I had the opportunity to present a session at a conference for attorneys at the Walter F. George School of Law this week. The session was focused on how the Sandy Hook tragedy is likely to impact school safety liability. We discussed the potential for increased civil liability exposure from a number of increasingly popular yet theoretical approaches to school safety such as the lockout/lockdown approach to school lockdowns and efforts to teach students and staff to attack gunmen in active shooter situations.
While lives will likely be lost from these types of approaches, we feel that most litigation will still center around traditional school safety incidents such as accidents, medical emergencies, sexual assaults and other situations that occur far more often than school shootings. Since most serious injuries and deaths in American K12 schools do not involve acts of violence, it is important for school officials to use a comprehensive approach to school safety.
The presentation also reviewed how ineffective it can be for school officials to make major changes in school safety without a comprehensive school safety, security, climate, culture and emergency preparedness assessment. The need for due diligence when selecting school safety experts and products was also an important part of the discussion. It was great to have the opportunity to interact with so many attorneys who were interested not only in reducing the exposure of civil liability for schools, but in improving school safety as a primary means to do so.
I was asked by Utica National Insurance to present information on how schools can select qualified vendors at competitive prices after a number of their clients paid rather high fees for school security assessment projects. The company was also concerned that some of the firms lacked a track record working with K12 schools. We felt that some of the information I covered in my keynote at the conference might prove to be useful to others.
We were recently selected to perform a school safety, security, climate, culture and emergency preparedness assessment project for about $40,000. Though the client scored our proposal as more comprehensive and told us that we have performed far more assessment projects than the other vendors, the next lowest bid came in at about $130,000 above ours.
School security experts are conducting more school security experts than any time in the past decade. As school officials try to move rapidly to evaluate their approaches to school security, they can easily move too quickly, compromising quality and wasting large amounts of precious budget resources. If they rush too much, they can also create increased exposure to civil liability. Careful research and a proper bid process can cut the cost of a security assessment project for a public, private or independent school organization by as much as 70% while improving quality.
Having assisted school officials as both a government analyst conducting school security assessments at no cost to schools as well as through a non-profit center that does so on a low-cost basis, I have a series of tips that can help school officials cut costs while reducing the cost of school security assessments by as much as 70% while reducing exposure to civil liability:
- Seek competitive bids from numerous vendors. A widely circulated bid combined with contacting 15 to 20 vendors via a thorough internet search should yield a number of competitive bids.
- Allow vendors at least four weeks to respond to your bid solicitation. Any qualified vendor in the country should be working on at least a dozen school security assessment projects and even the largest firms can prepare a better bid if you afford them ample time.
- Weight cost for at least 25% of your scoring criteria but not more than 50%. 25 to 30% weighting should create tough competition without the increased exposure to civil liability that too much emphasis on cost can create should you experience a safety incident after your assessment.
- Require six to twelve references for school security assessment projects and attempt to check all references before signing a contract. There are many vendors who can provide a dozen or more references without difficulty.
- Require bidders to disclose any open records requests, lawsuits by or against clients and termination of projects by clients. This step can be extremely revealing.
- Clearly state what you would like vendors to assess and provide vendors an opportunity to ask questions for clarification.
These simple steps can help you dramatically reduce the cost of school security assessments while improving quality and preventing trouble with poor quality vendors.
Our analysts are currently working on more than thirty school security assessment projects for public, parochial and independent schools. When reviewing the requests for proposals (RFP’s) and requests for qualifications (RFQ’) for these and other projects, we have noted that school officials have often been emphasizing school security. When describing the scope of work for their school security assessment, there has been a pronounced tendency to focus on school security protocols and technologies. While these aspects of a school security assessment are very important, our best opportunities to prevent the loss of human life in schools can often be found in other equally important areas. For example, we have seen numerous instances where major incidents including mass casualty school shootings have taken place after a heavy investment of school security technology following a school security assessment that was too narrow in scope. For school security technologies to work more reliably to prevent violence, the culture and climate of a school should be assessed along with school security technologies and policies.
Perhaps our best opportunities to reduce the mass casualty loss of human life in schools involve a careful assessment of school crisis preparedness. As we review past incidents, there are striking examples of the loss of human life when individual school teachers, custodians, administrators, and other personnel were not properly prepared to take life-saving action fast enough. For example, all 95 deaths in the deadly 1958 Our Lady of Angels Sacred Hearts School fire could have been averted had the monthly fire drills been conducted differently. Sadly, most schools are still using 1958 style fire drills where staff are not required to make decisions and to communicate as they may be required to do in the event of a fire, tornado, earthquake, medical emergency, or an act of violence.
