DuPage County

Roll Call: Schools should implement, practice a detailed safety plan

As you are well aware, school safety has been in the national spotlight over the past few months.

I have written columns on school safety and the procedures, responses and issues that surround it. With that in mind, I would like to discuss what basic safety steps schools can take and how they can more closely monitor and respond to disturbing actions of students, staff or even visitors.

There are 10 basic actions that any school or law enforcement agency, preferably both, can institute, practice and serve the school community. These are actions – not just words and fancy binders containing school safety plans.

The 10 actions described below can be taken to ensure school communities maintain not only physical security, but mental and emotional security. It may sound like a lot, but it really is not.

1. Comprehensive school assessment

2. Positive school climate for students, staff and visitors

3. Campus, building and classroom security

4. Anonymous reporting system – a must

5. Coordinating with first responders

6. Behavior-threat assessment and management

7. School-based law enforcement program (SROs)

8. Mandatory mental health services and resources

9. Drills by police and fire departments on school grounds

10. Social media monitoring by designated school personnel

These 10 action points can be effective. To be effective, you must begin with a risk assessment and development of a school-safety plan undertaken by a reliable, multi-disciplinary team with one person serving as team leader. This would include all police agencies that would respond to the school, along with fire department personnel, key school staff, student representatives and (I believe) a community member who is vested in school safety.

This school safety document should be treated as a living document that is reviewed and updated annually based on input from all the aforementioned stakeholders.

One area routinely overlooked, and sometimes not embraced by school personnel, is the emergency mass notification for the school community.

I am a strong believer that police should put out emergency mass notifications when incidents are occurring at the school. It has been debated that school administrations should issue that message. I disagree and believe that 911 centers that have immediate access to distributing short, direct, flash messages should be the ones to issue them.

Some other basic safety steps I recommend, but are really not common in most school settings, are actions that we took in Riverside when I was chief. There must be automated external defibrillators and Stop-Bleed kits, currently referred to as triage bags, in every school at certain predetermined locations.

Also, police, fire and school personnel need to survey the schools for locating the police and fire radio repeater systems and enhancing those communications if they are poor. This is common in schools as they were built to withstand and help prevent fire, but does nothing, however, for communications.

It is typical that schools have extremely thick walls and that police and fire radio system transmissions are very difficult to send out from the school building unless officers are standing next to a window. This needs to be assessed, and ordinances requiring repeater systems must be enacted.

I also always encourage silent panic alarms. While some do not like this, I believe there should be silent panic alarms in every classroom. I also believe local police departments should give one of their police radios to one school staff member who is on campus at all times. That staff member should be trained on how to use the police radio, when to use it, when it is appropriate to broadcast on it and use it for emergency situations. This could be one of the single most important decisions made by police officials and school staff. To have immediate access to police department 911 center operations, I believe, is paramount.

We can no longer, as police executives, live in a cocoon where only police can have certain tools. With proper training and assurances, this direct radio communication to the 911 center will save lives, increase police response immensely and build partnerships between security staff and police.

It goes without saying that there really is not a one-size-fits-all solution for every school. School staffing, student populations, the size of the building and other factors will go into decision-making for school safety plans. The importance of having a school safety plan and practicing that plan, in addition to assigning all faculty and staff to clearly defined roles during the safety plan implementation, should be our main job, while assessing a comprehensive school safety plan. If we cannot do this, we have failed.

Tom Weitzel is the former chief of the Riverside Police Department. Follow him on Twitter at @chiefweitzel.