In addition to exacting its terrible human toll, the COVID-19 pandemic has compounded the anxiety faced by students and society in general. Beyond the isolation of remote learning, the lockdown and its aftermath have opened a Pandora’s box of risk factors associated with violence —including suicidal ideation, depression, family financial difficulties, and abuse/neglect.
As schools open their doors again, these risk factors could potentially push someone in an already fragile emotional state into attempting an act of extreme violence. For example, in early September, two boys, ages 13 and 14, were apprehended by Lee County, Florida officials and charged with conspiracy to commit a mass shooting at a middle school .
Pandemic-influenced mental health challenges are real, and require actionable steps to help prevent the next tragedy. But it’s not only K-12 schools that are at risk. All public entities should prepare—every higher education institution, workplace, and municipality should have an effective threat assessment and response plan in place.
Plan for the unthinkable
While only the most extreme headlines grab public attention, the numbers indicate that the prevalence of violent events is on the rise. Research from the FBI shows a steady increase in both incidents and casualties over the past two decades, rising from one active shooter incident in the year 2000 to a total of 277 by the year 2018.
It’s imperative that public entity decision-makers review and update their emergency preparedness plans to reflect the current threat landscape. This means incorporating leading technology and strategies, and instituting realistic training to rehearse effective crisis management. Here are four general steps your public entity can take to get started, along with some helpful resources:
1. Build a team with management support.
Create your threat assessment team by bringing together leaders from every part of your organization. Besides encouraging diverse input, it also creates a sense of buy-in and responsibility from all. Ideally, your committee should include stakeholders from the following areas:
- Risk management
- Human resources
- Facility and property management
- Safety committee
- Employee representatives
Once assembled, the team’s first order of business should be to analyze your organization’s strengths, weaknesses, and vulnerabilities. By knowing where you stand, you’ll be better able to identify the best course of action during a desperate situation.
2. Map out the planning process and execute key tasks.
Violent events are rarely spur-of-the-moment incidents. According to the FBI, “This is one advantage that threat assessment teams have—preparing to engage in violence almost always requires time and action, which in turn allows for opportunities for bystander observation and reporting.”
Knowing this vital principle, you can move through the following tasks to create a plan that’s custom fit to your organization’s needs:
- Assess security risks to organization locations. Have the team conduct vulnerability studies for each venue. An excellent starting point is the self-assessment tool found in NFPA 1600®, the National Fire Protection Association’s (NFPA) Standard on Continuity, Emergency, and Crisis Management.
- Prioritize and develop risk-mitigation approaches. In this step, your team needs to identify and develop responses to emergency scenarios. Make sure you tap into expertise from industry leaders, technology experts, and law enforcement.
- Harden facilities and sites. Next, physically secure your facilities. Common upgrades include: controlling site access with fencing or security guards, adding video surveillance, and implementing employee ID or badge protocols.
- Conduct threat assessments. Make sure your team understands the process. A key takeaway is that threat assessment is never “one-and-done,” but instead should be an ongoing, everyday activity. In essence, it involves three functions:
- Identify the threat. Students, parents, volunteers, and employees need to know when, how, and where to report concerns.
- Assess the threat. Gather and evaluate information from multiple sources to better understand if a person is planning a violent event.
- Manage the threat. Ideally, this stage moves someone who is on a path of despair back to hope.
As an additional plan development resource, the Department of Homeland Security created a special website specifically for school safety with a wealth of information and best practices. Although intended for schools, the content is relevant for most public entities.
3. Communicate and train.
Even the best plan will be ineffective unless it’s shared organization-wide. That’s why threat awareness should be built into your existing safety program. Every student and employee —including new hires, temporary workers, and volunteers —should know how to recognize and respond to potentially dangerous situations. Here are two things to remember:
- Conduct training and drills. Training that depicts real-life scenarios will help people quickly choose the best course of action during a crisis. Remember to include local law enforcement in your drills for the most effective results.
- Serve as a communication conduit between employees and management. Your team should be an open channel for information flow—both up and down the chain of command; everyone’s safety and security will depend on it.
4. Audit and update regularly.
The planning process doesn’t end once a plan is put into place. Periodically, you should conduct an actual crisis run-through so that it doesn’t become stagnant and outdated. Just as every organization needs to evaluate itself on a regular basis, an effective emergency preparedness plan should be continuously refreshed. Best practices include:
- Scheduling time to monitor site conditions and practices
- Establishing a reporting system to rectify security shortfalls or problems
- Reviewing security incidents and determining best corrective actions
- Updating your plan as needed on a frequent basis; annually is recommended
Mitigating risk through partnership
While these insights focus on public entities, violent events can impact all parts of a community. Across industries, violence in the workplace, including schools, is an ongoing concern. Your insurance carrier can provide additional guidance on how to help manage these events as well as information about insurance coverage in the event of a violent incident. Learn more about Liberty Mutual’s solutions for schools.
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