The waves of disruption in the US since 2020—the Covid pandemic, divisive political turmoil, and widespread violence—left in their wake varying degrees of apathy and distraction in communities and schools. As we were preoccupied with the overarching issues dominating the headlines, the unthinkable massacre in Uvalde, Texas, caused people across the country to cry out “What can we do?” This call to action requires school and police leaders to set aside lingering ideological or political differences and acknowledge the imperative of securing our schools. School and police leaders can and must, in good spirit, collaborate to create and nurture an ecosystem capable of saving our schools from future atrocities. In this article, Dan Flynn, as a former chief of police, and Leigh Colburn, as an educator, discuss the importance of schools and law enforcement working together and propose ways to achieve a safe, secure environment for staff and students.
Content note: Contains references to violence in schools
Creating a Secure Our Schools (SOS) Ecosystem
By Leigh Colburn and Dan Flynn
Author’s Note: As a police chief and a high school principal, we worked together with the support of Dr. Emily Lembeck, a visionary superintendent, for 9 years ensuring our school’s safety in an urban-suburban Georgia town. In the wake of the most recent school shootings, we feel compelled to share some best practices for building the high-trust collaborative partnership needed to secure our schools in the future.
Both schools and police departments face political and public health headwinds that make their jobs incredibly challenging. Local school board meetings have become ground zero for culture wars regarding Covid protocols, politics, curriculum, parent input, race relations, and sexual and gender identity. At the same time, police have been defunded, demonized, under-staffed, and figuratively handcuffed. Some school districts hotly debate the presence, role, and arming of police in schools. This turmoil has fractured the relational trust of parents and students toward their schools and law enforcement agencies, only to now find we are all emotionally reeling once again from another school shooting.
While police departments are applying refined methods for school security such as crime prevention technology, policy formulation, target-hardening, training, and raising public threat awareness, schools are expanding social-emotional learning and wellness initiatives while also monitoring student behavior and student technology to identify students in crisis. Some school districts are responding to the rising rates of substance misuse, self-harm, and emotional dysregulation by expanding access to mental health services including the provision of on-campus clinical support services. While these independent efforts are positive steps, working together rather than in silos will yield even greater results. Without both school and law enforcement perspectives, we lack the capacity required to respond to the multi-faceted challenges of keeping students safe in school. Together, school and law enforcement must create a sense of community where students, parents, staff, and citizens will ask for help, report concerns, and respond as needed during a crisis.
As school systems and law enforcement agencies work together to strengthen their relationship and create a Secure Our Schools (SOS) ecosystem, both agencies must demonstrate competency, engage in transparent and forthcoming communication regarding school and community concerns, and publicly share responsibility. On-going strategic planning continually articulates and clarifies perspectives, goals, and the unique roles of each agency. Deep trust and mutual respect—essential to a comprehensive approach to ending school violence—can only grow through clear, intentional, and honest communication. Highly effective partnerships between schools and law enforcement
- Articulate their shared mission
- Publicize their partnership
- Team-build through joint interactive training, programming, and learning
- Determine the level of sharing space, staff, and funding
- Define goals, measurables, and success
- Define roles/responsibilities as well as the chain of command
- Leverage each partner’s expertise regarding incidents, programming, and mission
- Reciprocate the partnership
- Establish regular communication
- Celebrate the partnership and the achievements of either partner
Effective school security requires a deep level of trust and collaboration between police leaders, school boards, and school administrators. Educators, administrators, and school boards are keyed into the behind-the-scenes rhetoric, conflict, and social media within respective schools; meanwhile, police maintain a community-wide perspective of public safety trends and concerns. Working together effectively will involve a comprehensive list of interdependent programs and initiatives including on-site partnering, target-hardening school facilities, and internal school violence prevention programming. Additionally, schools and law enforcement must work together to provide community-wide training (including students, parents, and faculty) in recommended civilian responses to school violence prevention and active shooter incidents. With these types of mutually supporting initiatives, school systems and police departments will fashion a common mindset, develop the connective tissue of relational trust, and grow the muscle memory essential to mitigate school violence or jointly respond in a crisis. By working together, law enforcement and educators will increase their capacity to safeguard our children, families, and community.
Where Do We Go from Here?
