Language Lessons in K-12 Security
School security professionals must translate guidance and actions between law enforcement, teachers, and administrators to get traction.
Guy Bliesner helped found the statewide Idaho Office of School Safety and Security, and he serves Office of the State Board of Education as a school safety and security analyst. In any given year, Bliesner completes around 100 full threat and vulnerability assessments at Idaho school facilities. His background includes teaching and coaching at the high school level and working as the health, safety, and security director at an Idaho school district for seven years.
Security Management caught up with Bliesner to ask about how he has seen school safety and security change over the years. The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.
SM. As a state-level administrator that has a high level of interaction with schools and districts, what are some of the challenges you face?
GB. School safety and security is a unique discipline because schools have so many different functions. Sometimes they are venues, daycare centers, HAZMAT facilities, or manufacturing facilities, and always an educational facility. Sometimes they are all of these things in the same 12-hour period.
I’m an educator first, but I’ve learned to speak cop as a second language. A lot of my day is translating cop-to-teacher and teacher-to-cop. Police see schools as big brick buildings. Teachers see them as groups of kids. Administrators see them as organizational processes to accomplish things. All of these views are valid, but none of them are complete.
If you want to protect the people in schools, you have to be able to see them from all of these perspectives. That’s why I describe school safety as a platypus, it’s understanding all of these different things and how they interrelate.
SM. What is a major change you have seen in how schools need to approach safety and security?
GB. The biggest thing is an understanding of the importance of climate and culture. These are critical components in our ability to educate our children, but they were never a major part of school security. Now we recognize they are the single most important factor.
Eighty-three percent of school shooters are our own kids, and a good portion of those are suicides. So if we can get upstream of the threat, practicing the BTAM (behavior, threat, analysis, and management) process, we can diffuse a situation before it gets to a dangerous point. Understanding and acting on behavioral cues is by far the best way to prevent major incidents—way more effective than cameras or locks on doors.
SM. What is an example of a cultural norm that has changed during your tenure?
GB. When I took my first classroom, my principal gave me a key and said go forth and teach the quadratic equation and don’t come see me until you run into conduct you absolutely can’t handle. Good teaching was seen as being able to handle your classroom. That can’t be our attitude anymore. Good teaching is being able to identify deviance from baseline behavior and notifying administrators, and that’s a big hurdle to overcome.
And getting back to speaking teacher-to-cop, I had a heated debate with an SRO (school resource officer) about the Run. Hide. Fight. protocol. Most school systems teach this as part of their emergency management now. We use the term Move. Secure. Defend. The language is very intentional, but the SRO was adamant that “fight” was an imperative term. What he didn’t understand is that to educators the word “fight” is anathema. But defending, like a mama bear defends her cubs, resonates with a second grade teacher. Words matter.
SM. What is something that you implemented in Idaho that you think would carry over well to other places?
GB. When I started teaching, I was given a massive emergency management plan in a binder, and it had a process for every kind of emergency from asteroids to zombies. There was one in every classroom, and they went right on the shelf, never to be looked at it again.
You must simplify. You want an initial emergency protocol that gets you to a safe position so you can make that next level of decisions. It has to be deployable, maintainable, and trainable. We got ours down to four procedures, and the only reason it’s four is because we couldn’t find a way to shorten it to three.
Our four are: one, reverse evacuation: get them in, get them accounted for, and then get ready for the next instruction. Second is evacuation: get them out, get them accounted for, and then get ready for the next instruction. Lockdown is the hammer of Thor: you go dark and you don’t move until someone with a key opens your door and tells you it’s safe to move.
And then you need an intermediary state. We call ours “hall check,” and again, language is intentional. We don’t want to call it a soft lockdown or intermediate lockdown, or anything that could be confused with lockdown, which is our extreme state. So we call it hall check, and it’s a heightened level of security with limited movement and other precautions, but instruction continues. Once you call a lockdown, that’s it for instruction that day, and perhaps for the rest of the week.
SM. Is there a threat that schools can better address?
GB. I think we have a good understanding of how to address emergencies when they occur during normal, everyday operation. Event security is different. Whether it’s a sporting event or your building is hosting the state forensic tournament or band or choral festival. I don’t think we have addressed these situations as well as normal operations. We haven’t had many incidents at them, so they haven’t gotten as much attention, but I think it’s coming.
None of the things we’re talking about are easy. It takes a lot of effort to work to avoid a crisis and to be prepared for one to minimize its impact. These special events add another layer of complexity. How do you go to an overworked administrator and say, now you need to create a plan for this and figure out how to drill it? We note it in our threat and vulnerability assessments, but there is only so much you can do. Society, including schools, will always have and choose to accept some vulnerabilities.