to save their lives in a variety of potential crisis events.

Door blocking devices range from $50 to $500 per door (multiply that number for each classroom door). They are designed for one purpose and one specific event – an active shooter. For a fraction of that price, all school stakeholders could be trained in a variety of FEMA and Department of Education recommended strategies for responding to threats ranging from an active shooter, to a severe weather event, to a medical emergency.

There are legitimate concerns in many schools about the capabilities of classroom doors to be locked from the inside, rather than requiring an occupants to go out into the hallway to key-lock the door. Again, there are low to no-cost strategies to mitigate this problem – and these procedures require training. One of these is a $5  magnet-type mechanism that keeps the door latch from engaging but can be quickly removed when the room needs to be secured.

Perhaps most alarming is the prevailing notion that it will take a piece of hardware to make people feel safe.  One student told the aftermarket lcoking devices in her classrooms “are like an added peace of mind. It’s like a comfort seeing them because now that they're in place I would hope they would always work the way they needed to.”

Students and staff would have greater peace of mind if they had been empowered, trained, and practiced in evacuation, barricade, and a host of other response procedures that will assist them in saving their own lives, rather than relying on a piece of hardware sitting in a classroom. Let’s spend money on people, not stuff.


You are not welcome here…

A group of 31 parents at a Montana high school used litigation to block a troubled student from enrolling in their local school. The teen, Spencer Ore, was expelled from another Montana high school in January of 2013 after he brought two pistols to the school. Ore first told officials that he needed the guns because he was going to run away after to school to live off the land in the Rocky Mountains. He also told them he wanted to prove that automatic weapons were not required to carry out a school shooting.

After the incident with the weapons, Ore spent a year in juvenile detention and therapy programs. He returned home in January of 2014, but was sent back to treatment after posting threatening messages on Facebook about blowing up the school.

Ore improved after returning to therapy, and was deemed well enough to return to public school. This week’s litigation has blocked that possibility.

Spencer Ore’s situation illustrates a fundamental dilemma facing school administrators: how do you balance an individual’s right to a public education with the rights of the rest of the students to be safe?  In the past, Ore has explicitly made threats of harm. More importantly Ore has, at least in the past, engaged in behaviors of concern so as to pose a threat.

Ore’s parents have done what was required of them – they supported their son in serving his time in juvenile detention, and more importantly, ensured that he received appropriate mental health supports and interventions, up to and including medication, therapy, and monitoring. At what point does a student like Spencer Ore stop paying for the consequences of his actions and receive an opportunity for a fresh start? If he never can escape the mistakes and missteps of his past, will his future be a self-fulfilling prophecy? The troubled youth becomes a more troubled young adult.

Yet it is difficult to find fault with the desire of Twin Bridges’ parents to protect that which they hold most dear – their children.

This dilemma, and the sentiments of those on both sides of the issue, once again illustrates the critical nature of threat assessment management in schools.

When a school has a threat assessment team, trained professionals are able to critically analyze the behaviors exhibited by individuals of concern to assess the level of potential threat. Perhaps even more importantly in this case, that same team can monitor and support the individual within the school setting to provide appropriate interventions that ensure the safety of all parties.

Newest School Safety Threat: 4th grader will make their classmates disappear with the One Ring To Rule Them All

While there are almost always two sides to every story, it's difficult to understand the rationale behind the recent decision to suspend a fourth grade student for "threatening" to make a fellow student disappear with a fanciful ring of power referenced in a literary classic. 
Are we back to the "zero tolerance" days of suspending kids for plastic knives in their lunchboxes? When we will come to a common sense approach to identifying, assessing, and managing kids who exhibit behaviors of concern? This question is easily answered: when we provide adequate threat assessment management training to ALL teachers and administrators.
There is an effective, low-cost best practice to determine whether a student poses a substantive threat to himself or others - threat assessment - but few districts have implemented it.
As long as untrained administrators react without expertise, support, or apparently common sense, as a nation we will snicker at the antics of school principals and cute little kids, and completely ignore the next school shooter who is begging us to stop him.

