July 2020 Newsletter

Building a Holistic Safety and Security Framework

By Bruno Dias

When school districts develop safety and security plans, often they incorporate school safety in mission and value statements. They seem to recognize the value of creating safe learning environments. However, despite having good intentions, many districts lack a formal plan that outlines how their safety and security objectives will be implemented. A defined safety and security framework with actionable goals and mechanisms to measure success is necessary to bring legitimacy to school safety and security programs.

Protecting our most valuable resources—our students, staff, and visitors—requires actionable and defensible measures that go beyond general safety and security mission statements.

Safety and Security Ecosystem

A strong safety and security program balances the collective power of multiple safety and security initiatives by understanding the symbiosis between each initiative. This type of framework creates a safety and security ecosystem where technology, policies, and human behavior work toward the same objective.

Positive School Climate Framework

Physical Security, Collaborative Safety and Security Culture, Behavioral Threat Assessment, Emergency Management, and School Resource Officers and Security Staff are different initiatives, but they are all linked. The tragic shooting at Florida’s Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School highlights the importance each initiative can have when links between initiatives are broken.

The symbiosis and gaps with each initiative are outlined below:

  • Physical Security / Collaborative Safety and Security / Emergency Management /Law Enforcement and Security Staff Nexus—The shooter gained access to the school perimeter through unlocked gates and to the school building via an unlocked door. Security monitors were responsible for watching the unlocked gates/doors before dismissal, but they failed to initiate a lockdown after seeing the shooter.[1] A lockdown would have alerted students and staff to the potential looming threat.

After the shooting started, more police officers arrived, but they did not realize that the video system they were watching was not a live feed, which impacted their response.[2]

  • Collaborative Safety and Security Culture and Emergency Management Nexus—The shooter was able to carry out his attack on the first floor. Staff members on the second floor heard what they believed to be gunshots, so they placed themselves on lockdown. There were no injuries or fatalities on the second floor.[3]
  • Behavioral Threat Assessment/Collaborative Safety and Security Culture/Law Enforcement Nexus—The school behavioral threat assessment team had assessed the shooter, but there were issues with the management and execution of the plan.[4] Existing gaps in communication and information sharing between law enforcement and school officials were also present.[5]

The gaps mentioned above provided the shooter with both the time and unimpeded access to students and staff. Like a perfect storm, intent, means, and access aligned, and none of the existing safety protocols were able to stop the shooter because gaps were present. Past incidents offer districts the ability to take safety and security measures by looking at what worked and what failed. Counting on luck or the low likelihood of a school shooting as your strategy is not a defensible framework.

Physical security upgrades are costly. Maximize your investment by aligning systems with behaviors.

School superintendents and district leadership must recognize that school safety and security is a complex issue, and there is no single solution to mitigating risks. It is essential to keep the multifaceted and dynamic nature of school safety in mind since the response to incidents of school violence often leads to focusing on physical security measures. These include adding cameras, controlled access points, intruder detection systems, etc. I don’t question the efficacy of safety and security systems. To the contrary, I believe physical security is paramount, but physical security alone will do little to prevent violence. For example, door-propping devices and staff members who don’t pay attention to visitors without credentials will compromise the most expensive access control and visitor management systems.

Internal risks from staff and the family members of staff should be equally considered. “Tailgating” or allowing employees into the building without using their badges can lead to significant safety concerns. School districts are not immune to disgruntled employees, domestic violence, and other forms of threats that are not driven by students. Two incidents that highlight internal risks are outlined below:

  • A California teacher was killed in her classroom in front of her students due to a domestic violence murder-suicide.[6]
  • A teacher set fire to a school building in Nebraska over concerns she was going to be terminated.[7]

When a district terminates an employee, his or her proximity cards are often deactivated by human resources, a practice that means little if other employees will open doors for familiar faces. Human resources and security directors should work closely to evaluate threatening behaviors within the organization since potential threats come in many forms. Without a robust safety and security culture, where all staff members understand their role in promoting safe and secure environments, the best high-tech physical security system likely will be undermined by human behavior.

Proactive Approach to School Safety

As outlined above, creating a culture where safety and security objectives are viewed as everyone’s job costs little. This investment will help promote a positive school climate where staff and students become part of the solution rather than contributors to a problem.

The other approach is behavioral threat assessment and management. It is a data-driven program that aligns support structures where concerning behavior is identified through a systematic process. The justification for threat assessment is multifaceted. Psychological safety is paramount, and children are facing multiple stressors. In the days and weeks following the latest targeted violence incident, investigations often uncover a pattern of behaviors by the perpetrator before the event. These behaviors are often apparent to individuals around the perpetrators. However, for a variety of reasons, people often fail to recognize or report these behaviors before tragedy strikes.

An FBI study found, “on average, each active shooter displayed 4 to 5 concerning behaviors over time that were observable to others around the shooter.”[8] Common behaviors “were related to the shooter’s mental health, problematic interpersonal interactions, and leakage of violent intent.”[9] The same study found that in 54% of the cases, those who witnessed concerning behaviors did nothing. In 41% of the cases, “the concerning behavior was reported to law enforcement.”[10]

Multiple federal agencies are using threat assessment and management processes, and more states are adopting threat management practices in the U.S. This is why it is essential for school districts to understand what threat assessment is and what it is not.

Behavioral Threat Assessment and Management should be viewed as a formalized process that is used to:

  • Capture concerning information.
  • Assess risk through tangible means (information).
  • Allocate resources where resources are needed to prevent violence.

