The Strategy for Safety

Winter 2013

By Sara Goldsmith Schwartz


Imagine sitting in your office, enjoying your morning cup of coffee when you receive a telephone call from the school's security officer informing you of two odd events: There is a strange pickup truck parked in front of the administration building, and a student just reported seeing an unkempt man walking around campus carrying a large duffle bag. Do you know what steps you would take next? Do you know whom you would call and what you would say? How would you ensure the safety of the students, employees, and others on campus?

The above scenario is based on events that recently occurred at an independent school in New England — the events, in fact, required a campus lockdown and a comprehensive search of the campus by local and state police, including K–9 units. In a matter of hours, a quaint New England independent school campus was under siege by local and state police, including several helicopters searching the campus and nearby wooded areas. While the police (with their weapons drawn) searched for the intruder, those on campus were shepherded to one location, and students, parents, and visitors attempting to enter the campus were turned away.

Events like this serve as an important reminder that independent schools ought to frequently evaluate the safety, security, and emergency preparedness of their campuses. One of the best ways to do so is through a comprehensive safety audit. In essence, such audits help schools identify areas of security strength and weakness, make improvements to policies and procedures, and prepare schools to respond to a variety of crises. They also offer school administrators a greater peace of mind.

What should your school focus on in a safety audit? Ultimately, each school should determine its own safety audit strategy based on its unique circumstances, including the type of community within which it is located, the age of the students it serves, and the types of safety and security issues that arise most frequently on campus. In general, however, we recommend that schools address at least the following topics: (1) physical security and surveillance on campus; (2) safety-related policies and procedures applicable to students; (3) safety-related policies and procedures applicable to employees, volunteers, visitors, and contractors; and (4) crisis management plans.

Physical Security and Surveillance on Campus

An assessment of physical security and surveillance on campus can be an ideal starting point for a comprehensive safety audit. We recommend that the assessment include a review of the physical plant and grounds, with a particular focus on the areas that may create a heightened risk to safety and security on campus. For example, the safety audit should note if there are any secluded areas on campus that may require additional lighting, access controls, or monitoring.

The cornerstone of a safety audit is often an assessment of whether or not the school has adequate security personnel for its operations. It can also be helpful to assess if the security personnel have received appropriate training and actually serve to deter wrongful conduct on campus. For those schools that do not have security personnel, the safety audit provides an opportunity to assess whether or not the presence of security personnel could improve safety. For example, if an intruder entered a campus that lacked security personnel, how long would it have taken for the intruder to be identified as such and for his presence to be reported to the appropriate personnel on campus?

In addition, a safety audit should include a review of the school's policies and practices regarding security and surveillance. Specifically, we recommend that schools review their policies on visitors, weapons, and security camera surveillance, and their protocols for responding to a discovery of weapons on campus — including the procedure for notifying law enforcement, members of the crisis management team, parents, and students. In the scenario described at the start of this article, the school was able to quickly inform all relevant constituents of the situation and provide frequent updates through the use of text messages, email, and telephone. While this school did not use social media, other schools might want to consider using Facebook, Twitter, and the school's website to quickly disseminate information. While, thankfully, no weapons were discovered on campus, the school was able to communicate quickly with concerned parents, students, and other constituents. The ability to alert relevant constituents to danger in a timely manner can make a difference between life and death, and can also be highly relevant when courts are assessing whether a school appropriately responded to the discovery of weapons on campus.

While a school may have a sense of security because it has been fortunate enough to avoid any significant safety-related problem in recent years, it is essential to avoid falling into a false sense of security. A school that has not confronted significant safety issues in recent years may want to conduct an intruder assessment as part of its audit, to help determine how the school community would react in case of an attempted breach of security. For example, as a part of the audit, a stranger could be sent to campus to document which areas of the school are easily accessible, the amount of time that passed before an employee approached him or her to inquire about his or her reason for being on campus, and the effectiveness of the visitor procedures used by the school. The use of such an assessment tool may help schools identify weaknesses in security, thereby preventing crises in the future.