In the vast majority of cases, students who truly pose a substantive threat to themselves or others exhibited multiple behaviors of concern. According to The Safe School Initiative Report, 93% of school shooters had three or more people who were concerned about their potential for violence. 

As of this posting, in 0% of American schools is there a danger posed to students by magical rings forged in the fires of Mt Doom.


The “Kleenex” problem in school safety

This week there has been a lot of discussion and debate about school safety issues – specifically about responding to an active shooter event.

Everyone from Rush Limbaugh to scholarly experts in the field have weighed in on the problems associated with a “confront” or “counter” orientation and the fallacy of this approach as a “best practice”.

Well, here comes the position of the Educator’s School Safety Network.
While our stand, as a non-profit organization dedicated to education-based training, has always been that countering or “fighting” is not developmentally appropriate, effective, or even safe, we are an organization that advocates for the options of evacuating and barricading.

Herein lies the problem. In our common vernacular, a Kleenex is ubiquitous for a tissue, a Q-tip is a cotton swap, and “Googling” is using a search engine. In this school safety discussion, the term ALICE, a for-profit, active shooter response training company is often used interchangeably (and incorrectly) to mean any sort of training program that advocates giving people options to respond to a crisis event.

Our organization is not an ALICE organization, nor do we teach countering, yet our training is based on the fundamental premise of providing educators and students with appropriate options, such as evacuating or barricading, that will help them to save their lives, rather than just employing the traditional lockdown approach of hiding in the corner and waiting to law enforcement to save the day.

It is encouraging to see a critical examination of approaches such as ALICE and others, but we must not lose sight of the incredible value and effectiveness of appropriately training and providing school stakeholders with options, rather than focusing on a singular response – be it fighting or sitting in a corner hoping for the best.
So when you hear of options-based training or lockdown enhancements, don’t automatically think ALICE, instead critically examine what options are taught, how the training is conducted, who conducts the training, and perhaps most importantly, whether it is by educators, for educators.








More Sandy Hook updates

"The Sandy Hook Advisory Commission was scheduled to meet Friday to review some outstanding issues regarding school design, mental health care and emergency response. "

It is not coincidental that the basis of the lawsuit filed this week against the Newtown board of education is also predicated on allegations of negligence and/or deficits in the way the entry of the school was designed and the lack of appropriate procedures and training for responding to a crisis event. 

Which begs the question - where does your school stand? Have YOU been adequately trained to respond to a crisis event and to save your life and the lives of the children in your care? If not, why not?

Families of Sandy Hook school shooting victims sue Newtown, school board

Two of the families of 6 year old Sandy Hook victims are suing the Newtown school board for wrongful death, alleging that security measure at the school weren’t adequate. Tragically the main allegations of the suit are most likely true for many American schools. They include:

  • That teachers were unable to follow the security policies and procedures in place because classroom doors could only be locked from the outside using keys.
  • That the entry of the school did not have security glass to protect against gunshots
  • That a substitute in one of the classrooms where students were killed didn’t have a key and had not been training on what to do in a crisis event.

The larger question is – what are we currently doing to ensure that ALL teachers have been trained in, and have the means to follow crisis response protocols? How vulnerable are all school districts to the threat of a violent intruder, and the potential liability that follows if we are unwilling to allocate the time and financial resources to train our teachers?

I challenge you to critically examine how your school would fare on the three major points of the lawsuit. I’m sure at some point in the past,  the Newtown School Board thought that a school shooting could never happen there. Don’t make the same mistake in your district.

“If a city provides a school resource officer for a school, who bears responsibility when that officer is absent and something goes wrong?”

