Cooperation Is the Key in School Safety Planning

Over the slam-slam-slam of locker doors, over the chatter of students who haven’t seen each other since Friday, come the chilling words across the intercom: “This is not a drill. We are in lockdown.” Students stare, bewildered. Lockdown? That’s when the teacher closes the door and they all move to the back of the classroom. But they’re not in a classroom. They’re in the hall. What do they do?

Don Alwes, chairman of the Patrol Tactics section for the National Tactical Officers Association (NTOA), says that because schools are perceived to be relatively safe, school districts have developed plans to stop theft and deal with natural disasters, but they don’t plan thoroughly on how to keep “bad things” out.

“Most schools jump directly into planning on how to deal with emergencies, but you don’t put those plans into effect until your security plan has failed,” Alwes says. “Also, schools tend to have emergency plans that are not realistic or helpful. I’ve never encountered a school with a realistic plan on how to lock down a cafeteria or a gym full of kids, but a substantial number of shootings occur outside classrooms.”

Because schools don’t necessarily have experience in dealing with interpersonal violence, they fail to involve law enforcement in developing security and emergency plans: “For instance, when it comes to building a new school or remodeling an old one, how often do school districts involve local law enforcement in the design? Quite often, I hear law enforcement isn’t called in at all until the building has been built. That’s where cooperation ought to begin, followed by long-term continuous interaction between groups.”

Although cooperation between school districts and law enforcement is key, joint efforts need to involve other agencies as well. When it comes to developing security and emergency plans, all stakeholders need to be invited to the discussion, including the local sheriff’s office, state and federal agencies, local EMS and fire departments, and neighboring jurisdictions.

“The first thing I tell agencies is they need to put their differences aside and get past the administrative hurdles. They need to work together to figure out what’s best for their community, and that always involves cooperation with other agencies,” Alwes says.

“And of course it’s important to work with the schools. Law enforcement can save lives by preparing the potential targets in our communities to protect themselves, because often, the shooting is over before law enforcement arrives,” he adds. “Schools are important because that’s where our most precious commodity is, but businesses, churches and hospitals also need to sit down ahead of time and plan.”

That planning covers three areas, starting with threat assessment and management, then moving on to security plans, and finally to emergency plans. Law enforcement should work with schools and other organizations to identify threats and determine when to contact law enforcement, and to develop robust and comprehensive security and emergency plans. Additionally, the various law enforcement jurisdictions need to work with each other to plan and to train, which Alwes says is important for several reasons.

“If they pool their resources, they can get higher-quality training, both by having more funds to pay for it and by having more people actively involved in the training. Beyond the financial savings stemming from sharing the costs, you learn how to operate with a different agency that has different policies and equipment, and you learn how to mesh the two together. In the event of an incident, you’re going to have officers from a number of agencies responding. Why not start by sharing the cost of training and letting the officers train together? When you share the costs and share the training, great things come out of that.”

To make those great things happen, Alwes says it is necessary to start with getting school districts and local law enforcement alike to acknowledge the need for training and cooperation, because they still believe “it can’t happen here.”

“My team was doing training at a school that had a major incident some years ago. I was checking a classroom that was probably no more than 20 yards down the hallway from the lobby where it happened, and discovered the door wouldn’t lock. I asked the teacher if she had been there during the shooting, and she said ‘yes, but it will never happen again, so we don’t worry about the doors’ not locking.’ I hope she’s right, but that’s not the attitude we need to have,” he says.

Don Alwes is a lead instructor for the National Tactical Officers Association (NTOA) with 24 years of law enforcement experience, specializing in the areas of school and workplace violence and active shooter response. NTOA provides law enforcement with a training resource as well as a forum for the development of tactics and information exchange. To learn more about NTOA training on school and workplace violence, visit

Author: Becky Lewis, NLECTC