School Safety: Strategies for Educators

May 15, 2016
Terry Vittone
Colored pencils next to a stack of books.

“If you feel unsafe, you probably are,” (0:05) says Dr. Randy Boardman in his introduction to an interview featuring common sense strategies for keeping students, educators, and schools safer, and thereby promoting a physically and emotionally safer space for learning. His guest is Michael Dorn, the founder and director of Safe Havens International. Safe Havens International is the world’s leading international, nonprofit campus safety organization, committed to helping schools and school systems improve crisis preparedness and campus safety.
In this interview, you’ll learn about some of the best practical strategies for school safety that are low- or no-cost, simple, proven to be effective, and which you can put in use right away

Interview highlights

The most powerful and effective single technique for improving school safety       

At the top of the interview, Randy asks Michael to begin with one practical, common sense tip that can improve safety for teachers, principals, and central office administration. Michael begins his reply by asking listeners to not be taken in by the sensationalism of today’s news sources, and he reminds us that today’s schools are statistically far safer than they were back in the late 70s, when he himself was attacked by a student with a weapon.

“We’ve actually made a lot of progress,” says Michael. “So first of all, look at data, look at evaluation now. As far as some simple things, the biggest thing that we find, that we focus on, that I'll give for an example for teachers and it's actually true for all three groups you mentioned, but we'll get in context with the teacher, is improving student supervision is the most powerful and effective single technique.” (4:17)

For teachers, that means constantly keeping within both line of sight and earshot of your students. “If you’re supervising in an outdoor area, be close enough to hear, see, and act to prevent bad things from happening. That would be my first piece of advice if you're a teacher,” explains Michael. (5:06)

For building principals

Michael’s next piece of practical advice is to have building principals ask their local police or an experienced traffic officer to come out and review their morning arrival and afternoon dismissal procedures. This will give administrators a new, educated perspective on how the flow of people and vehicles arrive and depart at the school. Michael goes on to say that the number-one cause of death on school properties is from collisions between people and vehicles on school grounds. So an expert evaluation has a tremendous potential to spot potential problem spots with traffic in and out of the school. 

Police car by line of buses
Photo: tfoxfoto / iStock

The active shooter

Next, Michael points out that sometimes, cabinet staff, superintendents, headmasters, and people who make strategic decisions at the school often overfocus on active shooters. “We need to have passion about what we do as your folks and ours and the people who are listening do. But we really do need to be sure we're looking at data. And when you look at the roughly 2,000 deaths on school property in the US from 1998 to 2013, we see the vast majority of those, less than 70 of those deaths are from active shooters,” says Michael. (6:32)

An evidence-based suicide approach

Michael makes a strong point about active shooter incidents being, comparatively, responsible for a small percentage of deaths in schools. Next he looks at the data for suicides on school property. “We have 129 suicides on school property in the same time period. So do we have an evidence-based suicide prevention approach? Do we have a solid student threat evaluation and management approach which is proven to be very effective at reducing the risk of violence? So are we using data, and evaluation, and assessment to drive our school safety, and security, and emergency preparedness efforts? That's my message to the strategic-level folks that lead our schools and school districts.” (6:58) 

Threat assessment as a multidisciplinary approach

Next, Randy asks Michael if he could give listeners some general ideas and thoughts about threat assessment. Randy remarks that this is an area of expertise for Michael, and that he combines that research knowledge with significant experience and common sense.

Michael begins this part of the conversation by bringing up an analysis of an active shooter incident in 2013 at the Littleton Public School System. Even though, according to Michael, Littleton had a better threat evaluation procedure in place than the vast majority of schools he’s worked with in the United States, a child was murdered there.

Here, Michael goes on to explain that the most effective threat assessment approach a school can put in place is multidisciplinary. “But the first thing is making sure that you have a multidisciplinary approach. And by multidisciplinary, what has been most effective since it was first used to stop a planned school shooting in the early 1990s in my school system, and stopped quite a few, actually, after that because I worked in a very high-risk setting. We were just ranked one of the 10 highest crime cities in America just recently. And so we had a pretty high threat level, but we had tremendous success by having a school district police officer (which might be a local police officer, a school resource officer in other communities), and mental health professional and an administrator—all three of those disciplines represented in the assessment team,” explains Michael. (9:02)

An important component of a multidisciplinary approach, as Randy mentions and Michael reiterates, is that close connections to students by staff are critical in developing a sense of trust, one that will give students the comfort and confidence to approach staff—whether it’s a teacher, administrator, or the school custodian—when they have a safety issue they wish to report. Randy says that this reminds him of a piece that he wrote called "Behavior Management by Walking Around." He tells Michael, “It's that same piece of just being out and having relationships, staying connected. And I love your emphasis on data and evidence-based practices.” (11:20)

What can a person do at the moment of crisis or meltdown?