 In a recent blog posting, Education Week reports on litigation currently occurring in a school in California. After a school shooting occurred, leaving a student critically injured, the parents of the injured student sued the district for negligence. The district, in turn, sued the city as the school resource office provided to the school by the city was not present when the shooting occurred.

This circle of litigation raises some interesting legal, and security questions: Did the city have a responsibility to provide a different SRO if the assigned officer was unable to be at the school? Would the presence of the SRO really have prevented the student from being shot? What sort of agreements or Memorandums of Understanding should be in place when school leaders and city officials share and/or designate responsibilities for school policing?

More importantly – what sort of agreements, understandings, and procedures are in place in your school or district in regards to the role of school-based police officers? A conversation between school leaders and law enforcement officials before an event might have allowed for cooperation, rather than litigation, between the district and the city.

Viral video of cafeteria fight involving teacher-a teachable moment for educators

If you haven’t already seen it, you will most likely soon encounter the viral video of a teacher attempting to break up a fight in a high school cafeteria, and finding himself embroiled in the crisis. This 27 seconds of drama doesn’t tell the entire story of the situation, but it does concisely illustrate the many dilemmas facing educators today in regards to responding to incidents such as these.

Let’s break it down into a couple separate but equally important ideas. But first, let’s be clear, none of us know exactly what occurred before and after the video clip, and 27 seconds doesn’t tell the whole story. It’s tempting after the fact to assign blame or criticism, but that isn’t the point of this discussion. Rather it is to reflect on how these situations should be dealt with in all of our schools, because face it – this video could easily have happened in your school.

  1.       This video illustrates the need for adequate, continual, and engaged supervision.  With strategic supervision, rather than the typical, passive “leaning against the wall” supervision, personnel are actively engaging in interactions with students and watching for escalating situations before they erupt in violence. While this isn’t always possible – perhaps as shown in the video – it is possible to put people in strategic locations and expect them to have a high level of situational awareness.  We could also reflect on the other side of this coin – what would this fight have looked like if there hadn’t been another adult close at hand to assist with one of the two physically aggressive girls.
  2.      A major dilemma is clearly illustrated here as well – how do we balance our duty as educators to protect student from violence with our duty to protect ourselves from violence? Moreover, how can we protect students without putting ourselves in a position to perpetrate additional violence and/or open ourselves to legal liability? The video clearly illustrates this, as the teacher is subjected to at least 4 or 5 blows from the fighting girls. The fight itself is resolved when the teacher becomes more aggressive himself in taking the girl to the ground. This results in the potential for more violence as the students watching the event insert themselves into the situation.
  3.       The viewer/documentor’s shift from audience to participant is shown only briefly at the end of the video, but it is an important consideration. Students who were amused, interested observers at the beginning of the event changed rapidly to hands on participants as the teacher subdues the fighting girl. Now the staff member is faced not with just one aggressive student, but the potential for many more who are reacting to the resolution of the original fight.
  4.      There also needs to be some discussion of the culpability of the girls who initiated the event. Clearly both girls were intent on fighting someone and were acting in a physically aggressive fashion to both their peers and the adults in authority. Was the source of the fight something that could have been resolved or addressed in some other fashion before it turned to violence, or were these individuals intent on perpetrating some sort of violence regardless of who it involved or what form it took?

So what is the lesson learned here? There will always be the potential for violence when students find themselves in volatile situations. Fortunately low cost, effective strategies such as strategic supervision, conflict resolution, crisis de-escalation, a positive school climate, and a relationship-based culture can go a long way to reducing or eliminating these types of events. But these approaches are not quick, easy fixes- they require a sustained commitment on the part of administrators and staff members. Resources must be allocated for the training and professional development of all stakeholders in these critical areas.

Our response to aggressive and violent events can be more effective ONLY when we provide adequate training to staff AND students on how to actively supervise large groups of student, how to deescalate aggressive situations and how to safely and appropriate put hands on a student when required. 

