Times of San Diego

Four Steps to Safe Schools


4/2/2015 – Times of San Diego – by Josh Gaffen and Brandon Andrews:

Since the tragic events at Sandy Hook, other campuses, and even here in San Diego, one question has loomed large in the minds of many school administrators, principals, teachers, parents and the students themselves: Is my school safe?

For many in America, this question remains unanswered.

Timing is most certainly of the essence if we are to make education campuses safe and as protected as possible while also taking into consideration that they are — first and foremost — schools and not high-security compounds. Doing so will require very careful and focused analysis, planning and communication as well as the will and collaboration of all stakeholders — administrators, elected officials, security, law enforcement and parents — to achieve this goal.

The task of implementing policies and programs to ensure school safety can be daunting at first. We submit that it is most certainly manageable if all parties follow a four-step initiative that will evaluate the existing plans, processes and resources that are in place, examine the gaps and prioritize agreed-upon actions. The objective of this approach is to create a high-level blueprint that will effectively and efficiently assess the existing environment and plan for future modernization measures. Here are the elements in a nutshell.
Step 1: Gather Intelligence

Each campus should generate a “School Security Assessment Report” in partnership with an expert in school security analysis and the existing faculty members, to identify the security-related strengths and weaknesses of the educational facility. The goal of this report will be to gather all available data and provide an objective assessment of the campus’ security condition.

The findings should be inclusive of both criticality (scale of potential negative impact) and probability of exploitation. Based on these criteria, all recommended activities should be categorized in one of three levels:

  • Level 1 — Immediate Threat — Immediate action required
  • Level 2 — Substantial Threat — Action recommended as soon as possible
  • Level 3 — General Threat — Action recommended when possible

Portions of the Assessment Report’s activities should include:

On-site interviews with stakeholders and a physical site inspection.
Review access to the facility and how it is monitored. Are there multiple possible entry and exit points? How are these monitored/controlled? Are processes in place which are sufficient and being followed?
Identify the facility’s known vulnerabilities based upon both probability of exploitation and potential criticality.
Review the coverage and utility of the facility’s security-monitoring system.
Review all related processes and procedures including internal and external communications and how all stakeholders — including students, teachers, parents and police — will react.

Step 2: Prioritize

After the assessment is completed, the stakeholders need to go about prioritizing the actions required. A stakeholder group to approve and finalize the priority list typically includes at minimum:

  • Superintendent of schools
  • Chief of facilities/capital bond program executive
  • Chief of facilities maintenance and operations executive
  • District staff and subject matter experts who drafted the Security Assessment Report

At a public school district, the recommended prioritization and rationale would be presented to the board of trustees.
Step 3: Create a Plan of Action

Based on the Security Assessment Report and approved prioritization, an overall plan of action should be created which encompasses two major areas: facilities infrastructure and policies/procedures.

The Facilities infrastructure plan should take into account:

  • District level master plan
  • Site specific master plan
  • Whole site modernization efforts (ongoing and planned)
  • New construction (ongoing and planned)
  • School closures based on attendance trends and district goals

The prioritization list and Security Assessment Report findings may include hundreds of individual projects, which have guidelines and requirements for additional infrastructure, hardware, software, Furniture/Fixtures/Equipment and/or construction activities.

To drive efficiency, it is critical that the projects be correctly planned, grouped and included within existing facility modernization goals.

Then comes policies and procedures. Schools must reassess their existing communication procedures, fire drills, active-threat drills and all other emergency-response drills and take an unbiased and objective look at current processes and procedures. These should be modified or newly created to meet the stated goals. If budget permits, it is recommended to contract a security specialist to assist in this process.

Using all of the intelligence gathered, create contingencies and plan for those contingencies. Always have a backup plan and secondary route when moving students from one area to the other, having at least two egress and ingress strategies for each room. Create a plan for sustainment and be prepared as structures and campuses change in terms of class sizes and the environment surrounding the campus.
Step 4: Execute Plan of Action

Lastly, execute your plan. Communicate, then teach and run test drills for all relevant processes and procedures with teachers, faculty, students and local law enforcement. Manage the facilities infrastructure plan, associated project priorities, budget and schedule. Make sure to review and — if necessary — revise the plan approximately every seven years or when there is any major change to the campus, such as the building of new structures or expansion of class sizes.

The end result is a healthy and well balanced learning environment in which students, faculty, parents and community members feel safe. It is ultimately a collaboration between people, the buildings and environment they occupy, and the procedures that are implemented to maintain a safe campus. Each school, location and goals are unique and require balancing the desire for safety and a place conducive to learning. These two goals are not necessarily at odds, but they must be part of a broad and cohesive strategy and associated plan.


Josh Gaffen is the director of special Projects at Gafcon Inc., a San Diego-based consulting firm with expertise in K-14 and higher education. Brandon Andrews is a former U.S. Navy SEAL and principal of Trident CM, a consulting firm providing specialized construction services.

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