Randy then asks Michael, “What can we do before a person escalates to that moment of crisis or that meltdown? What could we do during the moment to keep ourselves safe? And then that afterwards, after an episode, what could we do to improve our strategies, our approaches for next time?” (11:40)
Perhaps the most important question here is what can frontline teachers, principals, and administrators do before that safety episode evolves and during the incident to keep everybody safe.
Here Randy recalls a section from Michael’s book, Staying Alive, which emphasizes that if someone practices or rehearses, just one time, a “What if?” scenario, be it about a boiler, or a tornado, or a fire, or about even an active shooter, they increase their chances for surviving a situation immensely.

Rehearsal matters

Michael replies that there is data to back up Randy’s statement. “What you're referring to, Dr. Boardman, is a very well-grounded research that if you calmly, not in a frightful way, just periodically picture different types of events—a child not breathing, a tornado, a fire, a person with a weapon, an aggressive animal—if you just periodically ask yourself, ‘What would I do if that happened?’ visually picture it in your head, your rate of survivability goes up for almost anything, from a bank robbery to a terrorist attack or something that's as catastrophic even as a commercial air crash. So that's the technique we can use,” says Michael. (12:46)

Unprepared to prepared on chalkboard

Typical school assaults and what we can do to prevent them

Next, Michael talks about the more typical types of school assaults and how to most effectively prevent them. “The first is that connectivity we've talked about does, with many people that might hurt you, reduce the likelihood that they will attack you. It's harder to attack people that you like and especially respect. But if the level of the teacher, the person, the field, the concept of pattern matching and recognition is very, very powerful; it's evidence-based. And in some, it's noticing behaviors that are incongruent for the people, the context, and the setting: so your awareness of students and other staff. And when you notice that something doesn't feel right, don't just ignore it. Be aware of what's going on around you,” says Michael. (13:52)

The irate individual

What’s the best way to handle a person who is clearly not in control of their behavior? Michael describes the scenario: “Let's say it gets to that point where we've got the irate individual in the office or at a classroom, or in the school bus driver's door. . . . When you've got people yelling and screaming, using profanity, if they are intoxicated or under the effects of drugs or maybe improperly medicated, . . . they’re not emotionally in control of themselves, those can be indicators that things could escalate to a point where it's dangerous, and that's why we're so very impressed with your training because we've seen and we've got many clients who've got data to back up,” says Michael. (14:32)

Michael goes on to talk about John Heiderscheidt, the director of school safety and culture for school district U-46 in Elgin, Illinois, and the dramatic improvements the district has realized in the reduction in violence towards staff and expulsions of students. This has occurred, Michael explains, through de-escalation training and implementing a variety of protective actions.

How to respond to rapid escalation

Michael emphasizes that when situations escalate quickly, school staff need to understand how to implement protective actions on their own. “The most important ones are room clear, clearing out a room of students and staff quickly, not evacuating a whole building, but clear out a classroom, auditorium, or lunchroom. Reverse evacuation, to get back into a building quickly if there's danger outside. Of course, lockdown, fire evacuation, shelter for severe weather. If you know those emergency procedures and you think about them as we said at the beginning of this little segment, you're a lot faster and more accurate at applying those when they're appropriate in an emergency,” says Michael. (15:51) 

Crime prevention through environmental design

Another highly effective method of providing safer schools is contained in the acronym CPTED. Michael explains: “You want to make sure you're using the evidence-based approaches of crime prevention through environmental design. It's called CPTED, crime prevention through environmental design. A key component of which is what we call ‘positive territoriality.’ And we're doing a lot of work with the Ministry of Education down at Trinidad and Tobago where they've got about a 10 times higher homicide rate in the country than we do here. And over the years, the schools have taken on rather a prison-like appearance; 12-foot concrete walls, there's razor wire on top. And one of—we've advised them—we've got a lot of data to show that increases not only fear but crime at and around the school. And by appearance, that actually increases crime,” explains Michael. (18:11) 

A school should look like a school

Michael continues: “So if you look at the hallways in your school and it reminds you of a jail or prison, that's not good. So with that as an important backdrop, creating good access control, getting staff to understand how very dangerous it can be just to not keep exterior doors secured. Getting staff to understand that all adults in a building on a normal school day, every administrator, staff member, needs to wear a photo ID. And if you don't require that and you don't require visitors to come in to be ID’d with time-sensitive badges, I can assure you, and I've got a lot of clients who will back this up, we can come to your elementary school and leave with a child typically within 10 minutes more than 90% of the time.” (19:31)

