Communication and collaboration can save lives
The TASB Risk Management Fund hosted a safety and security summit September 13, 2018, at the Austin Marriott North in Round Rock and online. There were 120 on-site attendees and approximately 100 virtual attendees, consisting of Texas school administrators and their law enforcement community. The summit featured a variety of speakers who highlighted the importance of facilitating collaboration and communication to keep schools safe.
Beyond tragedy: response and recovery following a school-based crisis
The summit opened with Alissa Parker, who lost her six-year-old daughter Emilie on December 14, 2012, in the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School. Alissa discussed the challenges, successes, and lessons learned in the aftermath of the tragedy.
“When I say effective communication saves lives, I really mean it. I dismissed the idea that safety measures were not enough because I never thought this would happen at our school,” she said. “Our school cared about our safety. Our school cared about our students. It was this false sense of security and the ‘not here’ mentality that was one of our downfalls.”
The Sandy Hook tragedy sparked a passion in Alissa for school safety and security that has inspired her to share her story and insights with the world. She is the co-founder of Safe and Sound Schools, an organization that focuses on improving safety and security in schools across the country.
Key takeaways from her session include:
- Collaboration is key—develop relationships with officials in the law enforcement, mental health, and faith-based community before a tragedy strikes.
- Simple measures, such as providing training and locking doors, can save lives.
- Communities need ongoing support from various sources such as the faith-based community and mental health professionals after a tragedy to rebuild a sense of safety.
Collaborating for safety and security
This multidisciplinary panel focused on the importance of collaborating with the community. The panel consisted of moderator Melanie Moss, TASB Risk Management Services; Paul McLarty, Clear Creek ISD; Magdalena Denham, Sam Houston State University; Chief William Edwards, Hutto ISD; and Captain Reynaldo Garza, San Antonio Fire Department.
“When it comes to safety, it doesn’t come down to one resource or person. Everybody in the community is involved in some shape or form,” Edwards said.
The panel offered safety and security tips from different perspectives, yet there were several common themes:
- Every organization and campus is unique, and each plan should be customized for your needs.
- School and community stakeholders should participate in the emergency preparedness and response process.
- Getting students involved in the planning process can give them a sense of involvement and accomplishment, as shown in the Red Cross Pillowcase Project example.
Understanding and preventing school shootings: a threat assessment overview
Cynthia Marble of SIGMA Threat Management Associates presented research and insights on the importance of assessing potential threats before a tragedy happens. She cited research from the Secret Service, including a 1997 case study and the Safe School Initiative, conducted shortly after the Columbine shooting, which revealed that perpetrators of mass violence show patterns on the pathway to violence.
“If we can figure out where they are on the pathway (to violence), we can prevent it,” Marble said.
She outlined the steps in the threat assessment process, how to develop a team, and how to focus on prevention. Her tips include:
- Look for concerning signs, such as unusual homework assignments and social media posts. In most cases, the shooter attempts to tell someone their plan ahead of time.
- Form a threat assessment team that spans professions, including anyone from school nurses to IT staff. There can be one team per school or a team that serves an entire school district.
- Report concerns early, examine behavior rather than profile students, and focus on connecting the person of concern with the necessary support.
Law enforcement perspective on school security
TASB Legal Services Director Joy Baskin moderated a panel that offered the law enforcement perspective on school security. The panel consisted of Lt. Gary Connella, Texas Commission on Law Enforcement; Sgt. Jeff Ferry, Luling Police Department; Lt. William McCauley, Austin Community College, and Chief Craig Miller, Dallas ISD.
“It is important to get back to collaboration. What seems like a good idea (to one person) isn’t always a good idea,” Miller said.
Tips from the viewpoint and experiences of law enforcement professionals include:
- Utilize outside resources, especially if you are on a tight budget.
- Have a consistent plan in place for how to treat incidents.
- Engage the entire community when selecting security vendors to gain different perspectives.
Recalibrating school response to student threats
Walsh Gallegos Trevino Russo & Kyle Attorney Haley Turner provided an overview of the legal issues with students that can arise during the threat assessment process. She emphasized the importance of being aware of student privacy laws such as the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, reporting obligations, issues to consider for students with disabilities, and the importance of involving the community.
This session covered how to identify potential threats, address the threats, and work with the students as they return to school after discipline. Some of her tips to ensure a smooth process include:
- Involve the Admissions, Review, and Dismissal (ARD) Committee in the process if it involves a person with a disability.
- Ensure that counseling and other support services are provided to victims of bullying as a part of the investigation and resolution process.
- When disciplinary actions need to be taken and a student who made a legitimate threat is removed from class, he or she should be placed in a different classroom when they return to school.
Increasing school safety through design
TASB Director of Collaboration and Coordination Shevis Moore and Pfluger Associate Architects Partner Sean Connor shared how to design a secure campus and which collaboration strategies to implement during the design process, including:
- Implement door sensors as an easy and affordable solution to monitor which doors are open.
- Limit the possible entry points and think about ease of access in building design.
- Include community members, emergency, responders, and all levels of staff in conversations about design and safety.
Safety and Security in Texas Schools
Kathy Martinez-Prather, Director of the Texas School Safety Center, wrapped up the summit with a discussion of resources available through the center.
The Texas School Safety Center, created in 1999, offers a variety of resources to schools and serves as a clearinghouse for safety and security information through training, research, and technical assistance.
Some of the center’s resources available for free include:
The session also included an update from Mary Lynn Bunkley, a Policy Advisor from Governor Abbott’s office, on the school safety action plan. After holding three roundtabl discussions with superintendents, administrators, and law enforcement officials, the Governor’s Office developed the School Safety Action Plan, which was published in May 2018.
School organizations have already begun enhancing their safety and security efforts and implementing recommendations from the plan. Some examples from Fund members that are included in the summary released in August include:
- Texas City ISD is hiring more deputies, providing teachers with emergency training, and implementing a new communication system to improve emergency response time.
- Katy ISD implemented KatyConnect, a crisis hotline available 24/7 for secondary students who need to talk to a trained and certified counselor about problems they are experiencing. The hotline also has texting and chat components integrated.
- College Station ISD will begin using P3, an app that allows anonymous reporting on incidents related to various threats, at its middle and high schools.
The Texas Education Agency has been assisting with these efforts and has a school safety resource page.
The Fund is here to support members with ongoing safety and security efforts. For assistance with emergency planning, contact TASB Emergency Management and School Security Consultant Melanie Moss. Use this guide to help determine who you should involve in your community and build the perfect safety and security team. Fund members can contact TASB Risk Management Risk Solutions for a recorded version of the safety and security summit and handouts from the sessions.