School-safety expert talks violence prevention

Former Edmonds police officer and national school-safety expert Martin Speckmaier gave a presentation Tuesday in south Everett for local school officials about preventing violence on campuses.

The presentation at Everest College, near the Everett Mall, covered a lot of complex topics in a short amount of time. At least four Snohomish County school districts had representatives in attendance, in addition to folks from public and private, K-12, post-secondary and technical schools from around Western Washington.

Reporters politely were asked to leave about halfway through the event, so school officials could speak candidly about specific campus safety concerns. It’s understandable why they wouldn’t want those concerns advertised. (The media to citizen ratio in the room was about 1:5.)

Speckmaier’s presentation presented a road map for tackling federal and state safety mandates, assessing threats and practicing and planning for campus emergencies, including the unthinkable and its aftermath.

Educators today have more and more pressures and demands on their time and energy, Speckmaier said.

In recent years, they’ve also been tasked with becoming safety experts, and it’s not always clear what exactly that means: legally, ethically and morally. Schools long have been discouraged from sharing information with others in the community out of fear of violating privacy laws. It’s hard to overcome that practice, he said.

Each campus has a unique layout and culture, and there’s no one-size-fits-all approach, he said.

The content of much of the presentation was aimed at school higher-ups, and at times it got pretty alphabet-soup acronym-y, but I’ll try to share some of his key points below:

• Educators by nature are trusting and nurturing. Police by nature are skeptical and suspicious. They have to work together to see both sides. Predators can see trust and nurturing as weaknesses. Police see campuses and potential violence with a different lens. With the loss of many school resource officer positions in recent years, schools and police still have to partner. Local mental health professionals should be included in those discussions.

• Not all schools have student-threat assessment teams, which aren’t required by law in Washington. Some schools have those teams, but give them softer, more palatable names. He encourages every school or district to have one. These are people trained in identifying which students pose real threats.

• A lot of troubled kids wear masks hiding “the depression, the sadness, the rage they are carrying around with them,” he said.

• School safety plans must be living, breathing documents and updated annually. Key staff should know when to divert from the plan when necessary. Those plans come in handy for all kinds of emergencies, such as floods, lockdowns for nearby police activity, and even the occasional bear ambling onto campus.

• Many schools don’t have or don’t rigorously enforce visitor check-in plans, or limit access to and from campus. Predators look for those weaknesses.

• It’s impossible to prevent every act of violence, but good planning and prevention efforts are possible, and should be well-documented.

• School officials have to talk about active-shooter and other worst-case scenarios. Drills and “tabletop exercises” should happen. Those sorts of conversations and activities condition the brain to handle an emergency rather than panic and shut down.

For more information and resources, visit Speckmaier’s website at www.school-safety-intervention.org. He also was quoted in our coverage of local reactions to the Newtown shooting in December.

Also, here’s a link to the state law governing schools and threats of violence: RCW 28A.320.128.

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