Empowering Parents on School Safety Precautions | Spencer Coursen


“With any important issue, there will always be aspects no one wishes to discuss.”

~George Orwell

Dear Parents,

For those of you I know personally, I write this with you in mind.

Many of you are my friends, whom I love very much and will spend my lifetime watching over with a ready sword. I empathize with the growing burden that comes from raising a child in today’s world. You deserve to be recognized and rewarded for your endeavor, your accomplishments and your unwavering willingness to do all that is required to keep your child safe.

It is this latter quality I wish to speak upon today.

For many of you, this will not be an easy read, but like all good friends, we tell each other what we need to hear, not just what we want to hear.

Parents today are more involved than ever in the lives of their children, participating in decisions about curriculum, sports, and social activities – almost everything but school safety. Parents are too often placated by the belief that “something is being done” to keep their children safe at school, but then forget to ask the follow up question of what that “something” is.

The purpose of writing to you today, is to empower you with information and to suggest ways in which we can improve the safety of your children at school. We all deserve to live in a safer tomorrow, but that safety depends on decisions made today.

Recent tragedies have made it clear our schools are a soft target for deranged criminals, and administrators seeking to improve our children’s safety need to heed a simple, yet important fact: Over time, safety, unlike algebra, has evolved into a completely different subject matter from what many administrators once learned.

All worthwhile change first comes from educated discussion, so let us begin…

Communities Come Together in a Crisis

Like most children of the time, my sisters and I walked from our childhood home to the red brick elementary school on the other side of town. We lived in a typical suburban area, with good neighbors. One year, when I was in third or fourth grade, there was an abduction of a girl in our school. I do not remember the specifics, but I do remember an outcry from the public for action, and I remember for the first time feeling a responsibility to be more protective of my three younger sisters.

If a village prides itself on their ability to raise children, they must also be willing and able to protect them. Our neighborhood was such a village. In the weeks that followed, a “Helping Hand” program began to promote student safety. The police vetted applicants and “block parents” were identified along common routes throughout the neighborhood.


A sign placed in a front window showing a Red Hand identified those homes that had been selected. These houses became the ad hoc “safe havens” of our neighborhood. I never once needed them, but I always grateful they were there.

Today’s children are well educated in navigating the digital world, but less so the physical one. How many know where they can go to be safe? Not in theory…but in practice.

We can make a difference, by educating our children and ourselves, on where we can go to be safe in crisis.

What is your family’s emergency action plan?

Every family should have their own Emergency Readiness Plan. Your family will likely not be together when a crisis occurs so it’s important for everyone in your family to know ahead of time how to contact one another, where to go, and what to do in different situations. It’s important these plans be communicated and discussed at regular intervals as circumstances and scenarios may change throughout the year.

Safe Havens should be identified as early and as often as possible. This means knowing where to go if you can’t get home, and knowing where you can safely go if you have to evacuate your home.

Only you as a parent know what is truly best for your child. Only you can give them the confidence to survive, and only you can instill within them the courage to act in the face of fear.

Get out while you can: Survivability vs Accountability

The role of the teacher, is just that – to teach. As the son of public school teachers, I am deeply aware of the wide base of knowledge and expertise educators possess. But while both my parents were excellent educators, they weren’t trained to escape and evade a violent threat.

That is my expertise. There are opportunities to apply lessons I have learned as an Army Ranger and security professional leading protection details for dignitaries, heads of state and public figures in some of the most dangerous places in the world that would do much more to improve the safety of our schools.

Parents must bear the bulk of responsibility for the safety of their children, and children must know exactly what to do know when faced with danger.

I have spoken with many teachers and administrators during discussions of school violence, almost all of whom have dismissed the notion of ever telling their class to “RUN” for fear that doing so would be inconsistent with their primary objective of “accountability.”

