I am becoming a tad exasperated with the discussion of the young KVLY reporter, Mellaney Moore, who was able to enter and walk around three area elementary schools with little or no interference from school staff. The point of Moore’s efforts was to illustrate the vulnerabilities of school security. The recent article in The Forum by Archie Ingersoll that covers in detail some of the discussions that went on after Moore’s entry between the school districts and local law enforcement illustrates the delicate balance that exists between the black and white of law enforcement and the nuanced spectrum of reputation management as it applies to entities such as school districts. While this is a fascinating case study on that front, I am troubled that we are missing the most important point in the discussion – that Moore’s escapade illustrated that vulnerability exists in the current system.
Here is the rule for entering schools in a nutshell: by local ordinance you must check in at the office when you visit the school. This is posted on the entry doors of schools as an advisement to those who enter. The goal of this rule is more than one of just security, it is also for safety purposes. The school site administrators need to know who is in the building should something occur and cause them to need to account for those inside. Lots of folks enter school sites every day and go to the office and check-in either as a result of normalized behavior or as a result of the sign on the entry doors.
Here is the problem though – for those signs to be effective in controlling folks’ behavior, the individual reading them must have a compliance mindset. They have to be someone like me and you – someone focused on being a rule-follower and a good citizen. The vast majority of folks have such a mindset, which is why laws work to regulate behavior. We are, on the whole, a society of rule followers.
But those who would do harm to others are not rule followers. They do not care about a sign on the door that says they could be prosecuted if they do not sign in at the office. They just want to gain entry so they can do what they came there to do. Those are the folks that schools want to keep out.
Moore’s actions, for better or worse, showed one thing clearly – the sign will not control the behavior of those who do not have a compliance mindset. This should not be an a-ha moment to anyone, particularly law enforcement. Schools, colleges, hospitals, and businesses have all struggled with this issue. Where do you find the balance between being a friendly welcoming site and a secure site? Some places are easier to secure than others and are better able to justify such security based on what they do or what is at stake.
In the absence of barriers to entry – such as locked doors and secure entry systems – just-in-time security relies on building design and well-trained employees. Ideally, folks use all three mechanisms – barriers, building design, and training. Alas, it is only since the Columbine school shooting in 1999 that we have truly begun to focus attention nationally on a more comprehensive approach to security. Of note, this area – Cass and Clay counties- has done a tremendous amount of work on school safety and security preparedness and training. The collaborative efforts between law enforcement and school districts in this area to further these efforts deserves our applause. I have personally presented their Cass Clay Unified Response efforts as a best practice to my colleagues within FEMA/DHS. To their credit, local districts have increasingly incorporated smart security design into newer facilities. Administrators and staff are trained on what to do in a variety of situations to keep themselves and students safe and they have worked closely with local law enforcement to all operate out of the same playbook. Law enforcement, school administration, and school staff understand they are all part of a system that needs to be sensitive to potential threats.
Unfortunately, schools by their very nature are vulnerable. On any given day there are substitutes, vendors, parents, and visitors that enter the schools and walk about. They may be given some sort of identification such as a visitor badge or may be familiar to some, but there will invariably be folks on the site that not all administrators and staff will know. Even when complied with, the system is vulnerable. A visitor’s badge does not mean that a person will do no harm, it merely means they signed in at the office and presented a plausible reason for being there. Signing in at the office is only a line of first defense.
A wrongdoer could walk into the office (ostensibly to sign in), shoot staff, and move right into the school to do whatever they came there to do. We do not live in a place where there are metal detectors or any level of search occurring prior to entering the office – we live in an area where folks are deemed to be nice and sensible absent outward signs to the contrary. We rely heavily upon a compliance mindset and our knowledge that most folks have good intentions.
Alas, wrongdoers do not have a compliance mindset. As such, the value of the first barrier to entry, locked or secured doors, is noted. Those with a compliance mindset will graciously go along with such precautions and those who are wrongdoers will either not be able to gain entry or will be temporarily kept from entering. Let’s face it folks, a shotgun blast can take out many a glass entry door or other window at the facility; but, in the brief time that staff recognizes a breach will, or has, occurred they can contact police and engage the school’s lockdown procedures.
Moore broke the law when she entered the facility the way she did. She was purposeful in trying to circumvent the mechanisms that sought self-regulated compliance. That was wrong and her actions should not be ignored from a legal standpoint. Her success in entry should also not be ignored. While this may strike the school districts and local law enforcement as an embarrassment and irresponsible media behavior, the moral of the story is far more important than has been given its due – each of the accessed schools had a vulnerability that was exploited. That is what we need to focus on intently.
There is a lesson to be learned from Moore’s wrongdoing and, dare I say, a reluctant thank you is owed. She made it clear to all of our area school districts that the type of North Dakota and Minnesota nice compliance that we are relying upon will not work with those who seek to exploit our vulnerabilities. This is a message that reaches far beyond the schools and should be noted by all who are currently relying on a compliance mindset as a security barrier – it doesn’t work with wrongdoers.
I understand that as a society we do not want our schools to look like secured facilities – it is a bit unsettling. But this is a sign of the times we live in. There are wrongdoers out there who kill folks because of any number of perceived injustices – from an abusive relationship that finds its way into the workplace to a disenfranchised kid who wants to settle a score to a hundred other rationales that are held as real by perpetrators of violence. We cannot afford to be naive or complacent about this type of threat. We also do not want to live in a world where security measures are oppressive – there must be a balance. The fact is, vulnerability will always exist on some level – all risk cannot be removed from life. The question becomes, what level of security vulnerability must we actively seek to address?
Look around at your workplace, your child’s school, the businesses you frequent and think about the types of improvements that could be made to enhance security that would be effective without being oppressive. Also think about how much freedom and ease you are willing to give up for security. There are no easy answers here, but there is an awful lot of room for awareness, discussion, and smart incremental improvements.
Day one thousand three hundred and thirteen of the new forty – obla di obla da