This needs to be more than another “holy cow” video that is watched and forgotten like a cat playing the piano – it needs to be a wakeup call about the vital important of violence prevention initiatives in all schools.


You can watch the original video by clicking here 

That life or death moment – a teacher’s perspective

In recent weeks we have seen a great deal of media attention and discussion about the now famous actions of Antionette Tuff of Atlanta and John Masterson of New Mexico in talking school shooters out of perpetuating further violence.  Tragically we have also seen how this same approach does not always work in the case of Nevada teacher and former Marine Michael Landsberry, who was shot and killed while trying to convince an 85 pound middle school student to put down his weapon after shooting two classmates.

In recent years, there have been numerous incidents where teachers have demonstrated an equal amount of courage in acting to stop these attacks. Let’s take a look at what these individuals were able to do without any formal training, relying only on instinct:

  • David Benke, a seventh-grade math teacher, tackled a gunman outside of Littleton, Colorado's Deer Creek Middle School. "He had a bolt-action rifle and I knew he couldn't get another round off when I got to him," Benke said.
  • When two pipe bombs exploded at Hillsdale High School in California, English teacher Kennet Santana encountered a young man in a military-style tactical vest, armed with other bombs, a sword and a chainsaw. "He was trying to go towards the kids...I decided to close distance and bear hugged him and restrained his arms. We were face-to-face, chest-to-chest."
  • Katie Fuchs, a social studies teacher, approached a student at Stemmers Run Middle School in Maryland who was ignoring his assignment and ended up with a .25 caliber semiautomatic pointed at her. When the student pointed the gun at his own head, Fuchs knocked the weapon out of his hand and to the floor, where the magazine fell into several pieces.
  • Health teacher Derrick Schonauer had taught at Normal Community High School in Illinois for just 12 days when a 14-year-old student pulled a gun, firing two shots into the ceiling. Schonauer tackled the shooter, who allegedly was also armed with two more handguns, a hatchet, two knives, flammable liquid and matches.

The juxtaposition of these incidents should give educators pause – is a school shooting an educational event or a criminal event? The NYPD active shooter study tells us that 40% of school shootings end by applied force, and only 14% of these events end with the perpetrator surrendering. Is talking to the shooter (an educational response) really our best approach if it only works 14% of the time? While it is tempting to second guess these events after the fact, the truth remains that educators need more tools in the toolbox when confronted by a gunman.

Given the success of these confrontational approaches in preventing further violence, imagine the lives that could potentially be saved if educators were given adequate training in both de-escalation and use of force. The first and most important tool needed is not armed teachers, metal detectors, or school-based police, it is appropriate, consistent, on-going training in crisis response that is delivered from an educational perspective. How many more lives will be lost before we finally give teachers the tools they need to survive?

5 things you need to know about Neknomination

 I don’t want to add to the frenzy of “OMG youths are doing this thing…let’s panic” but I think a quick discussion of the current social media fad ‘Neknomination’ is worth 5 minutes of your time.

#1 Neknomination or “neck and nominate” comes from the English slang word “neck” as in to chug alcohol. In a Neknomination video, a person chugs their drink, performs a crazy stunt, and then nominates two friends to go next. (It’s not unlike the concept of paying it forward, but with potentially-dangerous binge drinking instead of acts of kindness)

#2 Neknomination has allegedly already been linked to 2 deaths. Neknomination is believed to have originated in Australia, and is seemingly most popular in South Africa, the UK (including Ireland) and Australia. Jonny Byrne, 19,  and Ross Cummins, 22, (both from Ireland) both died after apparently taking part in neknomination. Outraged parents have asked Facebook to shut the Neknomination sites down, but Facebook has declined to do so, saying “"We do not tolerate content which is directly harmful, for example bullying, but controversial or offensive behaviour is not necessarily against our rules.”

#3 Neknomination moves fast. Although there are instances of Neknomination dating back to 2008, the trend has only really picked up sped-the most ‘liked’ facebook pages were just created in mid-January 2014.