Teachers and students are told to shelter in place during an attack. But sheltering in place was designed to protect against natural disasters, high winds, falling trees and other non-human dangers. It is an absurd idea for surviving a physical encounter. Quite simply, you cannot outrun a storm, but you can outrun a person, especially one not chasing you. I have yet to speak with a parent, whom when given a scenario similar to Sandy Hook, would rather have to identify their child than spend a few hours searching for him or her.

Some will argue that you cannot outrun a bullet. They are correct, but who is more difficult to hit: the child running away and gaining distance with each step, or the child hiding in the coat closet?

A building fire is perhaps more violent and unpredictable than an active shooter, yet we would not hide from a fire in hope it wouldn’t find us…we would run.

Law Enforcement Influence

The primary focus of police activity is public safety, not personal safety.

Law enforcement agencies and personnel have no duty to protect individuals from the criminal acts of others; instead their duty is to preserve the peace and arrest law breakers for the protection of the general public.” Lynch v. N.C. Dept. of Justice, 376 S.E. 2nd 247 (N.C. App. 1989)

In most cases, a crime is either in progress or has already been committed before the police are called. Something has already happened when they arrive on the scene. This is the nature of their beast, and it has conditioned their outlook to one of reaction, rather than one of prevention. All too often, when writing an emergency response plan, police trained authors focus on what would make their job easier if they were a responding officer, instead of what would prevent them from being called in the first place.

For the most part, local and state police are are not security experts, they are policing experts. Aside from an aspect of deterrence, police do not prevent crime, they respond to crime. One favorable aspect the police find inherent to ‘Shelter In Place’ is that it helps police contain the threat. Law enforcement may argue, “If everyone is running away, the bad guy may run away with them” The priority needs to be student safety, and life saving measures must always come before arrest rate concerns.

Basic Survival Instruction

If you can run – RUN

If you want to live…RUN.

Take as many people as you can with you…but run away.

Running away should always be your first option.

A moving target is harder to hit and you are gaining distance with every step.

If you can’t run – HIDE

Hiding should never be your first level of defense.

Hiding should only be an option when you are too tired to run.

If you can’t run or hide – FIGHT

This is something that cannot be instructed or taught.

It will ultimately come down to the psychology of the individual at the most critical moment.

Practical applications for realistic change

Understanding the shooter methodology:

An individual who makes a public attack almost always has a specific person in mind to attack first. These offenders typically plan their action only up to the moment of initiation; they almost never plan for what will come next. This knowledge is important: if you are not the first intended victim your chance for survival is increased if you run immediately away from the sounds of the gunshots, or as soon as the threat is recognized.

Remind yourself:

Place a red card near their primary exit that simply reads “RUN!” For most of us, when a crisis situation takes hold, our minds will turn to water and run out of our ears. Only basic survival practices will seem natural. Running is a natural response. Remind yourself to RUN.

Don’t blindly follow:

Avoid mass evacuation locations. Schools, much like offices buildings, and commercial complexes, are comprised of compartmentalized locations. Classrooms, offices, meeting rooms, hallways, and bathrooms, are all mazed together via inconsistent floor plans varying from one floor to the next.

Conversely, evacuation meeting locations are nearly all the same; parking lots or nearby parks where large groups of persons can be herded together under the guise of accountability. It’s not a far stretch to imagine a deranged individual using this knowledge to his own tactical advantage when planning an attack. Be sure you are not being herded from the small threat to the big one.

If a threat is serious enough to evacuate, there is a very low likelihood of the immediate future allowing you to return back inside, so it might be best to get somewhere you know is safe.

If a meeting location after an evacuation is absolutely necessary, there should be as many as possible and separated by as much space as possible.

Eliminate antiquated practices:

If running away is not an option, teachers and students should be able to barricade themselves in the classroom. Unfortunately, most public-funded buildings have doors that swing out. This is a norm from times when building fires were much more common than today.

But out-swinging doors cannot be barricaded – the hinges are on the wrong side. This makes any argument for staying in the classroom during an attack a losing proposition. Classrooms should have in-swinging doors that can be barricaded. In addition, classrooms should have emergency exits, similar to those on buses and airplanes. I would even support installing a door similar to an exit row airplane door, complete with inflatable slides in classrooms above the first floor.

