School safety and security expert focuses largely on prevention – School News Network | #schoolsaftey

Editor’s note: This is the second in a three-part series on the problem of gun violence in schools, providing an overview of the many measures public school districts in Kent County have taken to protect students, enhance their safety and build their trust. Read the first part here.

All districts — When it comes to school safety and security, Jason Russell and his team of consultants use a comprehensive approach for assessing school districts’ needs.

Russell is founder and president of Secure Environment Consultants, a Grand Rapids-based agency focused on safety and security services. With a staff of 30 consultants and 100 security guards, SEC’s clients include 70% of schools in Michigan. In Kent County, those include Kentwood, Grand Rapids, Rockford, Sparta, Forest Hills, Caledonia, Lowell and Byron Center public schools. SEC also works with about 30 public schools in other states.

Russell is president and founder of Secure Environment Consultants (courtesy)

A former Lansing Police Department officer and United States Secret Service agent, Russell previously served on security detail for several presidents and other senior leaders. He is currently the security and law enforcement representative on the Michigan School Safety and Mental Health Commission, appointed by Gov. Whitmer in 2020. 

Russell started SEC 11 years ago with the goal of equipping schools with multi-pronged measures of protection.

“We always talk about security happening in layers,” he said. “Social-emotional and mental health is a layer; positive school climate is a layer; good policies and procedure is a layer …

“What we focus on is making sure the schools have thought about all of those layers. Traditionally, there’s been a huge focus on the physical security layer, but they miss other stuff. Our goal is to get schools to be very balanced.”

As part of our series on gun violence in schools, School News Network interviewed Russell to get his insights on training school personnel, ideal safety and security measures and how he’s seen the themes of prevention and response evolve over the years.

(This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.)

‘Most schools … only really train on active shooter emergencies, even though it’s still a very rare emergency. We never want to just train people on one emergency.’

— Jason Russell, Secure Environment Consultants president

What led you to start Secure Environment Consultants? Russell’s wife owns a childcare company in Grand Rapids; he said her work, combined with the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, spurred the idea. 

“I was thinking about what (my wife) was doing. My kids were going to childcare. I’m a father of three. I was looking to see what was done (in the area of security) and realized there were significant needs, especially in early education.”

Is school security a whole different world than protecting the president in the Secret Service? “I had to learn the unique nature of the needs in K-12 education, because it is definitely a unique environment in terms of what they need and can afford.

“But, truthfully, some of the (Secret Service) concepts were helpful … especially the really strong focus on prevention … That is the same concept we brought to the schools. We really focus heavily on preventing anything from happening in the first place.”

How has safety and security in schools evolved since Sandy Hook? “Probably the biggest thing would be a larger focus on identifying behaviors of concern in students. We call that behavioral threat assessment. (There) is more focus on mental health and identifying kids headed down that path toward violence.

(When it comes to) kids that are violent in schools — generally that violence is preceded by concerning behaviors. The idea behind behavioral threat assessment is, if we can start to identify those behaviors and … address whatever is causing those behaviors, we can intervene and address those challenges so we can prevent a kid from resorting to violence.”

How is a behavioral threat assessment completed? “The best behavioral threat assessment happens in teams. … If we see some concerns, then we are going to start to examine other pieces of this kid’s life. Do they have access to weapons? … What does their home life look like? Have they been seen for any mental health concerns? We might even look at open-source social media to see if they’ve posted anything concerning, (or) talk to their teachers to see if they’ve made any concerning writings or drawings. Maybe even talk to their parents to see what concerns they have at home …

“It’s about trying to find as many pieces of the puzzle to see if this person is a concern or not. “

Has this approach proven to be successful? “We are just starting to see it become widely adopted. In the past two years, schools have gotten really diligent about implementing it with some degree of consistency and fidelity. The really tough thing about it is, I call it ‘the paradox of prevention.’ If they do a good job, nothing happens. It’s really hard to prove what didn’t happen because you focused on prevention.

“The way we will know (that threat assessments are successful) is we will have less incidents of school violence and hopefully that will be attributed to being really consistent about practicing behavioral threat assessments.”

Do you see Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS) and social-emotional learning programs as a piece to this? “They are all very complementary to each other. It’s really about the whole child … How do we deal with each individual child to make sure they are getting what they need and we are taking away as many stressors (as we can) and creating a positive school climate?”

What does critical incident training involve and why is it important? “Most schools … only really train on active shooter emergencies, even though it’s still a very rare emergency. We never want to just train people on one emergency. 

“Our critical incident response training is really designed to train on concepts that apply to any emergency. So we train on some of the most common emergency protocols (like) evacuation, shelter-in-place. We also try to cover concepts that would really help a person respond to any emergency they might face.”

What services can Secure Environment Consultants offer schools?
SEC provides vulnerability assessments, critical incident response training and de-escalation training, founder Jason Russell said.

“We go into schools and examine their security to see what gaps or weaknesses there might be, not only in physical security, but also in process, policy and procedure and emergency plans. …

“Schools choose training based on their individual needs. The assessments are a starting point and then we identify areas where they need assistance.”

What does de-escalation training involve? “That’s about understanding how to communicate effectively in potentially volatile situations. It’s about identifying nonverbal cues somebody might be portraying and also understanding how your nonverbal cues might impact an interaction.

“Then there’s the verbal side of it — how to actively listen, not say the wrong things and increase the effectiveness of your communication.”

Jason Russell leads a training in Kentwood Public Schools (courtesy)

How do you go about assessing school facilities? Russell said the vulnerability assessment process is “a very granular examination” that involves two key steps.

“One is an interview piece where we sit down with relevant stakeholders — school resource officers, teachers, principals, superintendent, technology people, human resource people — talking about what they currently have in place, gaps and what might be missing.

“The second (part) is touring the facilities, looking at security and watching processes as they happen.  An example of that might be watching how the entry is used, as opposed to just asking if they have a secure vestibule. You might have one, but how is it being used?”

In terms of suggesting changes after an assessment, he said, “We don’t just make unilateral recommendations. We really talk to the district to make sure whatever we recommend is possible. It doesn’t do any good for me to tell a school that they need a million dollars in new cameras if they don’t have any money. … We need to consider their budget, their culture, all the things that make the district unique.”

How have your training sessions changed over the years? “There’s more of a focus on understanding kids’ behaviors. Our de-escalation training is really focused more on creating positive interaction with kids, creating relationships. Even when we put guards in schools, our big focus with those people is that we want consistency. We want them to be relationship-builders, not disciplinarians. There really is a bigger focus on mental health.” 

Read more: 
Preparing for an emergency, educators undergo reunification training
When medical emergencies happen, they’re ready

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