A school safety expert says students are safer today because of lessons learned from the mass shootings in schools from Columbine to Sandy Hook to Parkland.
Rick Kaufman, the executive director of community relations and emergency management for Bloomington Public Schools, was among the first to arrive at Columbine High School on April 20, 1999. After providing triage and rescue operations, he was assigned the responsibility of co-leading the Crisis Response Team to one of the worst school shootings in U.S. history.
Kaufman was a district administrator with Jeffco Public Schools at the time. Columbine was one of the 150 schools in Colorado’s largest school system.
When the shooting ended, 12 students and one teacher were murdered, and 26 others wounded. The student killers died by suicide shortly after unleashing an attack on their school.
A common thread among school shooters is a trail of signs – online posts, drawings, and plans – that are often shared on social media, stressed Kaufman.
Acting upon those early signs cannot be ignored, says Kaufman.
“We must continue to teach and encourage students, and parents, that if they ‘see something, say something.’ When information is provided in a timely manner, school staff can respond and intervene to prevent the worse-case scenarios,” said Kaufman. “When we empower students to come forward, they can make a difference, and one that may save lives.”
There is no greater challenge today than creating safe schools, said Kaufman.
“It requires a major commitment and effort by school leaders, staff, parents and a supportive community. A safe school is an absolute foundation to the success of its academic mission,” Kaufman said.
“Research shows when students feel safe in school, achievement improves and behavioral issues decrease. Despite all too frequent headlines of active shooter incidents, students find safe havens in schools thanks in large part to a multi-layered approach that focuses on the four pillars of emergency management: prevention, preparedness, planning and recovery.
“Prevention is evident in schools when teachers and staff build a rapport and trust with students, and the school culture embraces the physical and emotional safety of schools.
“Accidents and tragedies are part of life. As educators, we protect students the best we can and we’re prepared for the unthinkable. In a crisis, we serve children best by recognizing and responding to their psychological and emotional needs,” said Kaufman.
Based on his experience, Kaufman advises school districts to have a three-point plan.
One is having a single point entry to all schools, having a visitor sign in, receive an identification badge and be escorted to the visitor’s destination.
Second to examine and if necessary replace the locks on the doors and have alarm buttons under desks to alert the building. “Look at all the keys that could give perpetrators access.”
A third is software: training the staff and having the drills to prevent anything serious and the worst from happening. Students go through 10 drills a year: five lockdown, five fire safety and a weather.
“Train for the response rather than the threat,” said Kaufman. He advises school safety directors to have a mental-health trained staff member in every school to handle students who are a threat to themselves and others.
If the student is uncontrollable, Kaufman advises a call to 911 that brings law enforcement and an emergency technician to the school who assess the situation and take appropriate action.
Kaufman is optimistic over improvements in school security. More school boards are having voter referendums passed authorizing more money to be spent on school safety, he notes.
In the nearly 30 years Kaufman has worked with schools, he said the key to school safety is teaching and modeling a culture and climate of safety, respect and emotional support.
“It’s relationships … connecting with every child must be an integral part of a school’s mission. When we genuinely care about the social, emotional and safety needs, our students stand the best chance to continue on their pathway to success in schools and beyond.”
Don Heinzman is a former editor of the Elk River Star News. Columns reflect the opinion of the author.