Would this be an inexpensive option? No. Is it worth the life of a child? Yes.

An upgrade should be made to every classroom door to promote closed = locked. All classroom doors should be fitted with automatic locking devices; so all doors are locked whenever they are closed. Teachers could still prop them open during the day or between classes by use of a magnetic hold, but every room would have a panic button, that when pressed, released all magnets and forced all doors to close. Most schools already have this capability employed in conjunction with their alarm system and fire doors.

Fire alarm pulled = smoke doors closed

These doors would not pose a fire hazard because you can always travel out of them (think crash bar) yet would always keep unwanted persons from getting in.

Communicate as early and as often as possible:

All school districts should have their own Emergency Plan designed and shared with those First Responders who will come to help.

Information should be reported as early and as often as possible. Inform them of your situation, your location, and have them send help to those most in need. When possible, mass text this information to as many people as possible.

For those who are forced to hide, or barricade themselves inside a classroom, there needs to be a universal “survivor signal” established between the schools and the police. This system needs to be universally understood and easily remembered.

Simply writing “H” for Help on any window that faces out to within public view, allows those outside to know your are still inside.

The increasingly common practice of marking the classroom doors and windows with a red/green identifier is very low on my list of good ideas. If I’m a shooter inside the building your card under the door (regardless of color) just told me people are inside.

If you are forced to hide, why would you give away your position inside the building?

Trust me, if the card is green when the shooter enters, he won’t change it to red before he leaves.

What if a rescue team is clearing through the halls looking for those in need of help, but skips over your green card looking for a red one?

Placing an H on the perimeter window means one thing – we need help! Maybe it’s medical help or maybe you just need to be rescued, but Help means help – no need for interpretation – no concern about change in your status.

Rehearsals vs. Drills:

Army Rangers in Mogadishu learned the same lesson Secret Service agents learned 30 years earlier in Dallas: However unlikely, expect the worst will happen. School administrators, teachers and students should do the same. Instead of periodic drills, schools should conduct walk and talk rehearsals about what to do and where to go in the event of an attack. No fake hysteria, no sirens, no alarms – just a serious conversation about what to do if an attack happens. Airlines do this well. Few will ever experience a plane crash, but we still get a clear, calm and informative safety brief every time we board a flight.

A theatrical production does many rehearsals, but really only runs-through the show, when doing the show. Rehearsals allow you to stop, re-set, discuss, and improve, where as drills “check the block” and placate a mandatory safety requirement. Many schools do nothing more than what their respective governing body requires.

Talk to any student in the 3rd grade or higher, and they can tell you when there is going to be a fire drill – accurate to within 30 minutes and often before their own teachers know. To mitigate this inconvenience, students will begin to pre-prep for the drill by keeping their belongings on-hand so they have something to combat boredom while they wait outside to be counted.

Over time, this condition becomes common practice, and when the time comes to react for real, precious seconds are lost in the quest to repeat the previous practices of searching for creature comforts.

Complacency kills more readily than practice makes perfect.

Notifications and Alerts :

We are all already conditioned to respond to audible alerts. Everyday our phones reinforce this condition via phone calls, emails, and text messages. We program specific bells, chimes and whistles to alert us to what needs our most immediate attention; priority tones trigger priority function.

Emergency Alarms should be no different. Using a single alarm for multiple purpose has the same effect as adding water to wine – the effects are diluted.

Voice Driven alarms are most effective as they leave little room for individual interpretation.

“This is an Announcement…”

“Emergency: There is a Fire in the Kitchen…”


Access control needs to be controlled:

A school in session should mimic a Broadway theater after the curtain has raised – hundreds of ways for the audience to leave, but only one way to enter.

The earlier a threat is identified, the greater your chance for survival.