Including assessment processes to evaluate culture, climate and emergency preparedness in school security assessments can significantly improve these valuable efforts.
School security assessments are an invaluable tool to improve school security, school climate and school emergency preparedness. While there are some instances where school officials have no choice to do otherwise, school security assessments conducted when schools are closed are less effective. School security assessments are more effective when they are conducted when assessors can observe students and employees arriving in the morning, departing in the afternoon and moving about the school during the school day.
Having assisted in school security assessments for more than 5,000 public and non-public schools over the years, our analysts have all noted that they have more findings when assessments are conducted when schools are in session. For example, one of the most important aspects of a school security assessment involves the evaluation of student supervision. Improving student supervision helps to reduce the risk of violence, student abductions, arson, vandalism, accidental injury and a range of other crisis situations. Good student supervision also helps school employees more rapidly and effectively shelter students from a gunman, a tornado or a hazardous materials incident.
Schools should try to avoid conducting school security assessments when schools are closed even if this means delaying them until the next school year. This is especially true if major changes such as implementation of new school security technologies will be guided by the school security assessment process. Whether your school organization is an independent school or a large public school system, school security assessments conducted during the school year will yield more useful information and thus value.
Our award-winning school safety video crew has released another free school safety video podcast on the room clear protocol.
When we worked with the Lincoln County School District in Oregon several years ago to produce a series of more than 30 school safety training videos, we were very impressed with a protocol they had included in their school crisis plans. The protocol is called a room clear protocol and had traditionally been thought of as a means to clear students quickly in a classroom for situations such as a medical emergency or a disruptive student. We realized that this simple but important protocol could also be utilized to move students out of any area in a school such as a media center, main office, gymnasium or cafeteria.
Many of our clients now utilize the room clear protocol to better protect their staff and students.
Chris Dorn and his awesome video crew are about to release another new school safety video on the importance of reverse evacuation protocols. Our crew is also working on another eight free school safety video podcasts and three new school safety training videos which will be released as they complete them.
School Safety Expert Tip – Consider Whistles for Life for Life-Saving Low-Tech Emergency Communications
As is our standard practice as an independent school security organization, Safe Havens never accepts any form of compensation in return for endorsing or recommending any school safety, technology, product or service. Though we are contacted by vendors on a weekly basis who would like to pay us to endorse their products or services, we have maintained our independent school security posture since the inception of Safe Havens many years ago.
Instead, our analysts often recommend and sometimes even endorse school security technology solutions, products or vendors that have impressed us and our clients. One such vendor is Whistles for Life. The companies’ owner sent me some samples of his rescue whistles a couple of years ago. These inexpensive and amazing whistles are designed to be heard from the bottom of a canyon or in the middle of the woods when a hiker or other person enjoying the great outdoors is in distress. This is a real and reliable method for low-tech emergency communications. Cloud-based emergency response tools, iPad access to crisis plans and other emerging technologies are great, but for instant and reliable implementation tried and true methods that don’t rely on electricity or internet access are hard to beat.
Rescue whistles can be an invaluable low-tech emergency communications tool for school crisis situations. School staff who detect danger can use a rescue whistle to rapidly gain the attention of 300 students in a noisy cafeteria, spread out in an outdoor area or facilitate response in many other situations. This can help school staff rapidly direct students to take shelter from an approaching tornado, dangerous individual or other hazard. Some school staff we speak to use hand signals, color coded cards and other visual communications methods to give updates on students and relay other information. Including whistles in this procedure is a great way to fill in the gaps where funding is not sufficient to allow two-way radios for all staff members and a simple low-tech emergency communications method is needed.
Providing each staff member with some type of reliable whistle or other personal amplification device can have benefits for other situations, not just school crisis events. Whistles can be helpful when supervising students at recess, working student drop-off or pick up duty or when breaking up fights and other altercations on campus. Many schools have used parent-teacher organization funding or donations from local vendors and foundations for these types of supplies. Some vendors or local businesses may provide these types of items at a free or discounted rate in return for the chance to gain exposure through the inclusion of their logo or name. Remember to consider the low-cost low-tech emergency communications methods when looking at the finer details of your response plans.
Low-Tech Emergency Communications: Whistles for Life
Whistles for Life website:
Disclaimer: No compensation was provided for this review. This is not a product endorsement but a review of a piece of safety equipment that we find useful and one option to consider as part of an all hazards approach to school safety.
