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Another Voice: The risks of oversimplifying the school security issue

By A. Benjamin Mannes

In response to horrifying school shootings, Americans tend to oversimplify the issue or, worse, distract the nation toward wedge issues. The truth is, addressing this issue is a lot more complex than simply “stopping a bad guy with a gun.” As someone who has conducted executive security assessments for public and Catholic schools and colleges, I believe a cultural change toward school safety is needed to effectively prevent future shootings.

In the 19 years since the Columbine High School shooting, no substantive national change in school security policy has occurred. When our national response to school violence gets distracted by wedge issues like gun control, we lose focus on the fact that in the majority of America’s schools today there are rarely insider threat investigation programs or effective physical and operational security plans.

While education leaders commonly cite a lack of budget or not wanting to “turn our schools into prisons” for the lack of school security, it is clear that ignoring this threat and hoping for the best is an irresponsible approach.

In discussing what should be done following an attack, America often seeks a “one size fits all” approach, such as banning AR-15 rifles because they were used in the Sandy Hook and Parkland attacks. However, these “solutions” rarely come from security or law enforcement professionals, as our training teaches us to focus on how perpetrators got in, not merely the weapons used. This was highlighted by the shooting at Santa Fe High School in Texas in May, where 10 people were killed with a revolver and shotgun stolen from the father of the suspect.

These incidents should prompt school systems to reconsider their top-down security protocols and address vulnerabilities from within. Since the February shooting in Parkland, I have personally worked with school district and county education officials to conduct systemwide security assessments. Put simply: The responsibility for creating a stepwise approach to strengthen school security measures and technologies belongs to school administrators.

A good indicator of this is whether or not your local school district has a police agency. Major school systems like Philadelphia and New York have metal detectors in many schools, but have unarmed “school police” without proper training, equipment or legal authority. In contrast, small districts in states like Mississippi and Georgia have full-service school police agencies.

The presence of campus police or armed security is a sign of the recognition that threats need to be responded to and interventions done in an immediate manner. Hourslong sieges like Columbine and Beslan have shifted to active shooter incidents lasting five to 10 minutes in length – far faster than the average local law enforcement response time. Therefore, schools need to adopt a culture of security that integrates concentric layering of policy, procedures and physical measures into daily practices so that multiple, overlapping elements of security are in place to keep campuses safe.

A. Benjamin Mannes is a school security consultant in Philadelphia.

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