Higher Education Officials Can Learn a Lot From Their K-12 Counterparts

When I left my police lieutenant’s position with Mercer University to accept an appointment as a public school system police chief, I noted a number of stark differences between the two environments. First, the private university saw safety as a quality service issue. University President Dr. Kirby Godsey felt that an emphasis on safety was not only the morally correct course of action, but also understood that it was a matter of sound business practice to maintain a safe campus. He knew serious incidents would adversely affect the learning environment and could cause students to seek their education elsewhere.


While I found that K-12 school officials often shared the same focus on safety as a morally correct course of action, I noted a significant difference in safety from a business standpoint. K-12 school officials often did not make the correlation between prudent fiscal responsibility and safety that my higher education bosses did.


At the same time, I noted a number of similarities between the two environments. Many techniques that were invaluable in the higher education setting were equally effective for K-12 campuses. I found that many techniques that were standard in the higher education setting — such as the use of warning slips to ban troublemakers from campuses — were rarely used by school systems. Other techniques were also easily adapted to the K-12 environment and have proven to be very effective.


Having worked for a decade in each type of campus police agency, I learned that many concepts could be successfully applied in both settings as long as they are properly adapted to the environment. Serving as the lead expert for the nation’s largest state government school safety center for both environments reinforced this view. I also found that the K-12 crowd is often more advanced when it comes to safety-plan development. Probably influenced by the tendency for media coverage to incorrectly portray the prevalence of weapons violence as more common in the K-12 environment, there has been a massive expenditure of funding and a greater availability of resources applied to assist K-12 schools in safety planning.


For example, the U.S. Department of Education (DOE) is awarding more than 300 school crisis-planning grants over three years. These grants have ranged from just under $100,000 to $1,000,000 per award. While many institutions of higher education have excellent safety plans, I have never seen one that meets the criteria of the DOE and Jane’s best practices planning models. I know that my son’s state university of more than 35,000 students has a plan that is a far cry from this model. He was astounded by the poor quality of his university’s safety plan when he found the plan carelessly posted on the university Website. While I hope that a college or university somewhere has developed a comprehensive, four-phase, all-hazards plan based upon a formal hazard and vulnerability assessment and which incorporates the National Incident Management System, I have not had any of the thousands of higher education safety officials in any of my conference sessions indicate that their institution has a safety plan of this depth and breadth.


While it is written for K-12 schools, Practical Information on Crisis Planning — A Guide for Schools and Communities is available at no cost from the DOE and can provide a crash course on what this type of plan should include and how it can be developed. Like many K-12 schools, most higher education safety plans are missing one or more of the written plan sections (prevention/mitigation, preparedness, response and recovery) and lack position-specific plan components, such as ready reference flip charts for specific categories of employees, such as faculty, custodial staff, university police, food service and others who each have different roles during a crisis. The 450-page Jane’s Safe School Planning Guide for All Hazards is the definitive work on K-12 safe-school planning and has also proven to be a useful tool for higher-education safety officials. Many have told me that, though these publications are specifically written for K-12 school officials, they have still found them to be invaluable resources.


Millions of K-12 students and staff are safer each day because of techniques developed first in the higher-ed setting. Many good higher-education safety plans could become exemplary plans if the missing plan sections outlined in these models were added. The K-12 plan model can provide a useful framework for colleges and universities wishing to make sure they have viable and high-quality safety plans.



Michael Dorn is an internationally recognized campus safety expert who has authored and co-authored numerous books on the topic. He is the senior public safety and emergency management analyst for Jane’s Consultancy. He can be reached at .


About the Author

Michael S. Dorn has helped conduct security assessments for more than 6,000 K-12 schools, keynotes conferences internationally and has published 27 books including Staying Alive – How to Act Fast and Survive Deadly Encounters. He can be reached at www.safehavensinternational.org.

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