#4 Neknomination has three aspects that guarantee its social media success – it involves alcohol, videos of crazy drunken stunts, AND other people must be challenged to step up and participate.

#5 Your kids probably have already heard of it (but probably aren’t doing it…yet). It’s most likely only a matter of time before a bored kid stumbles upon it and decides to try.

And for a bonus:

#6 Please don’t panic and try to ban Facebook at your school.


So what should you do? There’s not much you CAN do, other than be aware that there is yet another peer-pressured excuse for doing something that can be both illegal and harmful. But often times, awareness is half the battle – at least you know is it out there on your students’ radar. Like vodka eyeballing, butt-chugging, etc, etc this too will pass.

When the dominos fall

We are all pretty familiar with the domino effect that occurs when weather conditions disrupt airline travel. Flights are delayed or cancelled which impacts other flights at other airports until eventually airports and flights far outside the weather event are also affected.


Today I had the “opportunity” to experience the domino effect from a school perspective.  We were in Atlanta for training at a local school when the light snow began falling shortly just after noon. By 1:30 the administrators had been called away to deal with the deluge of calls from parents wanting to know when schools would release.  As the snow began following, most of the area schools announced an early release, along with numerous businesses and offices.  In a short amount of time there were a tremendous number of people all on the roads trying to pick up their kids and get home.


Grid lock horror stories abound – people spending four plus hours in the car for a 10 mile trip. Roads closed by traffic accidents and stalled cars.  Drivers running out of gas in traffic or abandoning their vehicles and walking.  One local district dismissed students at 11:30 and at 6:30 p.m. still had kids waiting to be picked up. A district in Cobb County sent out their busses to take students home only to have the drivers turn around and bring them back when they couldn’t complete their routes due to the traffic jams.  As of this writing, the district is planning to have students spend the night at school – yes – spend the night!  One can only begin to imagine the logistical, supervisory, and liability issues involved in keeping all the students overnight.


So the lesson to be learned? First off, in this case, the dominos not just fell, but collapsed due to a mere 2 or 3 inches of snow, so don’t resort to the denial of – “well we would never have anything that bad…”  Then there’s the matter of what to do with students. Dismissing early is a tough, no-win call. If you wait too long, you could end up with students traveling in dangerous conditions, or worse yet – not be able to get students home. If you dismiss too early, there is the potential that the weather forecast doesn’t pan out. Even if you do everything right, if everyone else dismisses at the same time, a traffic nightmare on already poor roads is in the making. 


The larger lesson to be learned? Schools need to understand and anticipate their role in and the impact of community-wide events and disasters. Districts are not operating in a vacuum. The decisions made by community, government, and emergency response officials have a direct impact on schools and need to be made collaboratively with all the parties involved. School administrators cannot look at only their own little corner of the world, but  must consider how what is going on outside the school walls will effect their decisions and procedures.


Let me be clear – often there is nothing that can be done when the perfect storm of weather conditions, traffic, and community actions come together. But perhaps decision makers at the school and community levels can learn from these events and use collaboration to the benefit of all – drivers included.  Personally? It took me 92 minutes to drive 1.5 miles.  Be safe and stay warm.

The question of blame

In a press conference today, the parents of one of the victims of the recent shooting at a middle school in Roswell New Mexico made several comments that deserve some reflection. The father of 13-year-old shooting victim, Bert Sanders, told reporters he believes the boy's family are "good people," that the alleged shooter "is not a bad boy" and urged people to stop trying to find someone to blame. He went on to say that the suspect and his daughter are friends and that she feels the guman “made bad choices”.