In the wake of pandemic aftershocks and the Uvalde school tragedy, disenfranchised young men will once again consider school shootings as means to die in notoriety. Thus, bracing for these renewed threats is imperative as the school year begins in the fall of 2022.
Being prepared for a new wave of grim school shootings entails a number of specific initiatives. In a recent blog, Secure Our Schools (SOS) 101, we encouraged police officers and school systems to take six immediate actions:
- Establish a clear standard for law enforcement actions at active shooter events (ASE).
- Establish a clear standard requirement for law enforcement officers arriving at the scene of an ASE to establish a basic form of incident command to restore order and provide an organized response to the event.
- Establish clear investigative protocols for following up on reports of individuals fitting the profile of aspiring school shooters to prevent possible escalation.
- Train all school faculties in emergency plans and procedures including prescribed interactions with law enforcement personnel during an ASE.
- Review/refresh training related to civilian response to an active shooter.
- Assess and improve physical plant security of schools.
In this article, we will provide more information on these six immediately actionable recommendations and insight into the more expansive planning and programming involved in creating a Secure Our School (SOS) ecosystem capable of providing additional protection for our students and staff.
Building a Team: Unfortunately, the Uvalde shooting coupled with political unrest and a surge in mental health concern in virtually every community create a present “perfect storm” for more school shootings. As such, we assert school and law enforcement leaders must prioritize team building as an important first step to creating an SOS ecosystem. Due to high leadership turnover, school closings/openings, and the complex and urgent concerns of recent years, our current law enforcement and school leaders may not have the same in-depth understanding as their predecessors when the risk of and training for active shooters in schools was given more-focused attention
As we reflect on our extensive work together keeping a large school safe, we propose the following methodology for creating a new 2022 ecosystem for securing our schools:
- Co-host a Team-Building Retreat - Organize a retreat-style meeting at a neutral location, i.e., not at a police facility and not at a school facility. Invite a few classroom teachers and all school principals as well as everyone in their direct chain(s) of command who has responsibility for school safety. Invite all school resource officers and their chain of command. Additional attendees should include the police SWAT leader, the Public Information Officer, and the school district’s Director of Communication. The district superintendent and police chief should be in attendance as well.
- Create New Security Plan – Make the goal of the retreat to create a new school security plan based on the conventional wisdom contained in existing school security plans but updated to include new ideas and buy-in from the members attending the retreat.
Security Plans should include the following minimum provisions:
- Regular communication between school officials and police
- Tightening physical/structural security of school campuses and buildings
- A clear structure of basic incident command
- Professional active shooter presentations, e.g., CRASE and Stop the Bleed to parents, teachers, and the public (See Figure 1.)
- Full-scale exercises, tabletop exercises, and drills concerning active shooters
- Coordinated news media release strategy in the event of an incident
- Reunification after school evacuation
- Timeline for the creation of a Campus Violence Prevention Policy (See template provided following the conclusion of this article.)
Figure 1: Essential public training regarding active and school shooting incidents
|CIVILIAN Response to Active Shooter Event (CRASE) Program
(Nationally certified seminar)
|TEACHER Active Shooter Seminar CRASE program||Stop the Bleed Program|
|Available for both students and teachers||Items in classroom to use for protection||Emergency first aid for victims of shootings|
|Prepare for and act during an active shooter event||Ways to secure a classroom and deny a shooter access||In conjunction with local hospital system|
|Steps to limit vulnerability and potential victims||Interaction of law enforcement and emergency service personnel||Mitigating post-shooting consequences for victims|
|Assist emergency responders|
- New Protocols or Policies for Police and Schools – Schools and law enforcement must begin openly and regularly discussing school and community safety concerns. At the most basic level, many of these conversations will take place between school staff, school administrators, and school resource officers. In most (if not all) school shootings, students and staff have reported prior concern regarding the shooter’s mental health, writings or drawings, expressions of violence, or social media. In some cases, these concerns have resulted in the shooter no longer attending the school due to long-term suspension or expulsion. In short, in most cases the shooter is a known concern to the school. As such, schools and law enforcement must begin to proactively work together.
