Protecting students from external threats

By Mo Canady, Executive Director, National Association of School Resource Officers (NASRO)

Violence from the neighborhoods around a school can easily threaten students on campus. In fact, such threats might well be more common than in-school incidents. The November 14, 2017, shooting spree in the rural, northern California community of Rancho Tehama Reserve is a perfect example.

As a review, the shootings began November 13, when Kevin Janson Neal, 44, shot and killed his wife in their home less than two miles from Rancho Tehama Elementary School. The next morning, Neal shot and killed two neighbors, stole their truck and began driving through the community, randomly shooting people as he drove closer and closer to the school.

As students at the school prepared to enter for the start of classes, a secretary recognized gunshots in the distance and implemented lockdown procedures. A janitor and teachers rushed the children into the school’s multiple buildings and locked the doors. Unable to enter, Neal fired nearly 100 rounds of ammunition into the buildings from outside. One bullet hit a child after traveling through a wall. Flying glass injured six other children. All seven students survived. Neal left the campus and later committed suicide after sheriff deputies pursued him.

One of the best ways a school can protect itself against such threats is to have a carefully selected, well-trained school resource officer (SRO) on campus. The firearms training that all police officers receive helps SROs recognize the sound of gunfire (telling it apart from fireworks, etc.) and discern whether it is getting closer to the campus.

In addition, an SRO can monitor a police radio throughout the school day and has knowledge that helps the officer evaluate threats heard on that radio. NASRO operations director Mac Hardy, a former SRO, recalls a time when he received radio reports of an escaped convict approximately 35 miles down a highway from his school. Upon evaluating the threat, Hardy chose not to order a lockdown, in part because he received information that the convict was a non-violent offender who had walked away from a work-release assignment. Such threat assessments can be more challenging for individuals who lack law enforcement experience.

Some schools, however, cannot afford SROs, especially schools in remote communities like Rancho Tehama Reserve. In such schools, faculty, staff and administrator training is particularly important to student safety. Such training should include:

  • How to create effective plans for multiple types of emergencies (not just shooters) and what such plans should contain.
  • Why exercising such plans is necessary and how (and how often) to execute such exercises.
  • How to develop situational awareness, to recognize quickly when something different than normal is happening.
  • How to quickly evaluate when unusual sounds, events, etc. represent threats to the school.
  • How to safely and efficiently reunite students with their families after a crisis.

Many educators might be unaware of a particularly valuable resource for such training: NASRO’s week-long basic school resource officer course. That’s right — one need not be a law enforcement officer to register for or benefit from this course. Educators who take the course gain a wealth of knowledge that helps them keep their schools safer — knowledge that is particularly important for those whose schools have no SRO.

Educators are also welcome at NASRO’s annual School Safety Conference, held at various locations around the United States (the 2018 conference will be in Reno, Nevada). Many conference sessions can help educators better prepare their schools to protect students during violent incidents and other emergencies.

Not everyone is called to be a law enforcement officer, but anyone can gain critical knowledge that can help prevent injuries and deaths on a school campus. A brief search of news media articles did not reveal what safety training the faculty and staff of Rancho Tehama Elementary School received prior to last November’s shootings. It is clear, however, that their actions greatly reduced the shooter’s ability to cause injuries and deaths.