A new approach to school security

The national discussion on how to stop school shootings often becomes a whirlwind of ideas, many of which focus on how best to immediately respond to and neutralize a shooter.

This is understandable, and certainly necessary, but in the view of security expert Patrick Chagnon, from Blue Line Security in Windsor, it’s also a little narrow-minded, because in cases where students have been killed, the response came too little, too late.

He advocates for school to focus on detection and prevention, not just response.

“The whole formula here that we’re looking to do is to identify threats early on and deal with them and manage them at the lowest possible level,” he said.

Chagnon said he’s studied over 200 school tragedies of all types in order to better teach schools how to prevent them, and Chagnon said many schools don’t have procedures and processes in place to both detect and discourage school violence. Chagnon draws a sharp distinction difference between safety and security, and he said many people conflate the two.

“After every school shooting, the topic of conversation is school safety, and my argument is, we don’t need to talk about school safety. We need to talk about school security.”

Chagnon said that many safety measures are mandated by law, like building codes, fire extinguishers and smoke detectors, and yet few security measures are required. Chagnon said he would like to see that change.

“When we don’t have the security piece in place that’s mandated, then we open ourselves up to being victimized to man-made threats,” he said.

Chagnon trains staff to do many different things, coming up with an individualized security plan for each school, but they share common themes. He trains school staff members to look for people who are unusually agitated, or who are showing a pattern of odd behavior.

Then, he tries to put them in a position to defuse a dangerous situation should it arise. In one instance, he convinced a school to switch the locations of the main office and the fourth-grade classroom, so the office could be closer to the front entrance, giving administrators a better vantage point of both the entrance, and the parking lot.

He also dedicated a portion of the parking lot solely for visitors, so staff would know where to focus their attention on visitors. Chagnon said these measures helped the school increase the chance that a school staff member or school resource officer would intercept a potentially dangerous person while outside, further away from the students. It also would provide an earlier opportunity to defuse a situation before it gets out of hand.

It’s an example of widening out the security umbrella by extending what he calls ‘critical detection points’ away from the building if a threat justifies doing it. Chagnon said, depending on the threat, those critical detection points can be extended right past the school grounds and out into the community.

“When somebody posts something on social media, the critical detection point just got pushed way out into the community, and the principal or superintendent of schools calls law enforcement and says ‘I need you to do something about this,’ [so] what do the police do? They [go] to the person’s house,” Chagnon said.

“Now the critical detection point is right there at the house. I’m managing that threat there.”

To help with detection, Chagnon said schools should have a mandated Internal Threat Team, a group of six or so people who meet once a month to assess threats.

Chagnon said, ideally, each team would include a mix of parents, law enforcement agents, school teachers, counselors and mental health professionals. Chagnon said they may be able to identify a student who needs help long before he or she would even consider picking up a gun.

For evidence, he said most of the school shooters he studied exhibited behavioral red flags before the shooting, including the Parkland, FL shooter in February.

“29 to 36 times, he hit the red flags,” Chagnon said.

“Was that a gun control failure? I don’t think so,” Chagnon said, “I think it was a cultural failure, a community failure.”

Chagnon said that towns and cities should pass laws to require each school to hire a full-time manager just for the school’s security plan.

“To say we can’t afford it, I say you can’t afford not to,” he said, “if you could save one life, how could you put a dollar value to that?”