Guest Post by Donald J. Cymrot, the vice president of Education at CNA and Stephen E. Rickman, the director of Justice Programs at CNA.
In the aftermath of the horrific event in Newtown, CT, school leaders are facing a wide variety of difficult issues including reassuring children and their parents that the classroom is still a safe place, dealing with mentally troubled members of the community, and reducing the chances that a similar incident will occur in the future. In light of this tragedy, many communities will look for quick answers, and their leaders will feel pressure to do something. The National Rifle Association has already proposed spending two billion dollars per year for hiring armed guards in all schools, but others will surely propose other somethings such as increased use of metal detectors, installation of more security cameras and secure locks on classrooms, and intensifying other security procedures. Many of these proposed solutions are costly and may not substantially reduce the probability of another event occurring because such events are rare to begin with. Further, a substantial investment in school security will have to be paid for out of other programs, some of which are aimed at improving the quality of education, such as professional development for teachers.
Given both the need for action and the potential cost, the U.S. government should undertake a systematic review of the mass shooting events in recent years to determine the similarities and differences in the events and to identify lessons learned and best practices to inform modifications in school security planning and practices. Prior studies of mass shooting events have primarily focused on the characteristics of the assailants and the type of guns and ammunition used. We propose a study of how the perpetrator penetrated existing security in schools or other facilities, how the police and emergency medical personnel responded to information throughout the event, whether emergency response plans were in place and followed during the attack, and whether police, medical, and school personnel received training and exercised these plans. Such a review would be a valuable resource to local authorities in updating and preparing their emergency response plans.
In reviewing and modifying their emergency responses plans, school administrators could conduct a five-stage process to improve the effectiveness of such plans. First, they can incorporate these lessons into their emergency response plans. These national lessons learned need to be reviewed in light of local conditions and adapted to local circumstances. A one-size-fits-all plan such as armed guards in all schools cannot possibly account for widely different circumstances faced by communities. School administrators should develop these plans in close collaboration with police and emergency medical personnel to ensure that the plans of all these groups are consistent and mutually re-enforcing. Second, based on this plan they can identify requirements needed to implement the emergency response plan. These needs might be in the form of policies and procedures or personnel and equipment. Third, review current policy, procedures, personnel, and equipment to identify gaps between the requirements and existing assets. In some cases, the redeployment of existing assets might be sufficient to shore up an emergency response plan. Fourth, develop an investment plan to close the gaps and eliminate unmet needs. Such plans should consider both the acquisition cost and the ongoing operating cost and should weigh the cost of the program against the reduction in risk. Fifth, schools need to conduct exercises of their emergency response plans. Exercising these plans will help further identify problems or gaps so that policies, procedures, and investment decisions can be modified to better address the dangers of future incidents.
Until the country develops an effective approach to the lethal combination of mental illness, privacy rights, and guns, we will continue to face the possibility of more Newtown-like attacks. Although pressures for immediate response may start to build, a more systematic review of the problem and alternative approaches to mitigate the risks could help administrators to resist the pressures and temptations of making costly investments as a way of doing something.