A Sense-able Approach to School Violence

By Randal S. Doaty, Director of Security, The Hill School

Randal S. Doaty, Director of Security, The Hill School

Schools across the country are struggling to find solutions to the on-going wave of school violence. Despite fortified buildings, a plethora of high tech gadgets and a militia of trained school security personnel, these senseless tragedies continue. And, this national epidemic doesn’t appear to have a clear solution.

As the Director of Security of an independent boarding school, I regularly sort through the investigative commentary from these attacks. I search for clues to find the right combination of products, plans and procedures to give our school the best chance of survival if the unthinkable should occur.

My greatest concern is the “first fatal five” minutes. Life and death decisions must be made quickly, and without my intervention for those at the epicenter of the attack. They won’t be able to review my prior instructions, nor have the cognitive abilities to digest vital information on a smartphone app.

The greatest resource for the unfortunate souls in the danger zone will be their senses and prior training. I know after 40 years of emergency service, “common sense” will be in short supply when civilians are suddenly immersed into a traumatic situation. They must rely on natural senses and a trained response.

Sometimes there are no preemptive signs. Decision-making responsibilities begin in an instant. When this occurs, people will not simply rise to the occasion. They will sink to the highest level of training they have as a self-initiated responder. Our prior training will determine our critical response decisions.

Sometime there are signs. Our latent, natural senses can be triggered before a calamity erupts. These intuitive behavioral senses work like a smoke detector, detecting small traces of smoke before a fire erupts. Preemptive visual and behavioral detection, as well as our trained response, will save lives!

Behavioral sensory abilities can be improved and strengthened through training, practice and testing. In many mass school attacks, behavioral smoke detectors were sounding loud and clear days or months before the attack unfolded. The uneasy, gut feelings about the attacker were accurate.

Following the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center in 2001, our government launched the “See Something—Say Something” program encouraging civilians to report suspicious activity potentially related to terrorist activity. Our country has been safer because of this nation-wide sensory awareness program.

A big question remains. Will people say something? The only way to be certain people will act is to continually test the system, just as smoke detectors are checked periodically. Schools need to regularly assess faculty, staff and student response to assure they will say something, when they see something.

"Behavioral sensory abilities can be improved and strengthened through training, practice and testing"

Our decision-making senses are enhanced by repeating emergency drills. This isn’t something we can just read about, then mindlessly do. Emergency response is a muscle-memory development process which enables us to do what we were trained to do, especially when our cognitive abilities are paralyzed.

Schools should continually introduce unusual or suspicious circumstance to see how their school community will respond. The goal is assessing their response, and subsequently using their choices as a teaching opportunity to improve their decision-making. Not just for students—it’s for everyone in the school.

I developed SMART Drills. This acronym stands for Spontaneous, Multiple Alternative Response Training drills. It’s spontaneous because these drills are not announced in advance to participants. Everyone will need to rely on prior self-initiated response training and instruction, as well as their natural senses.

A SMART Drill analyzes our critical response reflex. First responders must make the best possible decisions based upon information they have at hand, and whatever their natural senses are telling them. Just like a real-life crisis, the perfect solutions are not always obvious or available. Nevertheless, we must act.

The Sandy Hook Elementary tragedy exemplifies sensory response. The shooter was able to disable the card access system, visitor ID system and mass alert system within seconds.

Everything which unfolded in the minutes before police arrived depended solely upon their prior training and critical sensory responses.

A study just released by the US Secret Service on mass violence concludes the importance of behavioral awareness education for parents, students, staff, faculty, administration and others. They also highlight a need for anonymous reporting outlets and review teams. They are recommending sensory based security!

Critical response thinking and good emergency responses can be taught in our schools through the implementation of more drills, training and testing. Introducing this curriculum will surely compete with valuable school time already set aside for academic, arts and sports programs. Security must be a priority!

Ironically, the epidemic of mass violence in our schools could decrease by simply utilizing critical response teaching techniques in the very educational institutions which also find themselves under attack.

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