“They are fast, violent, unforgiving, unexpected, and have long-term consequences,” says Frank Kitzerow, president of the National Association of School and Campus Police Chiefs (NASCPC).
He‘s talking about what all school shootings have in common.
In the wake of the shooting at Oxford High School on November 30, Kitzerow has been busy fielding anxious phone calls from parents and school districts alike, helping them answer the question, “What now?” Here, Kitzerow provides some insights into his own work with the Palm Beach County School District to establish what he calls a “school safety ecosystem,” and how school districts can strategize surrounding the complex challenge of securing their campuses.
Bridging the Gap: Enter NASCPC
“Truly creating a safe school environment where children can thrive is a very complicated process,” says Kitzerow. “It’s not just introducing a police officer on campus.” The problem with school safety and security, Kitzerow explains, is that—while everyone is invested in it—it’s very siloed. School districts are in one silo, and law enforcement and first responders are in another. And unfortunately, these two groups usually don’t interact until a catastrophic event happens.
NASCPC bridges that gap between school safety personnel and law enforcement, so conversations start happening at the local level between these two entities regularly. And, contrary to its name, the organization isn’t just for police chiefs; its members also include non-sworn school safety and security personnel across the entire educational spectrum.
What Does It Mean to “Work to the Left of ‘X’”?
Kitzerow has been working in law enforcement since 1979. He spent time in Fairfax County before taking his first police chief job in Portsmouth, Virginia, right near Norfolk Navy Base. He was appointed police chief in Jupiter, Florida in 2005 before becoming Chief of Police for Palm Beach County School District in 2018.
After every active shooter event, school districts approach Kitzerow with the frantic question: “What now?” He says the answer is simple: “It depends how much you’re willing to invest on the front end.”
Kitzerow calls his strategy “working to the left of ‘X.’” It goes like this: If you were to take the worst possible outcome “X”, how can you work to the left of that X? In other words, how do you act in front of it to keep that day from occurring?
There are three main components to the left of X: prevention, intervention, and diversion.
To the Left of X: Prevention
School violence prevention is — to say the least — complicated. But schools don’t have to figure it out on their own. NASCPC recommends following the National Threat Assessment Center’s guide to establishing a threat assessment model. The guide lays out how schools can create a violence prevention plan, including establishing a threat assessment team, defining what behaviors constitute “threats,” creating a central reporting mechanism, and establishing assessment procedures.
Learn more about integrating PASS Guidelines into your school’s safety and security planning from our interview with PASS co-founder Scott Lord.READ THE ARTICLE
To the Left of X: Intervention
School violence prevention and intervention often involve making difficult judgment calls between who is simply making a threat versus who actually poses a threat. Answering that question will involve deliberate collaboration between law enforcement and mental health teams.
Once a threat is identified, there are two types of intervention: legal or mental health. Law enforcement professionals focus on elements of a crime — assessing whether or not an actual risk is present and/or detaining the people responsible for the threats. Implementing law enforcement alone isn’t usually enough, says Kitzerow, because “realistically, we’re never going to arrest our way out of a problem.”
That’s where collaboration with mental health professionals becomes essential. Mental health workers are looking at the people, not the legal. Both of these groups are trained on what’s called the “pathway to violence,” or the sequence of steps that active shooters follow leading up to a violent event. The sooner that pathway can be disrupted, the better.
Anonymous reporting systems are just one effective way schools can enhance their intervention system. For more information on how to set up an anonymous reporting system at your school, see our PASS Guidelines.
To the Left of X: Diversion
Once a threat is identified, diversion is deciding what to do about it. Once again, the options can involve either law enforcement or mental health professionals, and will depend on each school and community to decide what’s best.
Working to the “left of ‘X’” means imagining worst-case scenario X and then taking all steps possible to prevent that outcome. The more schools invest in prevention, intervention, and diversion, the less likely the worst possible outcome “X” will occur.
What Happens to the Right of “X”?
What happens when you’re not successful in keeping X from occurring? At that point, you‘re to the “right of ‘X.’” Kitzerow calls everything to the right of X your “toolkit.”
More importantly, once you’re to the right of X, time is not your friend. To the right of X, everything has to happen quickly. Law enforcement will definitely be involved, and they will either isolate, neutralize, or eliminate the threat.
There are still things that educators and school administrators should know how to do to the “right of ‘X.’” All school staff should be trained on:
- How to identify what is happening;
- Which authorities to notify and how; and
- How to leverage their resources in the moment.
Case Study: Palm Beach County’s School Safety Ecosystem
When Kitzerow became Chief of Police of Palm Beach County School District in 2018, he went about investing heavily to the “left of ‘X’.” The district is the tenth-largest school district in the U.S., with 190,000 students and 187 schools. He ensured every school had a threat assessment team composed of, at a minimum, a campus law enforcement officer, the principal, the assistant principal, and a guidance counselor. The district also has a Behavioral Services Unit of specially trained detectives and mental health workers who bring additional resources to each school.
All teams — the threat assessment teams and Behavioral Services Unit — speak the same language. That is, they share the same definition for three different levels of threats: low-level threats, medium-level threats, and high-level threats. Each level corresponds to a specific set of action steps in response to the threat, and all teams are versed in these action steps. This shared vocabulary is critical for the teams to work together at a moment when time is of the essence. The knowledge and procedures are already in place if disaster strikes.
Kitzerow calls his setup the “school safety ecosystem.” Despite that, he acknowledges an inconvenient truth: “It’s difficult to measure what you’ve prevented.” In the best-case scenario, schools that invest more on the front end will never have to deploy those investments.
“We tend to think a program or a training or software will solve the problem,” says Kitzerow. “People solve the problem. Those other things support the process.” Whether you work with NASCPC directly to start making connections with local law enforcement agencies, or begin implementing PASS’s comprehensive guidelines into your school safety and security planning, the important thing is to take action. “We’ll help you get started, whether that’s shaping the conversation with community partners or identifying key components,” says Kitzerow, “but whatever it is, you gotta get started.”
The National Association of School and Campus Police Chiefs (NASCPC) is a nonprofit organization that offers executive-level resources and perspectives relating to school and campus policing, including in-person training and consulting.
The Partner Alliance for Safer Schools (PASS) is a nonprofit 501(c)(3) bringing together expertise from the education, public safety, and industry communities to develop and support a coordinated approach to making effective and appropriate decisions with respect to safety and security investments. You can download the complete PASS Guidelines or check out our PASS Safety and Security Checklist for quick tips on how to get started. These resources — as well as whitepapers on various topics including barricade devices, lockdown drills, and more — are available at no cost.
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