There is no doubt that school violence is a hot-button topic. The Columbine and Sandy Hook shootings serve as exclamation points in a tragic narrative on contemporary society that could be titled: “Education Should Not Be a Life-Threatening Activity.”
At the outset, many educators, law enforcement officials and security experts focused their attention on making classrooms more secure. This approach is manifest in the proliferation of security summits, symposia and conferences. Recently the focus has included increasing security on school buses, considered by many to be extensions of the classroom.
School buses are considered “soft targets” that carry the most vulnerable and precious cargo. While there is debate about whether the bus can be transformed into a harder target, security experts and district transportation officials agreed that no progress toward increased security can happen without including bus drivers in any crisis prevention or mitigation training.
That was the consensus expressed by security experts at the 10th Annual National Security & Intelligence Symposium held late last fall in Phoenix. It promoted the no-nonsense theme, “School Shootings: Prevention, Mitigation and Recovery.” The event was sponsored by the College of Security & Intelligence at Prescott, Arizona’s Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University.
Tom Foley, a certified security professional and assistant professor at Embry-Riddle, said the theme reflected the urgency of the topic and stressed a deeper understanding of what security means.
“Sandy Hook demonstrated the need for effective physical security at schools, not just checklist security implemented by untrained school administrators,” he added. “True security begins with threat, vulnerability and risk assessments that are then used to develop a physical security plan that will address a specific facility.”
The symposium’s theme was timely as it preceded the second anniversary of the Sandy Hook shooting by 49 days. It proved to be prophetic because the next day freshman Jaylen Fryberg opened fire in the cafeteria of Marysville-Pilchuck High School outside Seattle, killing two students and wounding three others, including two of his cousins, before killing himself.
Foley, who specializes in school shootings, called Sandy Hook a “game-changer” for school security and safety because it involved an outsider attacking small children.
“It challenged public perception that school shootings only happen in high schools as a result of bullying, and if you end the bullying, you end the problem,” he said. “Sandy Hook and the recent shooting at Marysville-Pilchuck High School, have shattered that perception.”
Bus Driver Training
Volusia County Schools in Daytona Beach, Florida is among the leaders in crisis mitigation preparation. The transportation page on the district’s website has general information from its security plan and a detailed School Emergency Guide for Parents, outlining the district’s resources and parental responsibilities. District Transportation Director Greg Akin was one of 290 transportation directors who participated in a recent STN survey that polled school districts on additional safety training they provided for drivers throughout the school year, including emergency evacuations, active shooter/intruder training, violence prevention and bullying.
Akin developed his own training program in 2007 after researching every school shooting since Columbine in 1999. “We’ve done extensive training over the past several years,” Akin said. “Our (drivers) are the CEOs of the bus — they make the first decisions. I developed our own training program based on what we’ve researched on shootings since 1999. I looked at every one of the shootings to determine the best actions we could take if we had an issue on a school bus.”
Akin said he tweaked the “run, hide, fight” scenario suggested by the Department of Homeland Security to fit the school bus setting. The bus driver can evacuate students through the emergency exits or students can hide behind their seats. If that fails, drivers are taught de-escalation techniques and to use an emergency panic button before initiating the fight response.
“The fight piece is up to the individual,” Akin said. “If the de-escalation does not work, then they can do what they have to do to save lives. We’re trying to get extra time for law enforcement to show up.”
Akin said bus drivers are also taught how to deal with threats from outside the bus, such as suspicious persons at bus stops. “The driver does not have to stop,” he continued. “I’d rather have complaints about not (picking up) kids at the bus stop instead of having an issue move onto the school bus.”
Security expert Rich Wilson, a consultant for Sigma Threat Management Associates, shared Akin’s view, especially as it pertains to recognizing aberrant student behavior.
“Students don’t just snap, and there is no credible profile of a school shooter,” Wilson said. “Involving bus drivers in general awareness training will sensitize them to the nature of targeted violence and help them identify those behaviors. It’s not a matter of what you’re looking for, but rather what you’re looking at. Buses are contained environments, and drivers are accustomed to what is normal behavior. They recognize changes in that environment.”
Technology is emerging as a key tool in transforming school buses into harder targets, and incident management has emerged as the process of mitigating negative occurrences on school buses by tracking, recording and storing information on types of incidents and eliminating the perpetrators who demonstrate chronic misbehavior before a situation escalates to violence, whenever possible.
Responses to a recent STN survey showed districts used surveillance cameras mainly to monitor student and bus driver behavior and, to a lesser extent, record stop arm violations. Footage is used to review complaints concerning alleged student or driver misconduct. In most cases, hard drives are pulled and hours are spent reviewing the footage to locate the incident, flag it and present it to the proper administrators.
Tyler Technologies developed an incident management solution the company said streamlines the process with a Web-based solution that stores incident information for more efficient retrieval. Sam Catalano, manager of product management for Tyler, said the system allows districts easier access to disciplinary actions and other incidents while enabling them to identify and diffuse potentially larger issues in the early stages.
“Through the use of data entry fields and user defined values (the system) can be configured to track many different types of incidents including potential dangers from outside the school bus such as suspicious vehicles or individuals,” Catalano said.
Companies such as AngelTrax, Seon Design, Inc. and Transfinder use surveillance cameras that can provide much of the data used in incident management.
AngelTrax President and CEO Richie Howard said an active Internet connection coupled with the company’s online surveillance manager gives administrators access to live views and tracking of the bus.
“The video is encrypted, stored in the school’s secure server and can only be played back by school-appointed individuals using our proprietary software,” Howard explained.
Adding the software can be used to protect student identities and prepare video segments for use in court.
Seon’s mobile surveillance solutions also give school districts a complete picture of what’s happening on and around the bus, said Lori Jetha, marketing communications manager. “Seon’s camera systems have been instrumental in preventing bullying, saving drivers’ jobs and identifying illicit activities,” she added.
Transfinder’s Frank Gazeley, vice president of client relations, said the company’s initial routing product 26 years ago could be considered an incident management solution because it helped districts navigate potential natural, technological and human hazards.
“In recent product releases, we have continued to enhance incident management features to mitigate incidents in some circumstances or respond to such emergencies as hurricanes, tornadoes, sexual offenders and bus hijackings,” he said. “Through the routing system, we’ve developed tools that can prevent incidents from happening.”
On the Horizon
The Smartvue Corporation, based in Nashville, Tennessee, is working with the Williamson County School District in nearby Franklin to develop a cloud video surveillance service for school buses that provides high-definition video for school administrators and law enforcement to view in real-time to thwart student misbehavior, provide accident data and give first responders a live view of crimes inside the bus as they occur.
Smartvue CEO Martin Renkis said active shooter training has only recently been applied to school buses, which he called “target rich” environments that present unique challenges to law enforcement. “The ability for officials to view high-definition video remotely in real-time will be used to mitigate risk and identify issues proactively to potentially save lives,” Renkis said.
A live video feed from the bus was the idea of Michael Fletcher, the district’s director of safety and security. He said one advantage would be to prevent searching though hard drives to find footage of an incident. He also said he sees this as a tool to help retain drivers. “Theirs is a very important and stressful job. If we don’t support them and make their jobs less stressful, they may think this is more responsibility than I want to deal with,” he added.
On the educational front, Foley noted Embry-Riddle is exploring offering a certification course in education safety and security.
“Teachers, administrators and school resource officers could attend to learn the principles of physical security, risk assessment, policy and procedure development,” he said. “We want to make sure that any certificate we may issue will be credible and add value to the certificate holder’s career development.”