- Schools need protocols like workplace violence programs, i.e., upon being advised of potential school shooters, school administrators must be required to address the issue, take appropriate action, and report the concern. Schools should consider defining a process to capture information regarding individuals who seem headed toward threatening or assaulting the school. When someone within the school environment (staff, students, parents, or administrators) becomes aware of an individual presenting themselves as a potential threat, there should be a process that yields an articulable reasonable suspicion for police to intervene.
- Police need a new protocol for how to handle investigations and actions to intercede with individuals presenting signs of a propensity toward school shootings. While ensuring an individual’s constitutional rights, there is a five-step process – collection, evaluation, collation, analysis, and dissemination of information, that can be used legally when someone is acting in an articulable threatening manner, i.e. verbally, on social media, or even stock-piling weapons and/or ammunition.
- Evolving Partnership Planning and Programming – There are many high-quality, joint, proactive, and interactive training and learning opportunities that benefit schools, law enforcement and the community. As a former principal and police chief, we encourage you to strengthen and grow your collaboration. This work will take vision, intention, and high-quality execution. In our work together, we found the following initiatives to be the most impactful.
School Resource Officers - It is essential schools be staffed and served by high caliber, well equipped, well-trained officers and law enforcement agencies must commit to the continuous training of these officers in state-of-the-art police response protocols. Police departments and school systems must deeply value and support their school resource officers and see them as a part of the school leadership team. School staff must trust these officers with their lives and the lives of their students. School resource officers teach as well as police. It is likely these officers interact daily with more members of the community than any other officers in the department. They maintain security, assist the administration with on-site programming and varied activities, and they should have a commitment to mentoring and challenging students to excel. Continued professional development is a must. There are high quality national conferences for school resource officers, and we assert school systems should work with their partnering law enforcement agencies to send their SROs to these conferences.
School Physical Environment Target Hardening - Law Enforcement agencies partnering with school systems should have officers certified in a process entitled Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design (CPTED). The process entails extensive surveys of school security features, with photos and a series of confidential recommendations designed to reduce the opportunities for crime. This expertise and support should be made available to school administrators, free of charge upon request.
- Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design (CPTED)
- Trained CPTED officers
- Assess the vulnerabilities of the physical properties
- Prepare confidential CPTED evaluation reports
- Make recommendations on surveillance cameras, door locking mechanisms and ingress/egress policies.
School Threat Vulnerability Assessments – Law enforcement agencies partnering with school systems should have officers certified in conducting threat/hazard vulnerability assessments (HVA) of schools. Threat vulnerability assessments are different from CPTED inspections insofar as threat assessors examine schools in terms of tactics that have historically been used in school attacks. Following each tactical inspection, the officers generate extensive confidential reports which include photos and detailed recommendations for improved security measures in each school. School Threat Vulnerability Assessments should be offered free of charge to any partnering school upon request.
- Threat Vulnerability Assessments
- Trained and certified officers
- Threat vulnerability assessments of school buildings/facilities
- Provide administrators with a confidential list of recommendations for target hardening of schools
- Evaluate visitor and vendor access and door lock control.
School Based Systems of Support and Prevention Programming – While law enforcement is an essential partner in securing our schools, much of what can be done to prevent school violence begins with very young children in the form of social-emotional learning and PK-12 support for struggling students and families. Actions to secure schools include efforts such as monitoring technology and social media, trauma-informed staff, the use of universal and individual screening, on-site mental and emotional health services, and anti-bullying programming ensuring follow-up with the victim as well as the offender. Intentionally gathering and responding to student, parent, and staff voices will build a sense of agency and community among school stakeholders. These trust-building and de-stigmatizing conversations are essential if students, parents, and staff are going to be willing to ask for help or report concerns. If desired, schools can leverage the expertise of their law enforcement partners to provide programming to students and/or parents related to bullying prevention, internet safety, gun safety, personal and school safety, Child ID, physical violence resistance strategies, and gang resistance. Some schools even launch a high school police academy or public safety career pathway utilizing law enforcement, fire fighters, and EMTs as instructors. Students participating in these programs can receive training in the CRASE and Stop the Bleed programs as well as CPR, and other beneficial public and personal safety learning and training opportunities.
