Our children represent a priceless asset in our lives. Mitigating risks to your kids and grandkids should be high on your priority list. This includes time they spend at school. After all, while schools remain largely safe across America, nobody wants their kids’ school to become the next Uvalde or Stoneman-Douglas.
At the same time, a lot of folks don’t know what to look for in terms of good safety and security at school. Other parents have concerns about how to raise those questions without looking like a crackpot – or worse.
About the time I wrote “It’s time to hold your school officials accountable for security” a couple of months ago, I did my own “holding them accountable” as my twin boys just started pre-K this year.
I’m sharing this to help our readers with a template that worked well in my case. Your district might be a different story.
My trail began with a short email to my kids’ principal. I asked for a sit-down to talk about security policies and procedures, “to make sure security here is a little deeper than locked doors and a subscription to the RAPTOR program.” RAPTOR provides a service to scan and track visitors as well as screen for sex offenders and non-custodial parents.
I also invited others, including a school resource officer, to sit in with us.
The principal punted it to District 87’s Director of Safety and Security Rich Hirsch. On one hand, learning that our schools had a “Director of Safety and Security” impressed me. On the other hand, I’m old enough to know that bureaucracies sometimes have paper pushers.
Instead of a bureaucrat, I found a retired cop with over a decade’s experience as a School Resource Officer in the Bloomington schools. He lives and breaths his work. Like me, he’s a training junkie, always learning new skills and techniques.
As a cop, he’s worn many hats from K-9 cop to SRO. He’s also a instructor in countering “active shooters.”
In our first phone call, we talked for easily half an hour, sharing some laughs and stories. We quickly found ourselves on the same sheet of music.
He’s a go-getter, almost obsessed with school security and I learned why. Years ago, when he worked as an SRO, he got a call of “shots fired, unknown injuries” at his own kids’ high school.
“My mind sort of went blank as my training took over. I didn’t know if my kid was alive or dead,” he told me in that first phone call. They didn’t set up a perimeter, a la Stoneman-Douglas or Uvalde. They charged in with rifles, intent on taking out the bad guy with a gun.
Fortunately, a courageous teacher saw an opportunity after the first few “warm up shots” and took down the would-be spree killer before anyone got shot, not too long before police arrived.
Fast forward a few weeks: Everyone I’ve met in the schools has nothing but rave reviews for the guy. So I invited him to speak at a Guns Save Life meeting to help educate people on doing cursory evaluations, as lay people, of their kids’ schools. Mr. Hirsch cheerfully accepted the invitation and the crowd of close to one hundred loved the presentation.
He began by introducing himself and explained how the incident of shots fired at his son’s school proved a turning point in his career. He went from a conscientious SRO to a hard-charger, obsessed with learning all he could about active shooter response along with the best practices for securing schools to prevent future incidents and attacks.
He admits that not every district is like Bloomington’s. The SROs working “his” schools aren’t “retired, on duty.” Far from it. Instead, they are hard-charging SWAT officers who train folks both formally and informally on how to counter active killers. Hirsch contrasted them with school resource cops who don’t take the job seriously.
Even worse than that, some districts such as an hour down the road in Champaign, IL (home of the University of Illinois) have actually paused their SRO programs because of a shortage of officers on the department.
That’s right, they have no officers in the schools now. Suffice it to say I’m very pleased I moved to Bloomington from Champaign.
Rich indicated how he works everyday to inculcate his enthusiasm for safety and security to teachers and staff. He encourages them to trust their instincts and to report anything suspicious. “If you see something, tell someone!”
As a former SRO and in his new position, he sang the praises of these police officers in school and the relationships good ones build with the students as a friend, role model and oftentimes father figure to many.
As for meeting his “long lost brother” in some guy by the name of John Boch, now a parent of District 87 students, Hirsch said he welcomes a responsible good guy outside that school during dismissal time. “Thank God he’s there,” Rich said.
He admitted that a vulnerability, shared by so many school districts, involves buses. Especially buses full of kids. He’s working on providing some training for bus drivers in mitigating risks and reacting to an attempted attack on the bus or an attempted abduction.
Parents’ & Grandparents’ role: How to approach school administrators
As part of his presentation, he discussed how parents and grandparents can do their own evaluation of security where their kids and/or grandkids attend school. The #1 thing to look for: are all of the entrances locked?
