The near weekly occurrence of school shootings across the United States has students, faculty, and staff feeling like potential victims. As civic and political leaders seek broader solutions to this violent phenomenon, academic administrators are hurriedly seeking ways to keep their campuses from becoming tomorrow’s headlines. Conversations with education professionals reveal a pervasive fear, an absence of answers, and an overwhelming sense of powerlessness. But it doesn’t have to be that way. As traumatic as school shootings are, security professionals have learned critical lessons from them. These lessons, when applied by security experts and their academic partners, can empower entire campus communities and help identify and even prevent future threats.
Below are three important lessons that can be proactively deployed at any campus, from grammar schools to the Ivy League, today.
- Remove all campus floor plans from publicly accessible websites. Providing floor plans to campus buildings, including to popular gathering spots like student centers and dorms, is common practice for most academic institutions. However, communicating this information to the world at large poses a significant security threat to the entire campus community. A quick Google search can yield detailed schematics of interior spaces in high schools and universities in every city and state—information that would otherwise only be available to someone with repeated personal access to a building or facility. Allowing such access enables perpetrators to learn everything they need to know about the interior layout of campus buildings: which hallways lead where, the placement of entrances and exits, specific room numbers, how many beds—and therefore how many people—per room and floor. It is widely known that most mass shooters do some form of reconnaissance prior to executing their plan. Online floor plans allow a prospective shooter to plan and visualize his attack without risking detection by repeatedly visiting the scene.
To minimize this risk, administrators should place all floor plans within the secure portal of the institution’s website, the same secure location where students and faculty manage class schedules, pay bills, and view assignments and grades. This makes them accessible to those who need them, while at the same time restricting them from the general public. Once these plans are placed beyond public reach on a school’s website, data forensic experts can advise how to remove schematics from other publicly accessible internet sites the floor plans may be on.
- Teach students and faculty how to communicate effectively with 911 operators. Calling 911 can be hard. Most adults are reluctant to call 911 for fear of being wrong, wasting law enforcement’s time, and maybe getting in trouble. Most young people have never called 911 for any reason and have no idea what to expect from the experience. Those who do make the call tend to be under stress, which degrades a caller’s ability to accurately convey information. Often the caller fails to communicate the necessary facts or express the appropriate level of alarm to enable responding law enforcement agents to assess the level of threat. And while it is always better to err on the side of caution and call 911 when a threat to school safety is perceived, responses to 911 calls can be alarming and bring significant disruption. Providing guidance on when to call, what information to relate, and how to convey that information properly during a 911 call increases the precision of responding officers, helps them gauge an appropriate response, and allows everyone in the campus community to feel that they have a role in keeping themselves and their campus safe.
One way to do this is to create a public service information video that demonstrates how to calmly and responsibly convey information to a 911 or campus security operator. It’s a great project that interested students can participate in, under the guidance of security professionals. Once created, the video can be shared over social media to all members of the campus community. With just a little professional guidance and direction, students, faculty, and staff can become the vigilant eyes and ears of campus.
- When it comes to threat information, there’s no such thing as oversharing. If a member of the campus community comes into possession of information on a threat, how should they proceed? First, if there is the risk of imminent danger, call 911. Calling 911 allows trained law enforcement professionals to triage risk situations. Assuming a 911 call isn’t necessary, remember the Notification Rule of Three: Local, state, and federal. A common mistake made by individuals and institutions alike is thinking that information flows seamlessly between law enforcement professionals and agencies. If this were true, then a call providing the information to a single law enforcement contact would be sufficient. However, that is not the case. The three levels of law enforcement in the United States do not have day-to-day contact with each other, nor are there effective protocols in place for passing information between agencies.
To overcome this communication gap, academic institutions should have at least three points of contact in law enforcement—one at each level—with whom they can actively engage and to whom they can simultaneously pass all tips and information. These three points of contact should include local law enforcement, either police or sheriff; state law enforcement, typically the state police; and federal law enforcement, usually the FBI. Local law enforcement is usually the busiest in terms of workload but they are also ones in closest physical proximity. Odds are, if there is an active shooter situation on campus, the first responders will not be coming from the FBI field office in the state capital, but rather will be the local sheriff or police department. Local law enforcement is also typically best suited to deploy resources quickly. And given their day-to-day patrol responsibilities, the local sheriff or police department may already be familiar with the individual responsible for the threat.
If the campus administration does not already have contacts at all three levels of law enforcement, find a security professional who can make the introductions and create a system of communication with a dedicated point of contact in each. Like all other relationships, these have to be dutifully maintained as both campus personnel and law enforcement professionals can change over time.
Achieving a truly safe campus environment requires planning and expertise. While the three lessons above are a great way to start, they should be implemented as part of an overall campus safety plan, one developed and maintained by well-credentialed security professionals. Planning starts with a comprehensive physical security assessment to ensure that vulnerabilities unique to a particular campus are not overlooked. The aim is to create a robust plan, carefully tailored to the specific institution, that includes physical security upgrades to campus buildings and access points, lighting and surveillance video, a well-rehearsed emergency preparedness plan, and ongoing threat monitoring focused on detecting material posted online that may speak to an imminent safety and security risk. A proper campus safety plan can keep students sitting and learning at their desks, not hiding underneath them.