Ulvalde, Texas isn’t the most recent school intrusion or potential school shooter incident in the United States. There have been others that thankfully concluded differently and with less tragic impact. And there will be future incidents. Public safety and school communities must work together and emerge from the trauma of Ulvalde with a renewed sense of purpose and dedication toward school and community safety. To reinvigorate school security and crime prevention in schools, elected and appointed leaders of law enforcement and school systems urgently need to engage in team-building and joint learning exercises. Going forward and in all instances, leaders in this effort must be truth-seekers and truth-tellers. They must be willing to stretch themselves and their organization for the purpose of better protecting their children, their families, and their greater community. To achieve the mission of safe schools, leaders will need to be others-focused, courageous, trustworthy, agile, and solution-oriented. Deep collaboration and partnership between schools and law enforcement is the right work, right now for four reasons:
- Our children, our families, and our schools are struggling.
- Communities are fractured and in critical need of improved community cohesion.
- Unprecedented funding is available for intentional collaboration aimed at strengthening and sustaining schools, families, and communities.
- Our children, families, and staff deserve our best effort regarding safe schools and communities.
We all know in a worst-case scenario, there will be shared responsibility and accountability. Now is the time for leaders in education and law enforcement to demonstrate the vision and the capacity to innovatively leverage expertise, assets, and resources to address challenges, build the relationships, and implement the training that will secure our schools.
Read more about Leigh Colburn's and Dan Flynn's independent work on school safety here.
The views and opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of Solution Tree.
CAMPUS VIOLENCE PREVENTION POLICY (Template)
The _______ School or School System is deeply committed to providing a safe learning environment free of all forms of violence, threats of violence, and intimidation against anyone in _____ school system. Fulfilment of this commitment requires the active involvement and participation of all stakeholders including, but not limited to, students, faculty, employees, visitors, and the police.
The purpose of the Campus Violence Prevention Policy (CVPP) is to instruct everyone in the school system of the warning signs, indicators, and threats of impending violence, and provide procedures for reporting them to school leadership. In turn, it places responsibility on designated school leaders to receive and act on all incidents and threats reported to them in accordance with this; the CVPP.
- Campus Violence
Campus violence is defined as violent and/or threatening behavior against students, faculty, employees or visitors of _______ School or School System.
- Includes any behavior that could be interpreted by a reasonable person as intent to cause physical harm to another individual.
- May or may not include the actual act of physical force, with or without a weapon, toward another individual.
- May be verbal, non-verbal, or communicated over the internet/social media.
The CVPP includes a prohibition against anyone carrying firearms or personal weapons on to any campus, property, bus or facility of the _____ School or School System except as may be specifically authorized by law or school policy.
- Students and/or parents who know of violent and/or threatening behavior against students, faculty, employees or visitors at any facility of the ___ School or School System are strongly urged to report them to any school administrator, any available School Resource Officer, or local law enforcement authorities.
- School faculty, staff and employees of __School or School System who knows of threatening behaviors focused toward anyone in _____School or School System are required to report the incident(s) to a school administrator, any available School Resource Officer, or local law enforcement authorities.
- Students, faculty, and/or staff members who report incidents of threatening behavior have a right to have an appropriate staff follow-up assessment and if necessary, investigation of reported incidents.
- Reported incidents of threatening behavior made in accordance with this policy and the identity of all who render such reports will remain confidential to the greatest extent possible.
- Follow-up of Reports
The ______ School or School System Administrator hereby appoints the following staff member(s) ___________________________________________________________ to receive and process reports of violent and/or threatening behavior against students, faculty, employees or visitors.
Reports of incidents of violent and/or threatening behavior against students, faculty, employees, or visitors may be received in person or by telephone. Anonymous threats will be accepted and as appropriate, followed up. Nevertheless, it is preferable to know the identity of the reporter to properly assess the validity of the information (threat), conduct a more effective investigation, and to provide follow-up to the reporting individual.
Upon receiving a report of violent and/or threatening behavior against students, faculty, employees or visitors at any facility, designated staff members will immediately initiate the following actions:
- Conduct an immediate preliminary assessment of the reported threat/allegation to determine if it is feasible and contains enough articulable facts to serve as a possible indicator of present or future violence warranting further investigation (see section VI).
- If the allegation is urgent, constitutes an emergency, or if you are not sure, call 9-1-1 and request an immediate police response to the school. After calling 9-1-1, begin required notifications in accordance with school policy.
