Focus

Sorting Safety Consultants From Pretenders

by Kenneth S. Trump

School administrators face intense pressure from their communities these days to ensure their school safety strategies are airtight. Each time a high-profile incident of school violence occurs nationally or even when a less serious situation arises on the local level, you can expect to be questioned about the adequacy of safety measures in your schools.

You can also can expect to be bombarded by offers of products and services to "solve" your school security needs.

How can school officials safeguard those for whom they are responsible while still protecting their own credibility and the reputation of their district?

Framing Issues

School officials historically dealt with school safety by addressing student discipline, school climate, prevention programs and intervention strategies. School violence tragedies in recent years have put increased pressure on school leaders to extend their concept of school safety to include security and crisis preparedness measures focused on crime and violence.

Too often, educators turn only to physical security and staffing to address these needs. Security equipment and manpower requirements should be considered as school security programs are evaluated, but they do not constitute the entire program. Professional school security programs include strategies associated with security-related policies and procedures, education and training, comprehensive security assessments and crisis preparedness for man-made disasters and natural disasters.

Security and crisis preparedness measures too often are pitted against prevention and intervention programs. School communities frequently debate whether there should be more prevention or tighter security. The real questions, however, should be framed on how to balance more prevention and tighter security.

Most experienced administrators feel comfortable in recognizing quality consultants and products relating to discipline, school climate strategies and prevention and intervention programs. However, the traditional education consultants often are not experienced in answering some questions, such as:

* Do we have adequate policies, procedures and crime prevention measures in place related to security and crisis issues?

* Is our school security or school police department appropriately staffed, budgeted, equipped and guided by professional operating practices?

* How can we improve our crisis plan to deal with acts of crime and violence?

* Have our teachers and support staff received appropriate training for dealing with security and crisis threats?

* Do we need surveillance cameras, improved communications or other equipment that we do not have in place? Are we properly using existing equipment?

* How does our security and crisis preparedness plan fit with our overall safe schools plan?

Qualified, experienced school security consultants can help educators answer these and other questions. Their recommendations may include the use of security products, but only when they serve a necessary, specific and useful purpose.

Sales Schemes

Consultants and product vendors unfamiliar with professional school security practices actually can put school districts in a position of greater safety risk and liability. Adverse media and public attention can occur when school leaders fall prey to hiring questionable consultants and purchasing useless products.

Tactics used to sell services and products may include:

* Offering free security assessments or relatively cheap consultant fees in order to get a foot in the school door.

This is often done to help less experienced consultants build their resumes, to allow product vendors an opportunity to recommend equipment they sell and/or to provide income to individuals who consult on a part-time or retirement-income basis.

* Promoting partnerships and strategic alliances among companies offering similar, but not identical, services and products.

While these consulting firms may appear to offer a one-stop shop to meet all of your needs, administrators should make sure each company has a background in working with K-12 schools and there are not hidden obligations for one company to recommend the services or products of the other companies.

* Misrepresenting consulting companies as non-profit organizations and research institutes.

An increasing number of organizations use these designations primarily for the purpose of appearing less profit driven or as having more credibility than proprietary companies.

School officials should also scrutinize companies that claim to define industry standards as well as companies sponsoring school safety-related special events to ensure they are indeed credible and established in the field.

Questions to Raise

Administrators should conduct a thorough check of security consultants' backgrounds, references, credentials and school-specific security experiences. They also should ask:

* Was the consultant in business prior to recent high-profile school violence tragedies?

* Does the consultant have first-hand, full-time experience in dealing with school security and crisis issues?

* Is the consultant product-affiliated?

* Are organizations claiming to be nonprofit or research-oriented simply for-profit consulting firms in disguise?

* Does the consultant offer low prices or free services in order to build a resume or promote other hidden agendas?

Answers to these and related questions could save school leaders from having to live with questionable consultant recommendations and the resulting damage to a school district's reputation and credibility.

Kenneth Trump is president of National School Safety and Security Services, P.O. Box 110123, Cleveland, Ohio 44111. E-mail: kentrump@aol.com