The evil that arrived at the front door of Sandy Hook Elementary School in December 2012 was horrible tragic and morally unbelievable. This tragedy also provided an extremely scary lesson in reacting vs. preventing. Many people asked how could this happen? How could this 20-year-old kid get to a level of evil to murder young and innocent children and adults, as well as his own mother?
We are hearing and seeing a lot of reactions. Emotional reactions are clearly justified, especially when young innocent children are murdered and we picture children having to hide and run for their lives. We are hearing emotional reactions focused at guns. We are hearing emotional reactions towards school security and we are seeing and hearing from lots of experts offering their explanations and suggestions. Interestingly enough, most of the experts' suggestions are "reactive", calling for better locks, automatic door locks, more cameras, better lockdown equipment, better visitor management systems, armed teachers, armed guards, etc.
We continue to hear lots of emotional reactions focused on gun control, and while these discussions are good for news shows and politicians, with all the guns already out there is it realistic to believe all these guns will just disappear? And is it realistic to believe political and special interest groups will work together to make any real changes in the immediate short term...before the next tragedy or even in our life time?
Other emotional reactions suggest we arm teachers and school officials with guns. Are we really going to put guns inside schools and hope armed teachers can protect our children, teachers and others? Will teachers and officials be able to protect guns from unauthorized access?
Other suggestions include placing an armed guard in every school, but how realistic are guards in every school with limited budgets, limited resources, potential liabilities and ongoing training challenges?
The "reactive" suggestions are understandable...but clearly misguided. The sad thing is all of these emotional and popular suggestions are still "reacting" to evil at the front door...what about solutions for "preventing" evil from ever getting to the front door? Shouldn't we be focusing as much or more on proactive prevention?
In President Obama's speech at the memorial in Newtown, Conn., he asked, "Can we honestly say that we're doing enough to keep our children, all of them, safe from harm? He continued by answering his own question, "If we are honest with ourselves, the answer is no. We're not doing enough, and we will have to change."
Clearly it is time to change, and as President Obama said, we need to take "meaningful action." But what is "meaningful action"?
One thing we know for sure is that we cannot keep doing the same things and expect different results. We have to ask different questions and take different actions to achieve different results, for example:
- Are tragedies preventable? Yes, most every post-tragedy report reveals the tragedy was preventable.
- Does it make more sense to prevent evil from getting to the front door or to continue reacting to evil when the threats are already at the front door? (If you said preventing evil makes more sense, keep reading. If you said reacting to evil makes more sense, I guess you have not visited with those that have lost loved ones in a tragedy or spent time in the courtroom facing lawsuits and probably think status quo will ensure a tragedy will never happen in your town.)
- Do schools/colleges have the right tools in place to prevent incidents and tragedies?
Having researched hundreds of incidents and tragedies, evidence clearly reveals evil/aggression builds up in a person over time and concerning behaviors help to identify escalating levels of risk, which means we have time to intervene and prevent. Evidence also reveals concerning behaviors involving the attacker(s) existed before nearly every tragedy, so why aren't we connecting the dots and preventing preventable incidents?
Proactive prevention starts with empowering and equipping students, families, teachers, churches and other community members [like all the people coming forward now who observed 'concerning behaviors' with this disconnected young man in Newtown, CT] with the right tools to anonymously or non-anonymously report incidents, concerning behaviors and signs of evil BEFORE the evil builds and escalates into a tragedy. Prevention is possible and prevention is very affordable.
A lot of time, money and resources are spent on "reactive" security equipment, plans and training, yet tragedies are still occurring. For example, schools and colleges invest hundreds of thousands of dollars and even millions of dollars into:
- Security Personnel
- School Resource Officers
- Emergency Radio Systems
- Secured Door Monitors
- Annual Building/Security Reviews
- Crisis Response & Training
- Table Top Exercises
- Emergency Response Plans
- Building/Visitor Access Software
- Badges & Identification Cards
- Access Doors and Locks
- Surveillance Cameras
- Mass Notification Systems
- And numerous other response efforts
Are these expensive "old school" investments in reactive security and reactive responses really the best way to protect our students, teachers, schools and communities? And because the bottom line plays such a major role in schools and colleges, how do real-world costs stack up for reacting versus preventing?
Let's take a look at some data and evidence from real-world incidents and tragedies and see. Virginia Tech has spent more the $48 million dollars reacting to this preventable mass shooting tragedy. Penn State University has been fined more than $70 million and spent more than $20 million so far reacting to this preventable tragedy involving child abuse. South Hadley School District in Massachusetts paid Phoebe Prince's family $225,000 not to sue the district and also had significant legal fees in multiple court cases involving the school and the students involved in bullying Phoebe until she committed suicide. Pine Plains Central School District located about 100 miles north of New York City must pay a $1 million court settlement for deliberate indifference involving the continuous bullying of a student.
These are just a few examples of evidence clearly showing that preventing incidents and tragedies would have been a lot less expensive to the school's/college's bottom line. In addition to these hard costs, think about the significant costs related to reputational damages for each school/college. Even more costs can add up if bystanders, staff and family members are in need of counseling, mental health resources and in some cases health resources from their tragic experiences.
Schools and colleges cannot tolerate or afford more tragedies and must change. "Old school reactive efforts" do not provide a safe haven for students or a safety net for adults and do not equip people to do the right things, connect the right dots and proactively prevent preventable incidents.
It is time to change, and the time to start preventing preventable incidents is right now.
Rick Shaw is the founder and CEO of Awareity, a leading provider of web-based risk management and prevention tools. Rick is passionate about student safety, campus safety and public safety and is an award-winning leader in developing innovative services to prevent preventable tragedies and incidents by eliminating hundreds of dangerous gaps and disconnects. To learn more visit www.awareity.com or www.tipsprevent.com.