I just finished another independent school security assessment this afternoon and it dawned on me that we are averaging one independent school security assessment per week. While we have worked with independent schools regularly over the years, we have never had the volume of requests to conduct independent school security assessments before. I have always enjoyed working with a wide variety of schools because it is such a great opportunity to learn. As with every school security assessment project, I learned things during this assessment that were new to me. As with public and other type of non-public schools in different regions of the country, we see many unique situations working with our independent school clients. For example, a number of independent schools have students of prominent parents who are protected by professional bodyguards. Some independent schools have multiple bodyguards on or near their campuses each day.
I look forward to working with two more independent schools in the next couple of weeks to see how they address school safety, security and emergency preparedness in ways that are tailored to their own unique situations.
Our video crew has just released a new free school security video podcast focused on how school officials can improve the speed of implementation of critical protocols. Due to the tremendous increase in requests for school security assessments, conference keynotes and other forms of assistance, they have not been releasing as many videos. Our dedicated video crew is now working on another nine free videos and three new staff development videos. Please sign up for our free e-newsletter as new resources are typically announced via the newsletter.
School officials sometimes pay $10,000 or more for school security assessments when the most experienced evaluators in the nation regularly conduct more comprehensive school security assessments for far less money. While our analysts have assisted with school security assessments for more than 5,000 public, charter, parochial and independent schools, we have never billed a client that much for even the most comprehensive assessments.
We recommend that schools and school districts seek multiple competitive bids for school security assessment projects. School officials should also conduct due diligence in selecting vendors from what is an almost totally unregulated field. While a medical doctor or attorney can lose their ability to practice for severe misconduct, there is no such mechanism for school security consultants.
While there are many solid school security experts, the lack of regulation in the field combined with the massive demand for services has resulted in a proliferation of school security experts who have serious skeletons in their closet such as a felony arrest for theft, or who lack appropriate relevant professional qualifications to perform proper school security assessments.
Here are a few tips that can help school officials determine the most qualified school security experts while also reducing costs of a school security assessment project by as much as 70%:
- Bid the project widely. A proper bid circulation can result in 20-30 competitive bids.
- Make cost count for at least 25% of the decision-making for the project. While weighting costs too heavily can increase the exposure to civil liability in future school security litigation, bidders for school security assessment projects should have incentive to keep costs down.
- Require and verify at least six to twelve references for K12 school security assessment projects.
- Require bidding vendors to list any client who has fired the firm or terminated a contract for services.
- Require vendors to list all open records requests they have filed, protests and litigation involving clients can be most revealing.
- Make falsification of credentials or untruthful answers to any of the above requirements grounds for immediate termination of the contract. As with applications for employment, you should retain the ability to address any situation where a vendor is untruthful.
These simple steps can help you weed out problematic vendors while making the cream rise to the top. The closer you look, the better the most qualified school security experts look.
There are people who purport that the school lockdown is a failed concept that is outdated and in dire need of replacement. This argument has not been established as a fact and is hotly contested by most leading experts in the field of school safety. When pressed for examples of where lockdown has failed in schools, proponents of abandoning school lockdown usually cite four instances:
- The library at Columbine High School which was actually never locked during the attack.
- The Virginia Tech shooting where lockdown was not in place as a protocol, practiced by the faculty and most rooms did not even have locks.
- The Sandy Hook Elementary School Shooting where we do not even know many the key facts of the case at this point and will not know them until the official report is released this summer.
- The Red Lake Reservation School Shooting which I worked as an expert witness finding only evidence no evidence of concept failure.
When evaluating school lockdown, we should be especially careful not to confuse application failure with concept failure. For example, if an aggressor is able to attack victims in a room because there is no viable lockdown protocol, staff do not have a key to the room they are teaching in, lockdown drills have not been conducted, etc. The cause can be and usually is from a failure to be able to apply the concept of school lockdown rather than a failure of the concept itself.
As an analogy, if I attempted to fly an F-22 Raptor jet, I would not be successful because I have not been trained or had the chance to practice flying one. This would not mean that the F-22 is a bad jet; it would simply mean that I am not properly prepared to fly one. After World War Two, military pilots were dying needlessly until the United States Air Force conducted an exhaustive study on ejection failures. By thoughtful study, the Air Force was able to determine why pilots were often unable to use the features of their aircraft to eject in time to save their lives. With a combined approach of modifications in plane design, training and practice, the Air Force was able to improve the application of emergency ejection and did not abandon the concept.
We respectfully submit that most of the problems we have seen with school lockdown do not indicate that this is a faulty concept, but instead that there is much evidence that many school staff are not properly prepared to apply the concepts under the stress of actual incidents.