Mr. Sanders believes that no one is the blame for the shooting. "Not the teachers. Not the schools. The responsibility is ours. We as parents need to be more involved," he said. While the spirit of forgiveness and reconciliation is commendable, his remarks today as the father of a victim who was injured but survived, raise a number of troubling questions:

Can the gunman’s parents be both “good people” AND share responsibility for their son’s actions? One would hope so, but the nagging question is if we can lay the burden solely at the feet of parents, and more importantly, how do we (and should we?) hold parents responsible for the actions of their children?

In a society that often encourages a victim’s mentality and doesn’t want to discuss personal responsibility, can we really just chalk up the shooter’s actions to “bad choices”? When these horrific events occur, the ramifications and damage ensures that no one involved will ever be the same. How can there be no responsibility in that?

If we simply shrug off school shootings as “one of those things” have we stopped looking for ways to stop them? Is it possible that there IS blame that can be assigned? We certainly can agree that spending time trying to determine blame in and of itself is pointless, but perhaps a larger conversation needs to occur that centers on why these individuals are driven to these violent acts.

And finally, there is the unpopular reminder that what the alleged gunman did in Roswell is attempted murder – a crime – not an educational event. He did not make “bad choices” by arguing with a teacher, or shoving a fellow student, or cutting in the lunch line, he attempted to end the lives of multiple individuals. We cannot lose sight of the fact that while the perpetrator may indeed be a juvenile, he attempted to perpetrate the most serious of offenses. While we must view preventing these events from both a law enforcement and educational perspective, we must understand that we are in truth responding to a criminal event involving the most heinous crime of murder. We owe it to all the victims of past shooting events to remember that THEY are the victims, not the perpetrator.

So simple answers? There aren’t any. But perhaps Mr. Sanders’ remarks today can start some important conversations.

What have we accomplished in the year since Sandy Hook?

It’s been a year since 20 children and 6 educators lost their lives at Sandy Hook Elementary school.

But what have we accomplished in that year?

We have spent an incredible amount of time and an incredible amount of money to make our schools safe, yet we the threat of violence is very real.

The tragedies at Sandy Hook, Chardon, Red Lake, Virginia Tech and Columbine can’t have been in vain.

It’s imperative that we all work together: educators, parents, legislators, students, and first responders.

We have to learn from these past events and equip educators and stakeholders with the tools and training to respond to crises.

We have to make the small shifts that can make our schools safer without turning them into prisons.

We have to work to prevent violence in our schools: to identify, assess and manage those who are risk for violence against themselves or others.

We have to stop wasting time and money searching for a “quick fix” : buying security systems, arming teachers, bullet-proof school equipment,  taking away all the guns, mandating ineffective drills.

We have to do the difficult work of implementing comprehensive, evidence-based, systemic changes that can help keep our students safe from all hazards.

We have to collaborate and figure this out-our children’s lives depend on it.

Lessons learned from today's incident at Scott High School.

Breaking news today from northwest Ohio, there was a standoff with an armed student at Scott High School. According to new reports, the student was “isolated” in a hallway in the school during the event and adjacent classroom were evacuated. After an hour of so, the student was taken into custody after being shot in the foot with a bean bag round. The school/law enforcement press conference after the incident concluded centered on how everyone had done everything right. While thankfully no one was hurt and the event ended peacefully, let’s take a moment to see if there are lessons that can be learned.


FEMA’s new guidelines – In the post-incident press conference, school officials said that staff members responded as they were trained, and the media reported that the school’s response was in accordance with what is taught in schools “across the United States”.  I don’t know how to state this diplomatically, but this is a  completely inaccurate statement. In the past, school staffs were trained in a traditional lockdown approach that consisted of hiding out in classrooms and hoping for the best. This is no longer the case. The June 2013 release of FEMA and Department of Education guidelines for schools is very specific as to the need to do more than just a traditional lockdown.  The events at Scott High School today illustrate the need for all school districts to understand and apply the new guidelines that are based on best practices.


