Identifying all of the threats and vulnerabilities likely to impact your school district is a critical part of the emergency operations planning process for schools.
School safety is an umbrella for many different issues that schools can encounter at any given time. They can range in scale or severity from human-caused acts of violence or natural disasters to more frequent safety issues that educators confront on a daily basis – drugs or weapons on campus, fighting, cyberbullying, and smoke detectors that may be out of service.
In Texas, we know that schools face many threats and, although an active attack is rare, the impact is no doubt catastrophic. That’s why we take a comprehensive approach to school safety – providing training and developing resources for schools on how to prevent, mitigate, respond to, and recover from any type of threat. A safe and secure learning environment is one that is prepared to respond to any type of hazard that may arise.
For example, Texas has a number of pipelines running through or near our school districts, which makes it essential to be prepared in case there is an incident with one of these pipelines. In other districts, weather-related concerns highlight a significant vulnerability. And for others whose campus is built near a major highway or railroad track, it’s important to know what types of chemicals trucks or trains are carrying in case of a spill.
Every day, our schools face challenges that have the potential to impede the learning process for our children. Creating and sustaining a culture of school preparedness is paramount to overall student achievement – both academically and emotionally.
In Texas, school districts, charter schools, and community colleges are required to develop multi-hazard emergency operations plans. Threats to our schools are not always manmade and it’s critical to have unique response plans in place to cover a variety of threats.
Established in 1999 shortly after the Columbine High School shooting, the Texas School Safety Center is a central clearinghouse for districts on school safety training, research, and technical assistance. We’ve seen many evolutions over the years regarding what is required of schools in terms of safety and security – from developing multi-hazard emergency operations plans to conducting safety and security audits of district facilities. With the multitude of changes, the school safety center has remained a valued resource, supporting districts to meet these new mandates and develop best practices in these areas.
Behavioral Threat Assessment Teams
Following the tragic Santa Fe High School shooting in 2018, the Texas State Legislature responded by passing Senate Bill 11 (SB11) in June 2019, a package of new provisions for school safety and security with a significant focus on prevention.
In collaboration with state partnering agencies, we’re working to help schools implement these new changes with fidelity.
A significant component of SB11 is the development of behavioral threat assessment teams in schools. Through SB11, Texas is now requiring every campus to have a behavioral threat assessment team in place. At the Texas School Safety Center, we’re responsible for training and developing model policies and procedures to establish behavioral threat assessment teams.
Research conducted on U.S. school shootings has shown that these violent events can be prevented because the acts are typically planned in advance and the actors often tell others beforehand about their violent plans.
Behavioral threat assessment provides a proactive, evidence-based approach for identifying individuals who may pose a threat to themselves or others, intervening with appropriate resources, and ultimately improving the safety and well-being of the individual of concern, the situation, and the school.
The goal of threat assessment is not to punish a child, but to connect them with the appropriate interventions they need so a threat can be averted and the individual can be put on a path to success. Keeping our schools safe involves not just effectively responding to violent events, but working to prevent them as well.
In Texas, we’re just beginning to establish a foundation for implementing behavioral threat assessment teams throughout the state. One of our primary objectives has been getting the appropriate school personnel trained in the behavioral threat assessment process.
There are approximately 1,024 school districts and over 700 charter schools in the state. With so many districts needing this training moving forward, we’re working to meet this training demand and ensure statewide coverage.
Using Resources Wisely
The scale of resources for schools can often be a challenge. Here in Texas, where the majority of our districts are rural, the superintendent can be the football coach, bus driver, math teacher, and director of safety and security on campus. That can present a lot of competing priorities.
Other Texas school districts have their own director of safety and security or school police department. In addition to personnel, the physical security components of school districts can also vary.
This level and intensity of resources available to a district is not unique to Texas. That is why it is important for schools to be aware of the local community resources that can assist them in their efforts to ensure a safe and healthy learning environment, and to know what resources you need before you need them. Municipal or county emergency management coordinators, local mental health authorities, and local first responders can all be valuable partners.
School safety is a shared responsibility that involves school boards, superintendents, principals, teachers, mental health professionals, law enforcement, various state agencies and local organizations, parents, students, policymakers, and the community at large. When all of these stakeholders are involved, we have a much stronger safety net in place for our schools.
Ensuring that school safety is a part of the educational agenda begins with support from leaders within the district, such as the superintendent and the school board of trustees.
To address this, one tactic we’re pursuing is the development of training modules for our school board of trustee members and superintendents so they’re aware of not only what’s required of their district in terms of safety and security, but also how to access resources and best practices to support their district. With SB11 and other new legislation, school districts have a level of accountability to ensure they are doing everything they can to ensure the safety of their students and staff.
For example, the district superintendent and board of trustees are required to sign off on their district’s safety and security audit. This ensures a level of awareness about the strengths and weaknesses so gaps can be addressed to improve the safety and security posture of their district.
Engaging students is critical as well. Each year, we host a Youth Preparedness Camp in which youth receive a full 20-hour Community Emergency Response Team training, develop a community action plan, and receive leadership training skills to address emergency preparedness in their schools and communities. Through our Youth Preparedness Council, we also bring youth leaders from across Texas who want to make their schools and communities safer and more resilient. We know that peer-to-peer learning is often more effective than adults trying to educate youth on what they should do, so if we can have youth leaders go back and convey that information to their peers, it becomes very meaningful.
Lastly, we encourage school districts throughout Texas to incorporate local first responders and mental health professionals into their planning process. We cannot be working in silos when planning across the emergency management spectrum. We can better ensure a coordinated response and recovery process when all necessary stakeholders are at the table working together.
About Notes From the Field
The National Institute of Justice (NIJ) is the research, development, and evaluation arm of the U.S. Department of Justice. NIJ aims to address the critical questions of the criminal justice field, particularly at the state and local levels.
NIJ Director David Muhlhausen developed the Notes From the Field series to allow leading voices in the field to share their strategies for responding to the most pressing issues on America’s streets today.
Notes From the Field is not a research-based publication. Instead, it presents lessons learned by on-the-ground criminal justice leaders from years of experience and thinking deeply about criminal justice issues.
About the Author
Kathy Martinez-Prather is the Executive Director of the Texas School Safety Center at Texas State University. The school safety center is a university-level research center that is tasked in the Texas Education Code and the Governor’s Homeland Security Strategic Plan with key school safety initiatives to serve as the clearinghouse for the dissemination of school safety information related to training, research, and technical assistance. Ms. Martinez-Prather has over 10 years of experience working directly with public schools and community colleges in developing research-based guidance and tools for educators and school-based law enforcement to improve the safety and security of schools. Ms. Martinez-Prather has published research in the Criminal Justice Policy Review, Journal of Qualitative Criminal Justice and Criminology, and International Journal of Cyber Criminology. She is currently finishing her Ph.D. at Texas State University in the School of Criminal Justice.
Writing and editorial support was provided by Blair Ames, a writer with a federal contractor on assignment at the National Institute of Justice, U.S. Department of Justice.