In the wake of recent incidences of gun violence, school safety and security has become an increasingly pressing concern in the United States and Canada. Schools, summer camps, daycare centers, and other agencies charged with the safety of children have a duty to protect them, and their ability to do so depends on solid policies, training, and appropriate response to security threats. Laws, regulations, and internal policies designed to shield children from harm may be developed proactively in response to a risk assessment or reactively in response to an event that caused injury to a child. Both are valid options in today’s climate of terroristic threats to school safety and security. Inaction is not. Schools and other child-centered programs must consider and develop appropriate responses to this new dynamic.
Schools generally respond to terroristic threats quickly and decisively, but examples suggest that, at times, responses might not be sufficient based on the level of risk to school safety and security. In December 2015 — two weeks after 14 people were murdered nearby in a San Bernardino, Calif. center for people with developmental disabilities — the Los Angeles Unified School District responded to an e-mail threat to students by closing more than 1,000 schools for a day. At about the same time, New York City officials acknowledged having received a similar threat, but considered it so “outlandish” that they dismissed it as a hoax. As it turned out, nothing did occur in L.A. and the students were safe. New York City Police Commissioner William Bratton accused his Los Angeles counterparts of overreacting, but the question remains: What if the threat had been credible and the school had failed to act?
The incidences in New York and Los Angeles are not isolated to large American cities. In November 2015, authorities in Canada — a country that prides itself on its low crime rate — reacted to the latest in a rash of e-mailed threats by closing 71 schools in Quebec and Ottawa. Nothing was found in any of those searches, either. “Notwithstanding the fact that these threats seem to be unfounded, they are taken very seriously by police and will be the subject of an investigation,” police in Quebec said.
Taking action in response to these threats, which met the provincial definition of a terrorist act, is the right thing to do. Ignoring or making light of any terroristic threat places students and teachers at risk.
Appropriate Response to School Safety and Security Threats
The standard of professional care and legal standards for determining what constitutes a credible threat are contradictory and confusing. Until the U.S. Supreme Court defines a common standard, various contradictory lower court opinions will persist. With no clear standard of what constitutes a credible threat to school safety and security or how a school or other agency should respond to one, personnel must take all terroristic threats or suspected threats seriously.
States and provinces have definitions of what constitutes a terroristic threat, and these definitions may fit in the context of schools as well. For example, Pennsylvania law defines a terroristic threat as a threat to commit violence with intent to terrorize another person, to cause evacuation of a building, or to cause serious public inconvenience with reckless disregard for the risk of doing so. In the school context, a warning of a mass shooting that prompts a school evacuation and disrupts education constitutes a terroristic threat under Pennsylvania law, and in response, action can be taken against the perpetrator.
In addition to state and provincial laws, other resources provide guidance for schools:
- In its 1999 report, “The School Shooter: A Threat Assessment Perspective,” the FBI’s Critical Incident Response Group recommended that schools adopt threat-response policies based on three tiers: low-level threats carrying a minimal risk; medium-level threats, which could possibly be carried out but are not entirely realistic; and high-level threats that pose a serious and imminent danger. The report provides guidance for categorizing threats into each tier.
- A 2004 report by the U.S. Department of Education and the U.S. Secret Service, “The Final Report and Findings of the Safe Schools Initiative: Implications for the Prevention of Attacks in the United States,” suggests that there are productive actions that educators and others can pursue in response to the problem of targeted school violence and terrorism.
- Another 2004 publication from the Department of Education and Secret Service, “Threat Assessment in Schools: A Guide to Managing Threatening Situations and to Creating Safe School Climates,” builds on the previous report. It sets forth a process, known as threat assessment, for managing students who may pose a threat.
The latter two reports stress that school shootings are rarely impulsive acts. The shooters told other students (though not the victims) about their plans in advance of their actions, but the other students did not tell adults. Telling others constituted a terroristic threat, but in many cases the students who knew of the threat failed to act. They did not report the threat to a school official who might have been able to intervene to prevent the compromise to school safety and security.
