Addressing Risks in Public Spaces After Newtown

Kevin Wilkes of Willis North America, Kevin Wilkes of Willis North America, "It is an issue of national concern."

Concerns with security are nothing new for educational institutions, say security experts, but the tragedy in Newtown, Conn., underscores both how important and difficult it is to keep people safe from a madman.

“It can happen anytime and anyplace, and it is an issue of national concern,” says Kevin Wilkes, vice president and security practice leader for Willis Security Risk consulting for Willis North America.

He says educators have done a good job of working to protect students, exercising “due diligence and good security practices.”

At the Sandy Hook Elementary School, where an armed man shot his way into the building and took the lives of 20 children and six school administrators, security measures were in place. Doors were locked and no one was allowed in unless they were recognized and buzzed in, news reports say.

Without commenting on the Sandy Hook incident itself, Wilkes says there is security best practices that educational institutions need to implement no matter what their size. More importantly, he says, some of these practices should be expanded to other venues such as malls, movie theaters and places of worship “that are thought to be places of safety and comfort, not places of death and carnage.”

 “When it comes to acts of violence, they really don’t discriminate,” says Wilkes, a former detective with the Pittsburgh police who worked with the FBI and U.S. Marshals Service. “Loss of life is just tragic and should not be tolerated.”

Wilkes says there are signs of trouble that should be noted, adding that people who commit these crimes “don’t snap.” He says they suffer a slow burn. What people need to begin to do is “recognize the red flags and intervene to deescalate” their anger.

“Nothing ever occurs in a vacuum,” he notes.

Wilkes says that one way to combat violence in a business or institution is to put a workplace-violence program in place. This program will train managers, supervisors and employees on how to respond to acts of violence. The program will include not just response but also how to assess a threat.

In developing a plan, Jim Smith, director, and Mark Waring, assistant director, of risk control services for Arthur J. Gallagher in Florida say many educational institutions have plans in place. What makes them effective is how quickly they can be implemented.

“The simpler the plan is, the better,” says Smith.

The question then is how often do they walk through the plan, and is it engrained in their culture?

The tragedy at Sandy Hook School has heightened the concern about security for clients, says Smith, and these institutions are now assessing if more needs to be done.

One major focus, says Waring, is standardizing security while at the same time being mindful of a school’s budgetary restraints. This is of particular concern for private education institutions with limited resources.

Among some of the security standards Waring says need to be implemented are a single entry point into the school for visitors, proper credentialing of individuals in the school, communication and response training to a crisis.

“You need a well written plan, but keeping it simple is a lot easier than a hefty binder,” observes Smith. “People need to make decisions quickly in a crisis, and that’s why it is important not to make the plan complicated.”

 Waring says AJG and its clients have taken the initiative and reduced those two to three inch binders from years ago to a two or three page, color coded action plan.

Another element to good security, say all three consultants, is working with the local police department to assess threats and sharing the crisis plan with them.

Summing security concerns, Wilkes says, “It is unfortunate that we have to have this conversation, but unless those in the risk-management community, and those in leadership positions for our schools, businesses and organizations really begin to proactively take steps to minimize this risk, that is coming far too frequently in our places of business, worship and campuses of learning, then we will continue to see these types of [violent] issues evolve.” 

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