Run, hide, fight -  If the student at Scott High School was contained in a hallway, how can we be sure that students were “out of harm’s way” as reported? It was certainly appropriate to evacuate nearby classrooms, but in this volatile situation of a person with a gun, is it best to tell students to “shelter in classrooms and closets”? Could not the rest of the building have been evacuated as well, as recommended by FEMA? – “If it is safe to do so…. The first course of action that should be taken is to run out of the building and far away until you are in a safe location.” We don’t know the specifics of the situation and the response at Scott, but during the press conference that occurred while there was still an active threat in the building, police and school officials indicated that there was no need to evacuate the rest of the students. When there is good information about where the threat is, and it is safe to do so, why wouldn’t students be moved further out of harm’s way to an off-site location?


Enhance communication – Police reported at the press conference that students were not told anything about the incident and did not know why they were in lockdown. This should not be a deliberate strategy. Staff and students should know what the nature of the incident is, so that they can respond appropriately. Imagine the fear and uncertainty of hiding in a classroom or closet with no idea as to why. While at this point we don’t know what sort of communication DID take place, there is a need for specific, timely information to be given to those involved. FEMA’s recommendations include: “Those closest to the public address or other communications system, or otherwise able to alert others, should communicate the danger and necessary action.” It remains to be seen whether or not this occurred.


It’s easy for me to sit here and Monday morning quarterback the events of this Monday morning, but we must seize every opportunity to learn from the experiences of other schools as we endeavor to keep our students safe.


School Safety Legislation Recap

I was recently asked to testify before the Ohio House Education committee in regards to HB 334 which makes modifications to existing Ohio Revised Code language regarding the expulsion of students who pose a potential threat to the safety of the school. During my testimony and the statements of others both in support and opposition of the bill, a variety of school safety issues were brought to bear, including threat assessment management, mental health supports, and involvement of the juvenile justice system in school related safety issues.

This experience coincided nicely with a recent article in Education Week that examined the legislative activity in regards to school safety that has occurred throughout the United States in response to the tragedy in Sandy Hook. As we approach the one-year anniversary of this horrific event, let’s take a moment to examine what has occurred in the legislative arena in regards to school safety in the last 11 months.

The Education Week article categorized the more than 450 proposed laws and legislative revisions that have occurred throughout the United States by their nature and intent, as well as accounting for the disposition of these proposals.  There are some interesting trends in both the legislative proposals, and what emerged as actual law.

The most legislative proposals took place in the area of school emergency planning, with 159 proposals (more than 30% of all proposed bills) being put forth. These bills required schools to conduct emergency drills, update or create emergency plans, or dealt with emergency planning measures in some other fashion. As of October 2013, only 25 of the bills have actually been signed into law (about 16%) with 90 proposals still pending (57%).

More than 18% of all proposed school safety legislation involved police in schools with 82 bills dealing with a police presence in schools (i.e. increasing police in schools etc.).  Only 4 of these bills (less than 4%) had been signed into law by October with more than 50 proposals (60%) still pending.

Interestingly, the seemingly dichotomous issues of school climate/student supports and arming school employees had an equal number of proposed bills (65 each), constituting slightly more than 14% of all legislative proposals. While most educators would agree that providing mental health supports and improving school climate is an effective preventative measure, the more extreme (and reactive) measure of arming employees had a slightly higher rate of being signed into law with 5 measures (8%) passing, leaving 31 proposed bills (48%) still pending. The proposed bills providing mental health services, counseling, or addressing school climate issues were signed into law only 4 times (6%) with 44 measures still pending (68%).

In addition to the proposals for arming employees, the divisive and diverse opinions on guns are also epitomized in the legislative proposals that dealt with the polar opposite notions of gun control and loosening gun restrictions in schools.  There were more proposed bills (56 or 12% of all proposals) to loosen or end restrictions on bringing guns onto the school grounds than there were to changes regulations governing firearms such as magazine size or sales restrictions. These gun control measures constituted 44 of the proposed bills (less than 10%). When it came to actual passage, however, more gun control measures were made into law (6 or 14%) than the easing of school gun restrictions, where only 5 measures passed, (9%).

