How to Design and Implement a K-12 Site Vulnerability Assessment

The State of Idaho used this approach to uncover gaps in school safety and security. This strategy can be applied in other states and districts.

Following the tragic mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in December 2012, the Idaho State Department of Education and governor empanelled a multi-disciplinary group to look at school safety in Idaho. 

In the fall of 2013, two security experts – former school principal Brian Armes and former Bonneville S.D. No. 93 district health, safety and security coordinator Guy Bliesner – were tasked with conducting threat and vulnerability assessments of approximately 10% of the state’s K-12 campuses.  The assessments were based on a model from the Texas Center for School Safety and were holistic and multi-hazard in nature, encompassing evaluation of policy, daily operations, security, facilities and school community factors. 

Results of the reviews were compiled in a major study released in February (see Study Finds Major Gaps in School Safety and Security).

Armes and Bliesner will be featured presenters at the Campus Safety Conference in Los Angeles, July 31-Aug. 1. Their presentation will cover detailed results of the study as well as how other states and districts can conduct similar assessments.

Here they explain the approach they used to complete their assessments and provide the Great State of Idaho with the data it needs to make the necessary safety and security upgrades.

Idaho, like many western states, poses a number of unusual considerations in the development of a statistically valid and reliable study.  Idaho has over 110 school districts ranging in population from more than 35,000 students to less than 100.

When we started designing this assessment process, self-reporting by districts was initially considered and then discarded for several reasons, most importantly because of the lack of validity. To achieve a reasonable level of statistical validity a 10% sample of the approximately 740 public schools was required. Validity also required a study design that would account for the diverse nature of Idaho’s public schools. The noted conditions required a stratified sampling approach.

The Sample

The stratified sample was determined by random draw. The only limitation was that no school district was allowed more than one school in any study category for a total possible of three schools from any one school district to be included in the assessment.

The study design called for a total of 74 schools: 36 campuses (18 elementary, 9 Jr. high/middle schools and nine high schools) from districts of 4,000 students or greater and the same from districts of 3,999 students or less with two K-12 schools. K-12 schools pose a unique set of safety and security concerns, and need to be considered separately. This created three distinct groups. Numbers were assigned to all of the schools in each group, and a computerized random number generator was used to select schools for inclusion in the assessment.

The Assessment Team

A single two-person team performed all 74 school threat and vulnerability assessments. Both of us have extensive educational backgrounds, familiarity with school operations (both daily and emergency) and have previously used the Texas Assessment Tool to evaluate schools.

The Data Set

Onsite evaluation of schools in the sample group began in mid-September and concluded in early December of 2013. Data aggregations and analysis began December 5, and were completed January 8. With 619 distinct data points recorded for each school in the study, the total number of unique, individual data points compiled came to 45,806. This has created a rich data set for representative statistical analysis of the current condition of school safety and security in the State of Idaho.

The Results

There were four very clear broad trend observations from the assessments. The first observation is cultural: most schools simply don’t believe that “it” can happen to them.  “It” is any number of emergency incidents; everything from a seismic event to an active shooter. 

The second observation flows from the first: in many cases, district and/or school policies and procedures have been written to address potential threats. And in nearly as many cases, the operational practices are at odds with the policy or procedural mandate. 

The third observation is linked to the second: staffing levels and student loads provide significant challenges to adult supervision of students and adherence to operational procedure.

The last observation is that aging facilities – in many cases over 40 years old and in a number of others, more than 70 years old – pose significant challenges to implementation of school safety and security measures.  Remodeling these facilities, even where possible, will be difficult and costly.  In many Idaho districts, school replacement may simply not be economically feasible. 

Some of the other more troubling findings of our assessments included:

  • The average amount of time an assessor was in the interior of a school before being contacted and asked to report to the office was just under 10 minutes at 9.43 minutes
  • In 62 schools, communications were sufficient for daily operations; however, in most cases a power outage would render the systems non-operational.
  • Only five schools include parents and/or students in safety planning and/or policy development.
  • Only five schools have some type of anonymous reporting system
  • Only 11 schools have key staff trained in NIMS/ICS procedures.
  • All schools in the study had a policy mandate to close and lock building perimeter doors other than the main door and doors that may be needed for student access to instructional areas. Despite this, in 71 of 74 cases, other doors were found unsecure, most often the kitchen door.

As demonstrated by the study results published previously by Campus Safety, there is much for Idaho to consider. The first and most overwhelming need is a change in school culture.


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