When school is in session, there should only be one way for guests and visitors to approach, and a specific process for them to enter. Procedure only works if you follow it every time.

Many commercial and residential security systems are designed to identify who committed the crime, but only after the crime has been committed. Security systems alert the homeowner to the crime, but they rarely prevent the crime from happening. 911 will be called, police will arrive to secure the crime scene, and detectives will arrive to investigate. Surveillance footage will be reviewed, clues will be gathered and suspects will be identified. An investigation will lead to an arrest, and the prosecutor will likely use the surveillance tape to show the jury at trial.

If the school grounds are relying on a security system for the safety of it’s occupants, there are several criteria which ALL must be met to ensure success. These measures include a fully integrated system of motion sensors, listening stations, approach beams, digital cameras with infra-red and pan-tilt-zoom capability, direct communication with local police, a PA system, alarm notification, and a sentry-trained dog. All of these components will need to be linked to a command center located in a response-specific location, and managed by a full-time security team ready to challenge and intercept any approaching threat.

Use technology to your advantage:

As hard as it may be to imagine, by the time a child enters first grade, they are likely more tech-savvy then their parents. Whatever your personal stance regarding pros/cons of children with smartphones, today’s marketplace is full of applications designed to enhance personal safety. E-mail alerts, and on-screen pop-ups are just a few of the options readily available to notify you of emergency information. There are also numerous GPS applications you can download to your children’s smart phones for remote tracking.

Two of the more functional apps on the market today is the “Silent Bodyguard” and “Stay Safe” Both are easy to install, easy to use, and have many personalize features like a continuous distress signal lasting the duration of your phone’s battery.

Understanding the need for a threat-management process:

There is a fundamental difference between a threat which is made, and a threat which is posed. A threat-management process, is the practice by which an expressed threat is assessed for it’s likelihood to be carried out into a violent act.

Each school will have different needs based on the number of inappropriate communications brought to their attention, but what is most important here is the process for assessing and managing the threats, not the size of the assigned members to the program. Threat management is ultimately about the quality of the assessment proportional to the number of threats. Workload is the primary criterion for allocated resources. This may mean a fully staffed unit of professional analysts or a part-time responsibility for a single individual for your school to identify threats likely to escalate to violence as early as possible and manage the threat away from a violent act.

Parents, and teachers would benefit greatly from being educated on the criteria that constitutes an inappropriate communication, so that these communications may be brought with immediacy to the attention of the threat-assessment team.

Understanding “Leakage”:

Leakage is often the most important pre-incident indicator to a violent act by an adolescent.

Leakage occurs when a student intentionally or unintentionally reveals clues to feelings, thoughts, fantasies, or intentions about an impending violent act, and may even involve efforts to get friends or classmates to help them prepare.

I’ve been to Israel several times in the past few years on business, and was just there again recently. On every trip, whether I’m traveling around Tel Aviv or Jerusalem, I will inevitably come across a group of school children on a class trip visiting a national area of interest. The students go about in much the same fashion our own schools do here at home, but with one very significant difference: Every group of school children traveling outside of the school grounds has an armed escort.

A Shin Bet colleague of mine followed my gaze one trip while I looked at the children, then at the teacher with the rifle, then back to the children.

“It is necessary to keep the children safe,” he said, in a rather matter-of-fact tone.

I nodded my understanding.

“You don’t do this in America, do you?”

I shook my head, no.

“God willing, I hope you never have to, my friend.”

…I hope so too

Thank you for your time. I hope you find the above information useful in your future discussions with other parents, public safety officials, and school administrators.

Best regards,

Spencer Coursen President, Coursen Security Group www.CoursenSecurityGroup.com

Interested in reading more on on this and similar topics? I highly recommend reading; Gift of Fear and Protecting the Gift by Gavin de Becker, The Unthinkable by Amanda Ripley, and The Survivors Club by Ben Sherwood.


Security Expert Spencer Coursen specializes in threat assessment protective intelligence and vulnerability reduction. Coursen Security Group Logo.