What happened Feb. 14 at a Florida high school may not have been preventable. Yet, proactive risk management best practices -- implemented in advance -- perhaps could have been prevented, if not at least greatly mitigated, its tragic outcome.
Lots of lessons were learned from Columbine High School’s 1999 shooting, which took 13 lives, and from Sandy Hook’s 2012 tragedy, which claimed 26. Far too many similar shootings have occurred on campuses since those times.
These lessons have been documented. Risk prevention and risk reduction measures are readily available from reliable and competent sources. Many of these resources are free.
One dimension of this national tragedy is the lack of focus on proactive preparedness by school districts. Closer to home is the reality of an audit that found California schools, though required to have an overall safety plan, did not have any active shooter plan.
The California State Auditor recently indicated that California K-12 public schools are inadequately prepared for potential incidents of active shooters.
Sixteen safety plans were reviewed from Kern, Placer, and San Bernardino county schools. Of the 16 reviewed, 14 had insufficient processes. The Auditor’s report commented that these omissions “increase the risk that the schools will be unprepared to respond to emergencies.”
According to the audit, certain districts filed precisely the same plan year after year while others filed no plan at all. School districts are required to report to the California Department of Education those schools for which no plan has been filed; however, most districts failed to do so.
Finally, the audit found that school-based violence and active shooter incidents are on the rise in California. During the 2012-13 school year, nine such threats were reported. During the 2016-17 school year, 27 were reported.
The “good news” is that more and more schools are proactively protecting their campuses from active shooters. For example, the Rancho Tehama Elementary School’s staff quickly locked its campus down and had all sheltered in place when the gunfire began.
What are some of the lessons learned? Here are a few – of which there are many, many more:
• Work with local first responders to create a response plan.
• Conduct drills and full-scale exercises with first responders.
• Train students, teachers, staff and administrators on how to respond under stress to all types of events – including active shooters, of course. Do so on a regular and frequent basis.
• Incorporate CPTED (Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design) construction in new and remodeled buildings. CPTED will delay or potentially prevent entry of attackers.
• Create mass notification systems so lockdown, evacuation, and other preventive measures can be taken in a timely manner. These systems also should extend to the surrounding community.
• Create anonymous tip lines so anyone can confidentially report behavior of concern for referral to assessment teams for timely evaluation.
• Create visitor management systems to identify sex offenders, non-custodial parents, individuals with a history of domestic abuse or workplace violence. This would preclude their entry on school premises.
• Create parent and student reunification processes within the overall system.
• Arrange in advance for mental health counseling following any tragedy. This will permit all involved to recover emotionally from the event. Symptoms of PTSD are not limited to members of the military and first responders. Each of us is vulnerable.
Of the many resources available, one with special focus on schools is www.campussafetymagazine.com. It’s free!
School administrators and their board members have a clear responsibility to do all that is reasonably possible to protect students and staff on any campus. Details will vary from elementary to high school and to university campuses; however, the planning process itself must be of the same high priority. Laws can help but local leadership is what truly matters.
If all goes according to plan, loss of life can indeed be avoided. Sound risk management practices can lead to a quiet night’s sleep.
John Pryor is a risk management consultant and author of "Quality Risk Management Fieldbook," published by the International Risk Management Institute. The opinions expressed are his own.