Fire drills occur regularly in schools across the United States – a fire alarm sounds, students form a line and exit the room, teacher closes the door, and the lines up on the playground, all in about 45 seconds. Fire drills do work so, even though there are an estimated 5,500 school fires that occur yearly according to the U.S. Fire Administration/National Fire Data Center, fatalities are exceedingly rare. However, such drills may not adequately prepare students and staff for all types of school emergencies. When an emergency is not a fire, the school may not have a drill for it.
It is not always apparent from the reports in the popular media, particularly in the wake of high-profile incidents such as school shootings, but schools are relatively safe places for children. According to a June 2013 report prepared for the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), from 1992 to 2011, an annual average of 23 youths (ages 5 to 18) in the United States were the victims of homicides “at school” – defined as “in school buildings, on school grounds, on school buses, and at places that hold school-sponsored events or activities.” That number is significantly lower than the 1,396 total homicides (at and away from school) in the same age group between 1 July 2009 and 30 June 2010.
Although every death of a child is tragic and heartbreaking, the average number of deaths from school homicides pales in comparison to the overall number of 45,069 child deaths (ages 0 to 19) in 2010 as reported by the National Center for Health Statistics. This also is significant considering that there are more than 130,000 public and private schools in the United States with more than 50 million students in grades K-12, according to the NCES. However, in light of recent high-profile incidents, perhaps they could be even safer, thus reducing 23 to a lower number, or perhaps even zero. Publilius Syrus, a Latin writer in first century B.C., stated, “He is most free from danger, who, even when safe, is on his guard.”
Nature of the Problem Because of the intense media coverage and high-profile nature of school shootings, it might be assumed that schools throughout the United States would be getting all of the help and assistance that they need to ensure complete and comprehensive school safety programs. However, an October 2013 NBC News article quoted one school safety expert, Kenneth Trump, “The federal government has repeatedly since Columbine cut federal school safety funding.” Although there have been renewed efforts and programs since the Newtown, Connecticut, school shootings in 2012, the actual state of school safety in the United States is not completely clear. According to Trump, “There’s always been a context of politics around this topic. The parents don’t know what they don’t know, and no one is rushing to tell them. There’s been a history of downplay, deny, deflect and defend ... to protect the image of the schools.”
There has been much discussion, information, and guidance concerning school safety and security in light of the many high-profile incidents over the past two decades. However, there has been an emphasis on active shooters, which tend to be low-probability incidents. Many of these programs and resources do not even begin to address the spectrum of school safety issues that are more likely to occur and that can be just as dangerous as, and result in as many or more fatalities than, an active shooter scenario – for example, tornadoes or other natural disasters, school bus traffic accidents, or a manmade catastrophe such as a train derailment of hazardous materials or chemical spill in close proximity to a school.
The reality is that a single research-based set of universally accepted standards regarding school safety and security currently does not exist. Albeit, some states have either developed or are considering their own standards, but they vary widely in scope, scale, and applicability. Even at the federal level, there have been a number of studies on these issues by various federal agencies, but a single set of guidance and standards has yet to emerge that is widely accepted, much less researched and validated. In many cases, this may be due to an overall lack of empirical research into exactly what standards are most effective. There also is the issue of differences and variations between individual schools and districts that make a universal set of standards and guidelines a difficult proposition at best.
A Possible Solution The overall emergency management community has the Emergency Management Accreditation Program (EMAP) and the National Fire Protection Association’s NFPA 1600 standard as benchmarks for overall emergency management programs. Law enforcement has the Commission on Accreditation of Law Enforcement Agencies (CALEA®) and its voluntary program. However, no such equivalent exists for school safety and preparedness. Rather than a stringent set of mandatory regulations dictating “how” a school or district must provide school safety, a more suitable approach for education may be a broad-based set of voluntary school safety and security standards and guidance that allow schools and districts the flexibility to apply solutions within their own specific environment, culture, and resource constraints. Such an approach would establish requirements, but also provide options for how to accomplish them given the nature of the particular environment.
Of course, creating a voluntary program has specific value in terms of effectiveness since most schools and districts have more than enough mandatory requirements that sometimes lead to “check the box” compliance. Additionally, having such a program or project eventually being developed into an actual accreditation like EMAP or CALEA® would offer legitimacy and validity. Having a statewide or national organization – for example, National Emergency Management Association, National Sheriff Association, National Association of Police Chiefs, or the National Association of School Resource Officers – sponsor such a program as a voluntary accreditation program would ensure standardization and proper advocacy. Applicable models already exist in other areas, so perhaps it is time to apply them to something as important as school safety and security.
Wayne P. Bergeron, lieutenant colonel, retired from the United States Army in May 2011 after a 23-year career within the Military Police Corps and Special Operations Forces. He currently serves as an instructor teaching both criminal justice and security and emergency management at the University of North Alabama in Florence, Alabama. His education includes undergraduate degrees in criminal justice and political science, a master’s degree in international relations from Troy University, and he is currently in his third year of doctoral study in emergency management at Jacksonville State University.