Growing up as a kid in the ’60s, I inhabited a different world. I would run barefoot from sun-up to sundown, fretting that shrill whistle from the old man announcing that it was time to get home for dinner. While in many ways it was a carefree childhood, we lived with the fear of a nuclear attack from the Soviet Union. I remember regular “duck-and-cover drills” in school, where we would dive beneath our desks and cover our heads with our hands until the all-clear siren was sounded.
While children still play outdoors, the whistle to go home has been replaced with a text message. Duck-and-cover drills have likewise been replaced with “shelter in place” or “lockdown drills” in schools in the event of a relatively new threat: the active shooter.
One thing has not changed: schools are still meant to be safe havens, where our children can learn and develop into productive adults. But threat assessment, management, and response needs to evolve and change to respond to the new dangers that have arisen in recent years. While in the past we were mostly concerned with nuclear war (as well as earthquakes, floods, hurricanes, and fire), Cold War concerns have been replaced with a focus on preparing for more targeted violence, like the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School rampage and the “domestic spillover” incident at North Park Elementary School in San Bernardino earlier this year.
To prepare, schools must undertake proactive efforts to identify early warning signs of trouble and mitigate risk before a tragedy occurs. Past incidents have shown that targeted violence can be perpetrated by almost anyone, whether or not directly connected to our schools, or its students, faculty, or staff. However, a best practice that can help organizations identify and mitigate risk is to form a multidisciplinary threat assessment team, which provides formal training to team members and regularly assesses potential or incipient threats.
Typically, threat assessment teams in an educational setting are made up of representatives from human resources, school security/local law enforcement, mental health professionals, legal counsel, and when applicable, union representatives (if staff and faculty are involved), among others. In general, the threat assessment team should consider taking certain steps when conducting an assessment, whether well in advance, or in response to an immediate threat:
- Identify the individual (the threat “actor”), and whether he or she is an insider or outsider
- Gather information on the actor, as well as potential targets and past victims
- Interview individuals who are personally or professionally connected to the actor and targets or victims (if possible under the circumstances)
- Evaluate the information gathered and assess the threat level
- Establish or implement a mitigation strategy
- Delineate and assign the roles and responsibilities in the response protocol, including those for management, human resources, mental health, legal, security, law enforcement, and school district communications
Preparing and conducting drills for staff, faculty, and students is equally imperative. Threat assessment teams should consider seeking training from experienced threat assessment professionals, as its members may lack the specialized knowledge and experience in-house to provide such comprehensive training. Such professionals can help teams train and prepare by leading emergency response drills (known as “tabletop exercises”). Whether teams are newly formed or refreshing their training, such drills can highlight gaps in knowledge and resources, clarify roles and responsibilities, and correct misconceptions about how to react in a crisis. Comprehensive training and regular drills can also help teach (or reinforce) the appropriate ways to respond in crises, and better identify or strengthen the roles and responsibilities of team members. Even if a team does not seek out professional guidance in advance, at a minimum, it should identify qualified external resources that can help assist during an immediate crisis.
In this ever-evolving world, staying informed and prepared is critical to managing the safety of our children and ourselves.
National Preparedness Month is observed each September in the United States of America. Sponsored by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) within the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, National Preparedness Month encourages Americans to take steps to prepare for emergencies in their homes, businesses, schools, and communities. As the global leader in risk management, Kroll is proud to support National Preparedness Month by providing actionable insights that help people and organizations make confident risk management decisions.