Locked exterior doors with controlled access is the single best way to protect kids.
Go early and watch the little things before school or at dismissal time. Little things add up to make a big difference. If you see doors propped open or unlocked, contact the school administration. Observe for other obvious security failings like allowing random people free access into school buildings, perhaps through service doors (especially if those walking in can carry things like backpacks, or containers that a long gun would fit inside). Contact the school administration right away to remedy these issues. Ditto if you observe suspicious behavior. Be polite and courteous, but make that call.
If the school administration isn’t responsive, contact the superintendent. Explain what’s going on and ask for a sit-down meeting with our without your principal sitting in with you.
Hirsch explained that if that fails, visit the school board and talk at the public comments period. If done tactfully and respectfully, that will sometimes spur action.
After all, school shootings and mass casualty incidents are on everyone’s mind right now. No sane school district is going to risk the very bad publicity and potential liability of ignoring requests for security shortcomings to be remedied.
Locally in Bloomington schools, Hirsch says some of the things they do include parking a police squad car in a very prominent location outside the junior high and high schools. They also have conspicuous signs saying that armed police are present, along with overt, easy-to-spot cameras. Entry is limited to a single location with an intercom system for entry and, of course, self-locking doors. They also screen visitors against sex offender databases using RAPTOR.
Even if you visit your kids’ school and don’t see shortcomings, you can still contact the school principal with some proactive questions about the protocols and policies. Ask for a meeting to discuss these. If nothing else, it will let them know that at least some parents are watching and engaged.
Here are some questions you can ask ahead of your meeting, so they have an idea of what you’re looking for and so they can prepare accordingly. And yes, you get to “grade” their responses.
1. Has our school ever had a vulnerability assessment done?
2. Does our school work with local law enforcement and emergency responders in crisis planning and training? How recently?
3. When was our emergency operations/crisis management plan last reviewed?
4. What types of drills are conducted at our school and at what frequency?
5. Are all exterior doors of our school locked during instructional hours? Are classroom doors locked during instructional hours?
6. Are all visitors to our school required to check in with the main office?
7. Are students and staff trained on how to identify and report suspicious or concerning behaviors/comments?
8. Does our school have a behavioral threat assessment team?
9. If there is an emergency, how and when are parents notified?
10. Do we have designated security personnel assigned to our school? If so, are they armed/unarmed?
11. Do our bus drivers have training on what to do in emergencies, including active shooter incidents or attempted abductions?
12. This one is state-dependent: In more and more states (but certainly not Illinois), schools allow for armed staff members. If your state allows it, you might also ask about whether the school district permits armed staff to carry. (Uvalde Schools, for instance, still has a “no guns” policy despite Texas law allowing armed school staffers to carry.)
If your local schools don’t have an SRO, advocate for one to the administrators, the school board and local city government.
By the same token, if your kids’ school has a school resource officer who isn’t proactive, or has one foot out the door awaiting retirement, contact the police chief and have a meeting to share your concerns.
Believe it or not, there are still schools that don’t secure entrances during school hours. Or they have other vulnerabilities that could be remedied for next to nothing in terms of expenditures.
Safety and security protocols work in real life.
Taking steps to mitigate risks isn’t some untested theory, they work. In fact, earlier this school year, one St. Louis High School showed how taking safety and security seriously greatly mitigates threats, and should the worst happen, limits the carnage.
From the CBS Evening News:
A woman and a teenage girl were killed Monday morning in a shooting inside a St. Louis high school, authorities said. The gunman was also killed in the shooting, police said, and six others were taken to hospitals with injuries…
Schools Superintendent Kelvin Adams said seven security guards were in the school at the time, each at an entry point of the locked building. One of the guards noticed the man was trying to get in at a locked door, but couldn’t. The guard notified school officials and ensured that police were contacted, Sack said.
“It was that timely response by that security officer, the fact that the door did cause pause for the suspect, that bought us some time,” Sack said.
Evaluate your kids’ school for obvious vulnerabilities. Or those of your grand-kids’ school. Contact school administrators if you see vulnerabilities or deficiencies. In fact, contact them even if you don’t see any problems to get a good handle on how serious they take safety and security.
Because once again, one of the lives you save might be that of your son or daughter.