- If the allegation is nothing more than a mere suspicion without any supporting articulable evidence or proof, document it in the form of a memorandum or notes and hold it in case further similar allegations arise. Follow school policy regarding notifications to school and district leadership.
- If the allegation is reasonably feasible, notify the school Principal, document the allegation and preserve any notes, photos, recordings, text messages, or social media messages presented by the reporter. Next, notify the school/district’s law enforcement agency immediately, either via a School Resource Officer, or a direct call to the LE department. Document the notification and follow school policy and instructions from the police or law enforcement for follow-up actions.
- Trespassing on School Grounds
The ______ School or School System has the legal right to ban anyone from trespassing on school grounds as long as they are given notice that they are banned. It is the policy of the ___School or School System to ban all students with out-of-school suspensions (for the term of their suspension only), all students who are expelled or voluntarily drop-out of school, and anyone else who has demonstrated a proclivity to disrupt school activities or functions.
Once an individual has been given a written criminal trespass notice or warning, if they are again found on school property they may be arrested for trespassing.
- Police Investigations
The _______ Police Department or ___________ Law Enforcement Agency is committed by policy and protocol to conduct timely investigations of all reports of threats that rise to the law enforcement standard of reasonable suspicion. Following is the definition of reasonable suspicion:
Reasonable suspicion is a legal standard of proof in United States law that is less than probable cause, the legal standard for arrests and warrants, but more than an “inchoate and unparticularized suspicion or ‘hunch’”; it must be based on “specific and articulable facts,” “taken together with rational inferences from those facts,” and the suspicion must be associated with the specific individual.
School representatives from any school or school system in ______ (name of city or community) who have questions regarding whether or not to conduct an internal investigation of potential threats or allegations is welcome to contact the _________ Police Department or _________ Law Enforcement Agency at phone number and ask to speak with a supervisor.
Dan Flynn recently retired as the Chief of Police in the Marietta Police Department, where he served from 2007 until 2022. Prior to his appointment with the Marietta Police Department, Chief Flynn served as Chief of the Savannah Police Department and Chief of the Savannah-Chatham Metropolitan Police Department. Prior to entering Georgia policing, Chief Flynn completed a 27-year career with the MiamiDade Police Department, rising to the rank of Major Commanding the Organized Crime Bureau – Major Crimes Section, as well as the Narcotics Bureau, Northside District and Special Operations Bureau, which included SWAT Teams, Aviation, Marine Patrol, and Special Events.
Chief Flynn holds a bachelor’s degree in Public Administration from St. Thomas University, and a master’s degree in Public Administration from Florida International University. He also holds graduate certificates in Executive Leadership from the University of Miami, Personnel Management and Labor Relations from Florida International University, and Total Quality Management from George Washington University. He is a graduate of the F.B.I. National Academy, Senior Management Institute for Police.
Chief Flynn’s professional memberships include International Association of Chiefs of Police, FBI National Academy Associates, Georgia Association of Chiefs of Police, and Rotary International. He was selected as the Georgia Association of Chiefs of Police – Georgia Chief of the Year in both 2010 and 2017, and in 2010 he was inducted into the George Mason University International Evidence-Based Policing Hall of Fame. In 2022 he was named Public Safety Officer of the Year by the Cobb County Bar Association.
Leigh Colburn is a career educator, community leader, and educational presenter. She began her career in elementary school—teaching in all K–5 grades before moving into elementary administration and becoming a principal. Leigh transitioned to high school administration and proudly served as the principal of Marietta High School for 10 years until founding the Graduate Marietta Student Success Center on July 1, 2015. Under her leadership, the Graduate Marietta Student Success Center received the 2016 Charter System Innovator of the Year Award for the state of Georgia. She co-founded The Centergy Project with Linda Beggs in 2017.
Leigh Colburn and the schools she’s led have been recognized for innovation and positive gains related to academic achievement, decreasing achievement gaps, improved attendance, and discipline, as well as rising graduation rates.
Leigh Colburn’s experience in both elementary and high school positions her to guide school leaders to take a whole child approach customized to the barriers and assets of each school and community. She assists districts in establishing dynamic partnerships between their schools and their elected representatives, public safety departments, health care organizations, as well as local, state, and community service agencies to improve the quality of life for their students and families.
Leigh earned degrees from Kennesaw State University, the University of Mississippi, and the University of Alabama.