The remaining legislative measures were 62 proposed bills regarding building safety upgrades – 14% of all legislation. These proposed bills provided money for, or addressed building security improvements such as metal detectors and alarms. Only 8 of these proposals were signed into law, (about 13% of the proposed measures).

So, let’s recap – when examining purely those legislative measure that actually were signed into law, the most action was taken in the area of emergency planning (16% of all signed bills).  We would all agree that measures on the proactive side of things – drills, crisis plans and other planning activities makes sense. From there things get a bit more dicey.  The proactive, researched-based best practice of providing mental health supports and creating a positive school climate received legislative action much less frequently, with only 6% of the proposed bills passing. Compare this with the 13% passage rate for safety upgrades or hardware purchases such as metal detectors, buzzer systems and the like.

This examination is not intended to point fingers at the activity or type of legislation; rather it illustrates the diverse issues and opinions that revolve around the question of “What can we do to make our schools more safe?” Not surprisingly, there is no quick fix or easy answer.  School crisis preparation, and the legislative requirements that it engenders, must focus equally on both prevention and response with an all hazards view – not just an emphasis on active shooter events. Maybe the biggest insight in the analysis of the legislation is not what was proposed, but rather what wasn’t – putting adequate and appropriate training in the hands of educators. Perhaps that central issue should receive some legislative attention.

For a more in-depth look at the proposed bills both by state, geographic region, and the type of legislation, click here.

How would our schools fare if we applied accountability to assessing the level of preparation and training for educators in the area of crisis response?

Accountability is (as always) a hot topic in education. Many states are currently implementing or have implemented teacher and principal evaluation systems that are based to some degree on student achievement as a measure of teacher or administrative performance.  Political and philosophical arguments aside, how would our schools fare if we applied similar accountability tactics to assessing the level of preparation and training for educators in the area of crisis response?


Let’s take a moment to compare the basic components of a typical teacher evaluation system and reflect on how these might be applied to our fundamental obligation of ensuring safety.


  1. 1.     Teacher accountability systems typically include a classroom observation or walk through of some sort conducted by a trained evaluator. When was the last time your school took a critical look at potential vulnerabilities or procedural lapses through a site survey or facilities walk through?  When a vulnerability assessment is initiated, is it done by trained evaluators using an interdisciplinary approach?  


Classroom observations address not only concerns, but perhaps more significantly, make recommendations for improvements. A site survey should do the same. It’s important to examine potential vulnerabilities and craft mitigation strategies that address those vulnerabilities.


  1. 2.     Accountability systems for educators increasingly include hard measures of student achievement such as standardized tests or assessments of competencies. The intent is to gather objective data on the school’s performance that are based on a common core of skills or knowledge.  If we applied this same objective approach to your school, would be find that the staff has all attained an acceptable level of knowledge or skill in crisis response?


Like a national common core of academic standards, there is also a set of established best practices for schools in the area of crisis preparation and response. In the past weeks we have discussed the new FEMA and Department of Education guidelines that were issued in June of 2013. These guidelines recommend a “run, hide, fight” approach to school violence that makes evacuation (when it is safe to do so) the preferred choice in an active shooter event. Many American schools have not addressed these new guidelines, modified their procedures to reflect them, or provided the necessary training for staff to implement them.


So how would your school fare if it were subjected to an accountability system for school safety? If your school was assessed on the effective implementation of best practices like vulnerability assessment, threat assessment management, and lockdown enhancement procedures, what would be the result?


The harsh reality is that schools are subjected to the most rigorous of all accountability systems when it comes to the safety of staff and students – the moral and ethical responsibility school’s have to protect the children in their care.  Parents will forgive the school for poor test scores, but they will not forgive or forget the injury or death of their child while in the school’s care. What is your school doing to measure up to this standard?