The objective is not to punish or label a child for displaying concerning behaviors, but rather to develop management plans in partnerships with school multidisciplinary teams and parents. These plans should provide students with the help and support they need before problems escalate to violence or criminal behavior. Behavioral threat assessment and management require districts to leverage school counselors, school psychologists, and social-emotional learning programs to connect resources with need. Like the other safety and security initiatives I referenced, Behavioral Threat Assessment and Management is linked with other initiatives. To build a Collaborative Safety and Security Culture, districts must educate staff, students, and parents about the importance of recognizing and reporting concerning behaviors. Building relationships of trust with parents to help reduce the stigma behind emotional and mental health is a pathway to attain buy-in and support from families.[11]

Implementing Behavioral Threat Assessment and Management:

  • Training is essential and there are many resources available (some at no cost) that provide districts with training, protocols, and recommended management practices.
  • FERPA and HIPAA are not impediments to behavioral threat assessment. School districts should be familiar with safety exceptions within FERPA and HIPAA.
  • Districts should consider using a records management system to assess the effectiveness of management strategies and information sharing among stakeholders and to justify decreases and increases in risk behaviors.
  • Evaluating needs with resources, particularly as it relates to counseling and social-emotional learning techniques, is essential. I suspect the role of a school counselor will continue to grow. Promoting well-defined and structured social-emotional learning services, qualified staff, and balanced caseloads are needed to offer meaningful support and management strategies.
  • Districts should form multidisciplinary teams, comprised of individuals with different experiences, education, backgrounds, and qualifications. In this environment, multiple individuals serve as advocates for the child and the safety of other students. I always include a representative who works with students of differing abilities. It’s crucial that all facts, as they relate to students with special needs, are considered to ensure such students are not unfairly labeled.
  • Different cultural backgrounds are another factor that should be considered when evaluating concerning behaviors. Threat assessment is not about evaluating single behaviors. All factors, including positive mitigating factors, should be considered in evaluating risk.

Unemployment, domestic violence, sexual assaults, and other forms of trauma are only increasing due to shelter-in-place orders.[12] After a prolonged pandemic, the imbalance created by increased social stressors and decreased mitigating factors are likely to produce cascading effects that are concerning and may lead to acts of violence.

Furthermore, the impact of racial tensions following the killing of George Floyd on children, particularly African American children, could be significant. Watching videos of police brutality, divide, and civil disorder makes children virtual witnesses to some of society’s greatest evils, bias, and violence. The next school year is poised to be far from average, which is another reason to develop strong behavioral threat assessment programs that focus on support rather than punishment. Threats and concerning behaviors will continue to occur, now possibly more than ever. Rather than using the most common two options—disciplinary or criminal consequences—we can try an option that works to understand why behaviors are happening. Then we can learn how to manage the cause by offering help and support. Now is the time to be proactive with school safety and security by creating an actionable holistic approach.

Bruno Dias is the director of safety and security for a Texas school district. He is responsible for security, threat assessment, and emergency management initiatives for the district, which consists of 62 buildings, including a football stadium and a performing arts center. The district has over 35,000 students and 5,000 staff members. Dias is a K-12 specialist and board member for the Texas Chapter of the Association of Threat Assessment Professionals, and he is a member of the ASIS National School Safety Council.

Dias is a graduate of the FBI National academy, and he holds a bachelor’s degree and a master’s degree in criminal justice. Before joining the public education sector, he managed corporate security investigations for a Fortune 10 company in the U.S. and Canada.


[1] “Commissionreport.Pdf,” accessed June 5, 2020

[2] “Commissionreport.Pdf,” accessed June 5, 2020

[3] “Commissionreport.Pdf,” accessed June 5, 2020

[4] “Commissionreport.Pdf,” accessed June 5, 2020

[5] “Commissionreport.Pdf,” accessed June 5, 2020

[6] “California Gunman Kills Wife, Self as She Teaches Class; Student Also Dead,” Reuters, April 11, 2017, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-california-shooting-idUSKBN17C24T.

[7] Margaret Reist, “Brewster: I Never Meant to Burn down LPS Offices,” JournalStar.com, accessed June 5, 2020, https://journalstar.com/news/local/education/brewster-i-never-meant-to-burn-down-lps-offices/article_bb083b04-9f6e-54a0-a9dd-1ba3ed26068d.html.

[8] “A Study of Pre-Attack Behaviors of Active Shooters in the United States Between 2000 and 2013,” File, Federal Bureau of Investigation, 7, accessed May 29, 2020, https://www.fbi.gov/file-repository/pre-attack-behaviors-of-active-shooters-in-us-2000-2013.pdf/view.

[9] “A Study of Pre-Attack Behaviors of Active Shooters in the United States Between 2000 and 2013,” File, Federal Bureau of Investigation, 7, accessed May 29, 2020, https://www.fbi.gov/file-repository/pre-attack-behaviors-of-active-shooters-in-us-2000-2013.pdf/view.

[10] “A Study of Pre-Attack Behaviors of Active Shooters in the United States Between 2000 and 2013,” File, Federal Bureau of Investigation, 7, accessed May 29, 2020, https://www.fbi.gov/file-repository/pre-attack-behaviors-of-active-shooters-in-us-2000-2013.pdf/view.

[11] Abraham Mukolo, Craig Anne Heflinger, and Kenneth A. Wallston, “The Stigma of Childhood Mental Disorders: A Conceptual Framework,” Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry 49, no. 2 (February 2010): 92–198.

[12] Chuck Morris Web Multimedia Managing Editor-, “Mental Health Issues, Domestic Violence on the Rise during COVID-19 Crisis,” WSMV Nashville, accessed June 28, 2020, https://www.wsmv.com/news/davidson_county/mental-health-issues-domestic-violence-on-the-rise-during-covid-19-crisis/article_893efd1e-7e6b-11ea-8c73-a3dfb4cae78f.html.

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