The shooting yesterday on the UCLA campus highlights the need for security review and crisis planning in all educational institutions. Despite a sophisticated mass notification system, students discovered that the most basic but necessary security device, a simple door lock, was absent in many classrooms. The ability to lock the classroom door is the first line of defense against an active shooter during lockdown. A secure door lock keeps an armed individual outside of the classroom and away from sheltering students until first responders arrive. UCLA engineering student Pranasha Shrestha posted on Twitter “Doors open outward with no locks so we had to improvise our own locking mechanism.” Students in her classroom secured the door by tying a belt and a projector cable to a table.
According to student Manuel Rodriguez, one auditorium classroom had doors that were fixed open, requiring a wrench to release them and lockdown the large room. Facing the reality that they could not shelter safely in the auditorium, he and his professor led approximately 120 students down the hall to a room with a door lock. Some sheltering students even searched the Internet for “how to lock a swinging door,” according to student Daphne Ying. Social media posts showed images of cords and belts used to secure doors that do not have locks and open outward.
The images call into question the state of campus safety and crisis readiness at UCLA.
UCLA Provost Scott Waugh stated, “Our primary goal right now is to review all of our security procedures to make sure our campus is as secure as possible. We were pleased with the way that notifications went out, troubled by some reports of unlocked doors, but we want to review everything and make sure that the campus is as safe as possible.”
Students stated that UCLA does not conduct campus lockdown drills such as those some had experienced in high school. Drilling with such a large group of people may be unwieldy, however, faculty and staff should receive annual crisis response training. Building entrances and classrooms doors must be secured and made lockdown ready to ensure that students are safe in an active shooter situation.
Wednesday, June 1, 2016 1:06 pm: The UCLA Campus is currently on lockdown following an active shooter incident in or around Boelter Hall, an engineering building. Early reports from university officials state that two individuals have been shot and that students have been instructed to shelter in place. CNN reports that agents from the FBI and Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives are responding to the campus.
When school officials review the security of their facilities and contemplate potential threats, their focus tends toward large-scale violent incidents such as active shooters and acts of terror. Media attention is centered on these horrific incidents that impact society at large in addition to the school, town, and state where they occur.
School security, however, is more commonly threatened by non terror related but equally unpredictable criminal behavior. On May 13th, a man named Alex Kovner broke in to the Imagine Early Learning Center, a Brooklyn Heights Preschool. According to a police report, the perpetrator “walked through the day care yelling obscenities and acting belligerent, causing the day care to be locked down.”
Kovner, who believes he is a prophet of God, came very close to school children before being locked in a gym area by a staff member. He was arrested and charged with “acting in a manner injurious to a child,” a misdemeanor. Kovner was released from custody the same day.
The very next day, he returned to the school and locked himself in a bathroom. After this second offense, Kovner was again arrested and charged with criminal trespass. He was held for one week pending a psychiatric exam. He was released again after a court appearance. School officials notified parents of his release and included his driver’s license photo in case he is seen in the area again. The school is maintaining close contact with the police and administrators have increased security and installed a panic button.
“People are freaked out,” said one mother. “Knowing he is out there and obviously has some sort of obsession with the school is very scary.” Some parents went so far as to keep their children home from school on Wednesday. “This is a nightmare,” one parent said. “We know the school is doing whatever they can, and they have been great. But you just never know with something like this.”
Any school security plan must contemplate this kind of erratic and dangerous behavior. Individuals such as Kovner are volatile and their actions unpredictable. The presence of an outside threat puts the entire community on edge. Unfortunately, the law provides little relief. Would-be stalkers such as Kovner often confine their behavior to criminal trespass and harassment making them guilty of misdemeanor offenses that rarely garner jail time.
Traditionally, school security has been focused on building structures with emphasis on front entrances and other points of egress. Parents want to know that their children are safe at school and schools have placed emphasis on keeping intruders out of school buildings. It is imperative that this same scrutiny be extended to outside play spaces. Many of these spaces such as playgrounds, ball fields and sport courts are unsecured leaving children vulnerable.
The need to secure outdoor play spaces became shockingly clear last Friday at the World of Wonder School in Dayton, Ohio when a man walked from the school parking lot onto a playground and stabbed a 7-year- old girl. The parking lot and playground touch each other and there is no fence in between. It was approximately five steps from the parking lot to the swing set where the stabbing occurred. The victim is in critical condition and the assailant is still at large.
Dayton Public School officials said that World of Wonder employed a security officer who was out sick on the day of the stabbing. The officer, even if he had been on the school grounds, would have been in the lunchroom with the majority of the students, according to Principal LaDawn Mims-Morrow. She also reported that there were three teachers on the playground at the time of the attack. School Superintendent Lori Ward stated that there is no district-wide policy that a school security officer must be outside with students during recess.
If teachers are the sole protectors of young children playing on school grounds, every effort must be made to secure play spaces.
Wylie Grove High School students did not expect to hear a “lockdown” announcement over the Public Address system yesterday morning. At 10:45 am the school quickly secured its perimeter, bringing all students inside and locking all entrances to the building. The action was in response to a police notification that a “despondent” person on the baseball field may have been armed.
Wylie Grove locked its perimeter for 40 minutes until the situation was resolved. One student texted the Detroit Free Press from inside the building “it was a scary experience” as it was his “first time in a real lockdown. The school has done well to prepare us.”
Numerous suicide or attempted suicide incidents are reported each year on school campuses in the United States. Although not the typical anticipated active shooter situation, a gun on a school campus is a gun on a school campus. Even if an assailant has no intention of hurting anyone but him or herself, schools must react quickly and decisively to the threat. As Wylie Grove learned yesterday morning, there is no room for error when a gun is anywhere near a school building.
School districts across New York State are now mandated to conduct a minimum of four lockdown drills in each school year. The law, proposed by State Senator Robert Ortt, R-North Tonawanda, was recently enacted with the $155.6 billion New York State budget. The provision affects all K-12 schools and goes into effect July 1, 2016. To accommodate these extra drills, the law reduces the number of fire drills from a minimum of twelve to at least eight.
Currently lockdown drills are recommended but not required. Ortt found that many schools were not conducting the drills. “Its surprising that after the numerous horrific school attacks over the past two decades, sensible legislation such as this hasn’t already been adopted,” he said. Ortt stated that the law provides a much-needed common sense approach to ensuring school safety. “It’s vital that we prepare our school districts as best we can in order to respond quickly and efficiently before, during and after an incident,” Ortt said.
A Patterson, New Jersey teacher was recently removed from the classroom because of allegations of sexual misconduct with students at his former teaching job in New York City. Before hiring him, Paterson school officials conducted a criminal background check, which he passed. Mr. Seong was never arrested or charged with a crime in NYC. Officials said that they also checked his references at Bayside High School in Queens.
Criminal background checks alone do not go far enough in revealing past dangerous behavior. These checks are only valuable if the subject was convicted of a crime. An in depth background check in the above case would have uncovered the behavior that lead to this teacher’s prior termination.