Perhaps these students did not know how to respond. Schools should provide training to staff, students, and parents and incorporate a definition of terroristic threat in the student code of conduct, the school security policy, and information that goes home to parents. Information from the school should clearly specify how a student, staff member, or someone from the community is to report threat information to a school official and how the official should respond. A good example is the policy of the School District of Philadelphia regarding terroristic threats. After defining a terroristic threat, Philadelphia’s policy states that:
- Staff members and students shall be made aware of their responsibility for informing the building principal about any knowledge relevant to a possible or actual terroristic threat.
- The building principal shall immediately call 911 and follow the district’s crisis plan after receiving a report of such a threat.
- The principal shall react promptly to this information and knowledge, in compliance with state laws, regulations, and procedures established with local law enforcement.
School Safety and Security Threats Require Swift and Decisive Action
Sometimes there is no obvious threat, yet a terroristic act takes place. Depending on circumstances, the school might not be held responsible. For example, in a case in which I was engaged as the expert witness, a woman came through the front door of an elementary school with what she said was her nephew’s lunch in a brown bag. She asked the school secretary if she could take it to her nephew’s classroom. The secretary, who knew the woman, agreed. The woman went to the first-grade classroom, walked through the door, and greeted the teacher, “Good morning, Ms. Miller.” She then reached into the “lunch” bag, pulled out a revolver, and shot and killed the teacher in front of 24 children. Is it necessary to search every person who comes into a school, is known by staff, is the parent or aunt of a student, and who says she is there to bring a forgotten lunch to a child?
The answer is, “No.” In this case, it was my opinion that the school acted appropriately and reasonably under the circumstances. In this suburban community, there was no undue concern about a threat to the safety of the children in the school from outside sources. There was no announcement of a terroristic threat — the person entering the school did not say she was there to shoot a teacher. The secretary did not see a weapon, and she had no reason to believe the woman meant any harm. The woman was “screened” when she came into the school — she was known, she showed her license, signed in, and stated what was determined to be a legitimate reason for being there. Should the secretary have called the student to the office to pick up his “lunch?” Should the secretary have taken the “lunch” to the student? She would have noticed that the bag was too heavy for a peanut butter-and-jelly sandwich. But these thoughts come to mind after a tragedy like this. Can we do better in some situations? Yes, but this school, in my opinion, did nothing wrong. This terrible tragedy was sparked by a neighborhood spat. It is unfortunate that it ended with devastating consequences for 24 children.
There may be other, more obvious, situations that call to task the decision making of school personnel. One such example occurred in Texas, when a man approached a greeter in the school hallway and told her: “I am a gunman. My target is inside of the building. I’m going in the building. You stop me.” The principal did not call 911 because the man was immediately recognized as a parent and school volunteer. It appeared as if he had no weapon, and the school simply asked the man to leave. He did.
After this incident — which occurred less than a year after the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School — some parents felt that the school should have treated it more seriously. Though the man told police he was testing the school’s security response, he was later charged with making terroristic threats. The charge was appropriate, but was the school’s response reasonable? Even though the greeter at the front door recognized the man as a parent and trusted him, could he have carried out his threat? Yes, he could have. The duty of the school is to protect the students. Whenever there is any terroristic threat or reasonable suspicion of a threat, the school must act swiftly and decisively.
Closing school and depriving students of a day or so of their education, if it assures their safety, is worth the effort and is appropriate. Not having a clear policy, failing to train staff, and not addressing terroristic threats that might place students and staff in harm’s way can result in injury or death — and costly civil litigation from the harmed party. The best practice is always to place the protection of children and the wider school community at the top of the list. After all, learning can’t take place if children and staff don’t feel safe.
Schools should review state and provincial laws, agreements with law enforcement agencies, and other resources. Review existing school or program policies and procedures for responding to a terroristic threat. Inform and train students and staff about both the policy and what constitutes a terroristic threat, and if one occurs, carry out procedures decisively. Treating seriously any potentially deadly threat to a school or its inhabitants and involving the authorities without debating its credibility is the best course of action in regards to school safety and security.