Students at locker in hallway

Why good emergency communication is important

Another key capability a school should have in place to ensure safety is good emergency communication. School staff who regularly access different parts of the school should be equipped to communicate with the office the instant they recognize a problem. “Good emergency communication is very important. The ability of a teacher to call the office if they have a problem, if they're on the playground, having a radio for example, the ability of a principal or other administrator or office staff to be able to key a microphone and talk to everybody inside and outside of the building is critical for almost any type of emergency where people could be at risk at a facility. So those are some of the ones that we focus on a lot with our clients,” explains Michael. (20:22)

Weapons in schools – in the US and around the world

Next, Randy says that although he’d like the interview to stay away from active shooter incidents and the plethora of situations and data surrounding them, he does ask one simple question: “Should we be arming teachers with weapons?” (22:14) Michael goes on with a lengthy discussion about firearms in US schools since the 19th century, incidents in Canada and China, and the number of teachers in certain states that carry firearms. He makes the point that we want to make sure that the incidence of armed school personnel is in balance with events that involve catastrophic consequences.
During this portion of the interview, Michael also goes on to cite weapons training programs, such as the Options Based Active Shooter Training Programs. He states that “we've got active litigation right now for some of these programs. None of these programs, by the way, have been validated as effective. There is no testing and evaluation to show that any active shooter training program is effective. So we urge caution.” (25:30) 

Scenario videos

In order to help school staff be more prepared in case of a crisis, Safe Havens International have over a hundred school crisis situations on DVD. They also have audio presentations available. “We've got quite a few depicting somebody threatening suicide, taking hostages, or doing something with a weapon that is not an active shooter then. And what we're seeing is that people of every active shooter training program that we've tested people, if they've seen any of the videos or been through a lot of training, we get a startling number of people who for example, when we depict a student threatening suicide with the muzzle of a gun touching their temple, finger on the trigger at 10 feet, they attack that student. They see him or her as a gunman, and they attack. That's a very serious problem,” says Michael. (27:27)


Michael is also the author of Weakfish: Bullying Through the Eyes of a Child. Randy asks that he speak briefly and give one or two comments on the subject. Michael points out that student supervision and a close connection of staff to the student body will be two of the most effective methods to lessen or prevent bullying.

He is also very sympathetic to the difficulties and fears of the bullied child, and he draws a sharp distinction between bullying and more severe acts. “I think most people don't know how hard it is for a child to come forward. So first of all, be that person that can come to be accessible to them. And then next for the teacher, take the time to learn the signs and indications of bullying. That's, I think, a big one, is you know the definition of bullying and know what the indicators are. So there's one problem we have in this society, is we like to label things. And we're seeing a lot of things being labelled as bullying that are not. Sexual assault is not bullying. Stabbing somebody, beating somebody severely, those are criminal acts,” says Michael. (30:48)

How safe is your school?

Randy asks Michael to share a few thoughts that teachers and principals can share with parents to reassure them that their children are in a physically and emotionally safe place when they are attending elementary schools and secondary schools.

Michael’s answer: “The answer that I'm going to give may be a little surprising why I think it's so important. But there are a couple of reasons. The first thing is don't react with a normal gut reaction. A lot of educators would feel to say, ‘Our school is a safe school. We do this, we do this. Your child is safe here.’ First of all, that can cause some very significant liability concerns if you're ever litigated for a safety event which can happen in the best run of schools.

Secondly, it doesn't bear credibility to the average person when we say that. So what I tell people to say and what we always say is, ‘Look, there's a certain amount of risk anywhere and our school is no different from that. We have taken what we feel are significant measures to enhance safety of your child. Here are some things we have done.’ And ask the person, ‘What do you think we should do? Do you have any suggestions?’ And say, ‘We're not saying we're going to do them, but we'd like to hear you out.’” (32:16)

Michael goes on to say that this type of dialog is typically a very effective method of reassuring parents that they are being heard, and that it also gives school officials credibility.

Last thoughts from Michael

At the conclusion of the interview, Randy asks Michael to offer any secret or suggestion for parents, for students, for teachers, for administrators, or anybody associated with schools in terms of what we can individually and collectively do to promote physical and emotional safety in schools. Michael is direct: “I would say tailor your approach to fit your particular situation. As a classroom teacher, being in one part of the building could have different connotations than being in another part. Being in one part of a community could be different than being in another part of the same community. So be sure you tailor your approaches to school safety to fit the uniqueness of your building, your programs, the way you teach. And that those approaches center around supporting your mission of education.” (35:38) 

School safety resources

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