Search form

Preventing a School Hostage Crisis in the U.S.


The hostage crisis at a Beslan, Russia, school in September 2004 raised questions about the safety of public schools in the U.S. A security consultant tells Education World why he thinks schools need tougher security measures. Included: A description of security measures schools can implement.

For two days beginning September 1, 2004, people around the world watched in horror as Chechen rebels held 1,200 children and adults captive in a school in Beslan, Russia. When the siege ended after commandos stormed the building and the terrorists retaliated, at least 335 hostages, about half of them children, had been killed.

The brutal hostage-taking raised questions in other countries, including the U.S., about the security of schools.

Dr. Paul M. Viollis, president of Risk Control Strategies, a threat management and risk assessment security consulting firm, told Education World that improving school security is long overdue, and the Breslan crisis showed how vulnerable and accessible schools can be to outsiders.

Viollis has worked in the law enforcement and security fields for more than 23 years, and has served as an expert witness and subject matter expert in workplace security, counter terrorism threat assessment, workplace violence, police training, exam validity, school violence, and domestic violence issues. He also is the author of several books, including one on avoiding violence in schools.

He talked with Education World about the need to increase security in U.S. public schools, and ways administrators can make their schools safer.

Dr. Paul M. Viollis

Education World: People all over the world watched the hostage crisis in Beslan, Russia with horror. Could you see a similar situation happening in a U.S. school?

Dr. Paul M. Viollis: Essentially, our nation's schools are vulnerable simply because they are easy targets and the widespread fear that would erupt as a result of an attack would far outweigh the effort it would take. Terrorists, like other criminals, are notorious for migrating to the path of least resistance, meaning they seek targets that will generate the greatest return with the smallest amount of effort. Our schools were designed to foster individual thought and expression, but that freedom also invites unfettered access and mobility, making the process of infiltrating a school relatively rudimentary for either a former disgruntled employee or a terrorist.

EW: Why is school security not getting as much attention nationally as the security of other public buildings?

Viollis: I firmly believe it boils down to the unwillingness of Americans to accept their current threat level and understand the intense desire of our enemies to instill fear and inflict harm. After the Russian tragedy, President Bush asked the director of Homeland Security to review the nation's policies and procedures for responding to a hostage situation in a school. The tragedy brought renewed public relations attention to the possibility of terrorists targeting schools in America.

"Essentially, our nation's schools are vulnerable simply because they are easy targets and the widespread fear that would erupt as a result of an attack would far outweigh the effort it would take," says Dr. Paul M. Viollis, president of Risk Control Strategies.

However, if we don't turn talk into action by taking the next step of providing additional funding for increased security, we are in danger of falling back into the "it-won't-happen-here," mentality that continues to pervade our culture. For example, three years after the attack on the World Trade Center, corporations began decreasing their security budgets, according to a study.

EW: What are some of the questions school districts and administrators should ask themselves to improve security in their schools?

Viollis: Some are:

  • How thorough are the current background investigations being conducted on staff?

    All administrators need to closely scrutinize the methodology of their current screening process and ensure that in addition to verifying credentials, each employee undergoes a background investigation that includes their current and previous addresses. Companies are increasingly being held liable for sloppy hiring, which has sparked a boom in the background check business, but the industry is unregulated. It's critical that school officials secure reputable vendors that validate data, meaning they cross-check information against additional sources, and do not rely solely on inexpensive databases.

  • How thorough is the screening process on all vendors, contractors, and substitute teachers prior to allowing them on school property?

    Keeping in mind that terrorists and other types of criminals seek the path of least resistance to perpetrate their crimes, administrators must make certain that absolutely no one is permitted access to their properties without first being vetted, including all vendors. In addition, outsiders should not be permitted to roam freely throughout the premises without an escort.

  • How accessible is my campus?

    Administrators need to establish a security checkpoint that prevents vehicles from coming and going unencumbered. Furthermore, many schools often have multiple doors for convenience. The number of access points should be limited to make monitoring much easier.

  • Are the proper electronic security measures in place?

    Serious consideration should be given to establishing an efficient screening system to include digitally integrated and Internet accessible closed circuit television cameras (CCTV) with pan tilt zoom (PTZ) capability so as to efficiently and continuously monitor campus activity.

  • Have I conducted a vulnerability assessment on the properties and policies?

    Perhaps the most important part of developing a security plan is the execution of a holistic vulnerability assessment on the property, which is a complete inspection and analysis of the building intended to uncover security flaws and assess security procedures and equipment. No one standard checklist applies for all schools. Each school needs to conduct an assessment specific to its building and daily operations.

EW: Finances are tight in many states and school districts. What are some low-cost security measures schools can implement?

Viollis: Remaining vigilant and establishing and maintaining close contact with local law enforcement agencies, emergency workers, social service agencies, and the community at-large is not only cost-effective, but critical. In terms of obtaining security equipment, staff and vendors, taking short cuts to minimize costs could easily prove more expensive in the long run. The federal government periodically issues grants to fund school security programs. School administrators should monitor the U.S. Department of Education, the U.S Department of Justice, and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services for more information.

EW: What should be the federal government's role in making schools more secure?

Viollis: The U.S. Department of Education needs to take the lead in creating and enforcing new security standards. Some suggestions for that include:

  • Provide each school with specific guidelines for conducting thorough background investigations on all employees, vendors, and contractors.
  • Enhance minimum security standards at each school and link these requirements to the overall accreditation process.
  • Lobby for dedicated funds for each school that meets the Department of Education's standards for the enhancement of onsite security technology.
  • Mandate unannounced security audits and impose punitive sanctions for noncompliance.

    This e-interview with Dr. Paul M. Viollis is part of the Education World Wire Side Chat series. Click here to see other articles in the series.


    Article by Ellen R. Delisio
    Education World®
    Copyright © 2007 Education World

    Originally published 10/14/2004; updated 08/15/2007