Why You Should Prioritize More Protection in Schools

December 21, 2012
Piers Morgan at CES 2011.

Piers Morgan at CES 2011. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Due to their importance, I’m dedicating this second blog post to Sandy Hook related issues, with the hopes that readers act locally. After this, I’ll re-focus on technology.

Most nights this week I’ve been glued to my TV watching Piers Morgan on CNN. Tonight he said he was surprised people don’t publicly debate gun issues. He has expressed some passionate views on the gun control issue, and has gotten some passionate replies from the gun rights side of the issue. I believe that both sides are well-intentioned. In my opinion, this has been a classic example of two parties with conflicting views talking past each other, intensified by emotions that are understandable given recent events.  The key to understanding both sides comes from analyzing their arguments. This blog post is meant to help readers consider the differences between Means and Motivation, and how the focus on Prevention is crowding out a seriously needed discussion of Protection. Essentially, I think both sides are right about what they disagree on, and both sides are wrong about what they agree on.

If an argument goes on for weeks, months and years, like the gun control argument, it is probably an unwinnable argument. In my opinion, both sides have been talking past each other on CNN’s Piers Morgan show exactly because they are engaging in an unwinnable argument.  Let me explain what I mean when I say both sides are right about what they disagree upon, and both sides are wrong about what they appear to agree on.

Piers Morgan argues about Means. His argument is that having 300 Million firearms in circulation in the US has led to all of these killings.  Piers argues that without all of these guns and rifles, we would have far fewer killings because madmen would not have the means. He is right.

The pro-gun side argues about Motivation. Their argument is that an individual who commits such heinous acts is one of countless mentally unstable people watching violent movies, playing violent video games, and if the maniacs who are capable of these atrocities were identified, treated, and/or nullified ahead of time, we would eliminate the motivation and have far fewer killings.  So, the last thing they want is to not be able to protect them selves when faced with such a madman.  They are also right.

So, night after night, I watch both sides continue to argue past each other that two different things are the most important, Means vs. Motivation. And, they are both right about what they disagree on. The marriage of both Means and Motivation is what results in these tragedies; both elements are involved. However, I fear they are probably wrong about the underlying premise that they agree on, and that is that following either of their recommended courses of action will ‘PREVENT’ another tragedy.

CNN reported that the AR-15 is the most popular semi-automatic rifle with 1.5 million sold over the last 5 years.  With 300 million firearms in circulation, millions of semi-automatic weapons already sold, and tons of ammo in the private hands of people protected by our second amendment, eliminating the Means is just not going to happen in the US.  Pending legislation is forward looking, and doesn’t address weapons already sold.  Even if it did, as the pro gun side says, a madman will find another tool to wreak havoc – remember what happened in Oklahoma. So, in real life, focusing on Means alone will not solve the problem.

On the other hand, I can say purely out of common sense that even after passing needed legislation that helps qualified psychiatric professionals identify certain mentally ill (not all, of course) before they develop into maniacs and before they act, it will be highly unlikely that they find them all and always take action in time.  Eliminating the Motivation, is just not always practical, predictable and rectifiable. So, in real life, focusing on Motivation alone will not solve the problem, either.

So while both of their tactics are right in theory, the common basis for both the Piers Morgan and the pro-gun side argument, which is that if we only do x or y these events would be PREVENTABLE, is wrong. Yes, doing some of these things should reduce the odds of an event.  But in the real world, you won’t prevent all events.  As we have just seen, one event is one too many. So, while both sides continue to argue their side of an unwinnable prevention argument, security is still at risk. This is the problem I have with the current public discourse. By focusing on an unwinnable Means vs. Motivation argument for an unattainable Prevention outcome, we waste precious time by ignoring the other half of the solution: PROTECTION. Every day that passes, is another unnecessary risk taken across all the schools in the country.

It is often helpful to compare previous case studies.  What happened after 9-11?  The government started better tracking of sales of materials and flying lessons. Just like better gun tracking, this is very important. They also upped their intelligence resources to find the bad guys before an event and have done a great job at it. Just as identifying and treating the dangerously mentally unstable in advance is also important. Those are both Prevention tactics. What about Protection? Recall that after 9-11 skyscrapers and government buildings everywhere improved their security.  Airlines, train stations and bus lines were hardened as targets too.  The focus was on both prevention and protection by hardening soft targets.  Oftentimes they used passive measures like better surveillance, different layouts, and supervision. I feel that including both prevention and protection measures is the best approach to school security, and given the stakes, we are losing time.

