Detect-Communicate-Respond: 3 Steps to Simplifying School Safety and Security

Consider framing your school security and safety programs via a detection-communication-response rubric.

Detect-Communicate-Respond: 3 Steps to Simplifying School Safety and Security

School safety and security is an extensive, complex and multi-faceted endeavor impacting nearly every aspect of a school’s operation. And as the COVID pandemic has again reminded us, school safety and security efforts must address a widening range of potential incidents. Most of those incidents are far more likely to occur than an active shooter event.  As an experienced school administrator recently noted, “A school shooting is certainly my greatest fear, but not often my greatest or most pressing concern.” Couple this with the reality that most educators have little or no training specific to school safety and security and meaningful improvements are difficult to identify and implement.

As with most subjects, an understanding of school safety issues can be improved by distillation down to its basic components. With that in mind, consider the following three-step rubric in which school safety needs and efforts may be framed.

Detection ————> Communication ————- > Response

For school staff members to effectively mitigate any school incident — from misbehavior in the restroom to an act of violence on campus — a campus must start with detection. Following the initial detection, effective communication must take place. Only after notification can an appropriate response be initiated. This three-step process, once understood and applied, is extremely beneficial in assessment, planning, purchasing and operational implementation of school safety and security measures.

Detect

Initial detection is the first step. Detection is simply early identification and recognition of any potential threat. The earlier a potential threat can be detected, the more response options are created. School staff members are uniquely positioned to be the ultimate detection device. This is equally true for nearly all potential threats, from a medical emergency or non-custodial abduction to a fight on the playground or an active shooter. Video surveillance as applied in most schools plays only a small part in the detection picture. While a highly useful operational tool, video surveillance is not a school’s best detection device/process.

Remembering that systems record and/or report, people detect; a school’s greatest detection resource is an empowered, trained and engaged staff. Add training and processes for students and other members of your school community, and you begin to create a school-wide detection culture. Once in place, this detection culture can be leveraged into an incredibly powerful school safety and security tool.

Communicate

Communication is the essential second step in the process. Communication can be neatly described as the right information to the right person at the right time. And the information must be both effectively and consistently sent, and reliability received. There are both human and systems considerations in the process.

Human considerations include both who needs the information and when they need it. In a school security sense, the case of who may be the point of contact for the school threat assessment team with a behavior of concern report. This information, while time sensitive, does not require immediate notification. In a different circumstance, the notification may, indeed, need to be immediate to an entire school population of a lockdown.

Systems are how information moves. In the first example (threat assessment example), it must be a secure message to a specific person (phone, Email), and in the second, it must be an immediate, general announcement heard in all parts of a school (public address).

Only when the communication takes place correctly will the proper response be activated. It is worth noting that communication is a common fail point. This makes unified communications planning a critical element in all facets of school operations.

Response

Only after the issue has been detected and the information has moved to the right person(s) in the appropriate time frame can an effective response be initiated. In the first example above, the threat assessment team will begin the process of supporting the student and preventing a potential adverse outcome. In the second, an entire school population acts immediately under its trained protocol to protect the school community and mitigate damage.

It is critical to understand that a failure in either detection or communication will severely limit or even completely negate the effectiveness of the best planned response protocol.

The three-step rubric can provide several benefits. First, it will aid educators in the understanding of school safety and security issues by applying an effective, comfortable and familiar process. Many processes in education, from identifying students in need of educational remediation to referral of students for special education services, utilize a detect (identify), communicate and respond flow.

Second, the rubric provides a strong framework for evaluation of any school’s safety and security platform and processes. After action reviews (AAR) of school incidents using the rubric can help to identify specific actions to improve.

For example, consider a campus – let’s call this fictitious campus “ABC High School” — with a highly effective detection culture and a robust and well-trained response platform. With the recent addition of a new school-wide IP phone system designed to improve communications, ABC High School would seem to be well positioned.

However, the school suffers an incident, and the campus community is not satisfied with the outcome. The AAR finds that the detection component functioned as expected and the response, once initiated, was adequate for the event. The failure was in the time elapsed from initial detection to response activation. Further investigation reveals that the phone system was operational, however, most of ABC’s staff members were uncertain of the capabilities and unfamiliar with the use of the new phone system. The post-event improvement plan focuses on staff training for the effective use of the very capable new phone system.

The rubric can also frame both planning and future purchasing. From a planning standpoint, examination of new plans against the three interconnected elements of the rubric can go a long way toward avoiding issues like the one experienced by ABC High.  And from a purchasing standpoint, functional specifications can be developed based on the identified improvement expected in each of the three rubric elements. Failure to provide the expected improvement should be reason to reconsider the purchase. This process will also help to develop continuity in a school’s ongoing safety and security improvement efforts.

Last, the detect-communicate-respond rubric can provide a framework for collaboration between security professionals, first responders, community members and educators. Members of these diverse groups can struggle for a common understanding of school security issues and needed improvements. Lack of this common understanding can impede, delay or completely derail beneficial changes in a school’s safety and security posture.  The ability to clearly identify and articulate how changes will improve detection, communications and/or response can be an effective tool in developing crucial school community stakeholder support.

Detect, communicate and respond are the basic operational elements of school safety and security. The lens of the three-step rubric can benefit both educators and security professionals by improving understanding, fostering collaboration and promoting cooperation.  A little simplification can be a powerful tool to help make our schools, students and staff safer.

About the Author

Contact:

Guy Bliesner is a School Security Analyst for the Idaho Office of School Safety and Security.

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