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Florida shooting reopens debate on school safety

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The recent mass shooting at a Florida high school has sparked talk of increased security, but safety experts advise that the focus should be on prevention.

The Feb. 14 mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, which killed 17 students and staff, has reignited debate on gun control and school safety. 

Harry Rhulen, a co-founder of the Denver-based crisis and risk management firm Firestorm Solutions L.L.C., said that while some private schools have armed guards on the premises, very few public schools go this route. 

“Public schools typically use what’s called a school resource officer, which is provided to them by the sheriff’s department or police department and that is a full-fledged police officer who fills that function,” Mr. Rhulen said. 

News reports from Parkland indicate that a number of warnings about Nikolas Cruz, the alleged gunman, were missed by the FBI and the local sheriff’s department. In addition, the school’s resource officer, Broward County, Florida, Sheriff’s Deputy Scot R. Peterson, failed to enter the building and confront the gunman during the rampage, according to Broward County Sheriff Scott Israel. 

On Thursday, Mr. Peterson said through his attorney that he was “confident that his actions on that day were appropriate under the circumstances.”

“Armed people at school can be part of an effective plan, but you’ve got to build all the infrastructure around them,” Mr. Rhulen said. “The problem is there’s usually not the resources to do it a way where you’re not creating a bigger exposure than you’re solving.” 

Mr. Rhulen, whose firm responded to the 2007 mass shooting at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, added that “the problem with having anyone in a school with a gun is, 'I (a potential shooter) no longer have to figure out how to get a gun from school; I have to figure out how to get the gun from you.’”

“Also, the perpetrators of these crimes typically research their intended target, the school, very carefully, so they know who the school resource officer is, they know who the armed security is, and that’s the first person they’re going to come for,” he said.

The absolute solution to the school shooter problem, Mr. Rhulen said, “is early detection, early intervention before the person ever feels the need to bring the gun to school.” 

Michael Dorn, executive director of Safe Havens International Inc., a campus safety firm in Juliette, Georgia, said several municipalities have school district police departments that investigate and respond to incidents on school property. These officers are often better trained and better paid then local police officers, he said. 

Mr. Dorn, former chief of police for the Bibb County School District in Macon, Georgia, advised schools to practice multidisciplinary threat assessment and management. This includes having a written policy and maintaining a team that would include at minimum a police officer, a mental health professional and a school administrator. 

“You’re bringing in different disciplines, so the police officer may pick up on things the psychologist may miss,” Mr. Dorn said. “We urge schools to make sure before they commit to major expenditures for other things, they’d better make sure they meet standard of care in this area.” 

If a school decides to hire private security, Mr. Dorn warned that “just because a security company has indemnification insurance that does not mean you cannot be sued.”

“You have to very careful with vendors that you know what their background check process is,” he said. “All background checks are not equal. What is that background check? What are their standards? Will they notify you if a candidate has any prior-arrests history? You do need to do due diligence.” 

Kenneth Trump, president of Cleveland-based National School Safety and Security Service, which specializes in school security and emergency preparedness training, suggested that schools create a climate where students have good relationships with adults and will come forward to report weapons and plots.

“People are grasping for straws,” he said. “We’re emotionally raw, understandably, as parents and a society, that these keep happening, and the mantra tends to be do something, do anything, and do it fast. And there’s a difference between do something, do anything, and do it fast versus do something properly, do something that’s proven best practice, and do it right.” 

He advised training administrators to recognize early warning signs and have school security professionals conduct assessments of security and emergency plans. 

“If you want an armed presence on campus, we strongly support having a specially trained school-based police officer or school resource officer,” Mr. Trump said. 

Mr. Rhulen said a problem with school shootings is that they tend to be forgotten with the passage of time. 

“Nobody will be talking about Florida soon, and that’s a shame,” he said. “We need to keep focused on this. There are ways to dramatically reduce this issue for this country, and we need to do it.”