Today’s public focus should include more school building protection. Professionals should begin looking at the schools themselves and coming up with ways to create safe refuge areas for students in the event of an attack.  As my previous post stated, diverse people should be discussing ideas of all types to provide safe-rooms, anti-ballistic safe spaces, hardened doors, window evacuation systems, early law enforcement alert systems, etc. so that teachers and students have an option to go to when faced with a threat. You might ask about schoolyards and school buses. Unfortunately, the answer is yes – if you need proof, click here to read what happened in Haverhill, MA yesterday. Of course, it will be critical to include child psychologists and local academic professionals to develop ways to implement precautions in as non-intrusive a way as possible to makes kids and educators feel safer, rather than feel at risk.

The immediate reaction to hearing about more school protection may be to say something like “I don’t want to live in a society where kids in schools must be under armored protection.”  I agree, but the hard truth is that you already do. Reportedly, there are 300 Million firearms out there, there is a lot of mental illness, and no one knows when or where the next maniac will appear. The genie is out of the bottle. At the risk of sounding alarmist, these events have progressed from a tragic one-time event to a trend.

People who make the societal argument want to get back some peace of mind, a normal human impulse.  We all want to turn back the clock to the 1950’s Happy Days America before the Boston Strangler changed everything. In those days you did not lock your door or your car, and kids walked to school with no effect on your peace of mind. What they are really saying is that the peace of mind they will get from in-school security of whatever kind is not worth the peace of mind they feel they will lose every time they go to the school and see the precautions, or have to answer kids’ questions about it. In my opinion, having that peace of mind all depends on the solutions, how they are implemented, and whether qualified child psychologists, parents and educators get involved in the planning. For example, is it really such a hardship to install a hardened classroom door and have a new policy on closing it during class?  The same thing happened in the 1960’s when people started locking doors, buying more dogs, and investing in home and car alarm systems.  People got used to it, and felt safer sleeping behind locked doors.

So, it is entirely reasonable that a teacher might have an initial knee-jerk reaction to vote against more school security, for good educative and human nature reasons.  However, if that same teacher finds him or herself one day hearing the approaching footsteps of an armed maniac coming down the school hallway, believe me, the one thing they would wish they had was an option to move the kids and themselves to a safe refuge of some kind, or to protect themselves in some way.  I apologize for having to put it that way, and I don’t want to be insensitive to anyone’s feelings. But if it isn’t viewed in these cold terms, won’t many lives continue to be at risk?

Venues like CNN are key to shaping public opinion and action on important issues. I like Mr. Morgan’s show, because he usually takes a stand one way or another and asks the tough questions. In this case, I choose to believe that the heated arguments between Mr. Morgan of CNN and the pro-gun side both come from a similar place of empathy for the victims and their families and a collective desire to never hear of another such event.

My hope in sharing these ideas is that any readers start focusing their minds pretty quickly on the need to implement more protection planning in school buildings, and not just continue to be consumed only by the slow, unwinnable ‘prevention by gun control’ debate.  As unlikely as it might be, I hope my assessment gets back to Mr. Morgan in order to add to the public discourse and get people thinking more about Protection.  While the prevention argument is important, every day that is lost focused solely on arguing that unending prevention debate, is another day without adequate safe refuge options in schools.  Like so many things, the country is divided about equally on how they would conserve the second amendment. If both sides cut each other a break, maybe they would focus public discussion on school safety first: the other half of the story.

Post Script: This blog post was originally posted the night of December 20th under a different title, but I had hosting problems on December 21. After the original post, the NRA announced on Dec. 21 that it advocated police in schools and a review leading to safer schools. I don’t support any organization’s platform or specific to-do’s such as armed guards. At the highest level, their suggestion of the importance of initiating a review to improve safety in schools, if it involves all the stakeholders, would seem to agree with the points made in my post.

I am happy to note that Judith Glaser, author of 6 books, consultant to Fortune 500 companies, contributor to HBR, CEO of Benchmark Communications and Chairman of The Creating WE Institute has decided to create a case study based on this blog post as part of a 2013 global project that provides a public platform for analyzing conversations.  See our conversation in the comments below her insightful article entitled Why You’re Talking Past Each Other, and How to Stop at Harvard Business Review .