When conducting an assessment of physical security on campus, the focus should not only be on the safety of students and other members of the school community, but also on whether the school adequately stores and protects sensitive documents, such as student records, donor records, applicant files, and personnel files. Consequences associated with unauthorized access to sensitive records can be devastating to institutions, especially because many states require that notification be provided to those individuals whose personal information (such as social security numbers) may have been accessed by unauthorized parties. For example, if an intruder breaks into the admissions office and views applicant files on the admissions officer's desk, the school may be legally required to notify the applicants whose admissions files were accessed. Such notifications are not only time consuming and costly for the school, but may also damage the school's relationship with the affected individuals as well as its general reputation in the community.

Safety-Related Policies and Procedures Applicable to Students

The ideal starting point for an audit of safety-related policies and procedures applicable to students is a comprehensive review of the school's student/parent handbook. Policies included in the handbook regarding key issues (e.g., student discipline, bullying, hazing, driving on campus, drug and alcohol use, and acceptable uses of technology) should provide insight into whether the school is establishing clear and consistent expectations with respect to the safety of its students. The audit should also assess whether the school has the flexibility to customize its responses to violations of policies. For example, if a group of students violates a particular school policy, is the school able to employ a range of disciplinary actions, depending on the extent of the violation and the circumstances surrounding it?

In addition, we recommend that schools assess whether students are following safety-related policies and whether school employees are enforcing them, identify common causes of student failure to follow safety-related policies, and assess whether students are receiving appropriate training and education regarding key policies. For example, if your students saw an unkempt man walking on campus with a large duffle bag, would they report the situation to a school employee or would they open the dorm door for the man?

How to Conduct a Safety Audit

Once you have decided that your school would benefit from a safety audit, how do you go about conducting it? Here are a few essential tips:

> Decide who will lead the process: in-house staff, legal counsel, a safety audit professional? Select an expert who is detail-oriented, has great team-building and communications skills, and is able to complete projects in a timely fashion. 

> Decide who will be on the safety audit team: administrators, faculty, parents, legal counsel? Make sure that the safety audit team represents a diversity of perspectives. Consider partnering with local law enforcement, emergency responders, and experienced legal counsel. Each of these experts can provide valuable assistance in identifying areas of greatest risk to the school and suggesting ways to efficiently and economically make improvements. 

> Determine the scope of the safety audit. Will your team conduct an assessment of the overall safety at the school, or will it focus on a limited area, such as workplace safety? Identify the policies and procedures to be reviewed and assessed by the safety audit team. Crisis management plans should be included on the list. 

> Select a variety of audit tools and methods — including surveys, focus groups, interviews, observations, and trial exercises. Trial exercises can be a particularly powerful method of assessment when evaluating the school's level of emergency preparedness. 

> Establish a timeline for the audit — one that is reasonable, given your school's schedule and the schedules of your team members — and do your best to abide by it.

> Involve representatives from various campus constituencies in the process. For example, schools that choose to involve student representatives in safety audits often find that the students are able to provide highly relevant information regarding key issues, such as the true effectiveness of the school's bullying prevention programs and alcohol and illegal drug policies. 

> Prepare an audit report that lists the safety audit team's findings and recommendations. Include legal counsel in the drafting so that the attorney-client privilege may cover the process. 

> Prioritize needed improvements with the assistance of legal counsel, local law enforcement, and/or a safety expert.

> Implement the suggested improvements!

In general, we find that even schools with well-drafted safety policies often fail to provide an adequate level of training to students regarding key policies. In particular, schools often have detailed bullying prevention plans, but do not provide the students with adequate training so they will know how to respond if they witness bullying or if they are being bullied. As part of the safety audit, schools may find it helpful to solicit information from their students about whether the students would feel comfortable reporting to their teachers or school administrators if they thought that one of their classmates posed a danger to the safety of the school.

Safety-Related Policies and Procedures Applicable to Employees, Volunteers, Visitors, and Contractors

Recent media coverage has spotlighted the failures of school employees, contractors, and volunteers to adhere to safety-related policies. A safety audit should certainly include a comprehensive assessment of policies and procedures applicable to these constituencies. Such policies are often included in the employee handbook and, thus, the handbook is a logical starting point for this portion of the audit. 

We recommend assessing the clarity of the relevant policies, the frequency with which they are violated, and whether additional education or training regarding specific safety issues may improve compliance. The adequacy of training regarding key safety issues — such as mandatory reporting requirements for child abuse and neglect, safety precautions to be used when transporting students, and plans for prevention of workplace accidents — should also be assessed.

Policies and protocols for selecting and screening employees, volunteers, and contractors can be crucial to ensuring the safety of the school community. In an effort to reduce the likelihood of harm to students, we recommend that each school carefully review its employee selection and background check processes, as well as the practical steps taken to reduce the likelihood of misconduct by employees, volunteers, and contractors. For example, the audit should assess whether delivery persons are required to use designated entrances and whether they have unmonitored access to students. Allowing individuals who have criminal backgrounds to be a part of the school community can have a devastating impact on the safety of the school community and on the school's reputation. 

While it is essential to comprehensively screen potential employees, volunteers, and contractors, schools should ensure that their selection and screening protocols do not violate federal or state nondiscrimination laws or other applicable legal mandates. 

Crisis Management Plan

An obvious goal of conducting a safety audit is to reduce the likelihood of safety-related incidents. Another is to assess and ensure that the school is adequately prepared in case a crisis arises. 

The crisis management plan should serve as the first line of defense in cases of security failures and when unforeseen events occur. Accordingly, the audit should assess whether the crisis management plan provides easy-to-follow instructions to be used when responding to a variety of crises. For example, the plan should clearly describe what to do in cases of a bomb threat, bus accident, power failure, severe weather, sexual assault or misconduct, a suicide threat, and an intruder on campus. If any member of administration receives a call regarding an intruder on campus, he or she should be able to quickly access your school's crisis management plan and implement the appropriate crisis response steps. 

Prompt and appropriate communication is a critical part of successful crisis management, and the audit should assess whether an appropriate communications strategy is in place in case a crisis arises. Schools should assess whether they have up-to-date contact information for all members of the crisis management team and all members of their community. In some cases, schools may find it valuable to perform drills involving scenarios listed in the crisis management plan so that they can assess how well employees adhere to the directions provided in the plan and identify areas where improvements can be made. 

Using Results of Safety Audits to Make Significant Improvements to Safety

The results and recommendations made by the safety audit team should be compiled and presented for review to the appropriate school administrators — typically, the head of school, the individual responsible for plant management, dean of students, and dean of faculty. The recommendations should generally indicate practical steps that the school can take to implement suggested improvements. The recommendations should also suggest time frames within which the improvements should be made.

We recommend that legal counsel help prepare the safety audit report by identifying and prioritizing those areas that pose the greatest legal risk to the school and that may need to be remedied first. Involving legal counsel in both the safety audit and the audit report can help the school protect information pertaining to the audit through the attorney-client privilege. While the attorney-client privilege generally cannot be asserted over the facts discovered during the audit, it should be helpful in protecting internal discussions and recommendations made in response to the audit. Involving security consultants who are not attorneys typically does not provide the school with such protection. Therefore, even if a school decides to use a security consultant to conduct the safety audit, legal counsel should be involved from the beginning of the process. Many schools have their legal counsel retain the safety consultant and oversee the audit.

Just as the entire audit does not have to be completed in one fell swoop, the suggested improvements can also be completed in steps. Time frames for completing improvements should be customized based on the extent of the weaknesses identified in the report and the resources available to make improvements. 

Audits should be periodically repeated (we suggest every three years), with the time between audits used to make the necessary improvements. Repeating audits can provide the school with an opportunity to compare the results over time and determine whether the improvements were actually effective.

Remember, parents choose independent schools partially because they believe the schools provide a safe environment for their children. Properly executed safety audits, guided by experts, can go a long way toward supporting this view. Audits can also help prevent devastating incidents involving students and/or employees, minimize legal risks, and protect the school's reputation. In doing so, safety audits add greatly to the school leadership's peace of mind.
Sara Goldsmith Schwartz

Sara Goldsmith Schwartz is the president and managing partner of Schwartz Hannum PC, where she represents independent schools, colleges, and universities with respect to the myriad issues that challenge school administrators, including student and employee disciplinary matters, internal grievances and investigations, risk management, safety audits, regulatory compliance, and governance matters.