School Safety, What We CAN Do

Barry Subelski

Editor’s note: we continue our discussion of school safety with this commentary by a retired law enforcement officer who in a long career has led FBI SWAT teams and a unit of the FBI’s Domestic Counter Terrorism Office.   A more complete bio is provided at the end of his article.

Monsters will always walk among us.  No one, no testing, no product can delve into the human heart.  In a free society it is too easy and frankly too tempting to always go with an “easy fix.”   To ban a certain firearm might make people feel good, but what is next when another type of firearm is used? 

The banning of a particular firearm or magazine capacity is meaningless.  The two recent horrific shootings in New York and Texas could have been accomplished just as easily with a 22 rifle, a pistol or a container of gasoline and a match. The children are unarmed and helpless. 

The first step is to attempt to identify the seriously mentally ill before an incident occurs.  The second step is to harden the site to deny or delay entry. 

After the 9/11 attack, our Nation took steps to secure our aircraft, our airports and other government facilities against terrorist attacks.  To date we have not had another aircraft used as a weapon against us.  The Israeli government took steps to secure their schools in 1974.  Have any readers seen or heard of a recent successful terrorist attack against the school system in Israel since?

After the January 6 riot at the US Capitol, Congress took immediate action to secure themselves — it  seems  money is not an issue when a politician’s security is at stake.

One of the mistakes we are making as a nation is failing to act.  School shootings can be prevented or greatly reduced by undertaking serious security steps.  The threat of violence in our schools, churches and other facilities is real.  

Most states have a very slow process to determine the sanity of individuals brought to the attention of authorities.  I believe we need to look at this as well.  Our country has a very poor history in the treatment of mental illness.  We cannot continue to ignore this.  We must face the fact that a population as large as ours have citizens who suffer from this.  A judge should be able to order a mental health exam when evidence of a serious disorder is presented to him or her.   In some cases, I would argue confinement is necessary.  

The fault in the federal background system is there is no mental health component to the checks done during a firearms purchase.   There is no requirement for local authorities to place names in the data base after a criminal conviction.  A database should be created to list patients with severe emotional problems.  If a person has a mental issue that makes him or her a danger to self and others, it may be necessary to force treatment and confinement.  Firearms purchases should be denied to anyone in this category.  

I would suggest raising the age for firearm purchase to 21 through a federal law.  This action would deny no one a right. At worst it delays a right to purchase.

When we conduct an examination in the aftermath of one of these incidents, we find clues to abnormal behavior and dysfunctional families.  Many times, abnormal behavior has been reported and nothing is taken seriously or investigated. This must change.  Parents, friends and teachers must report abnormal behavior and steps should be taken to determine if there is a real threat present.  Police, authorities, school systems and businesses must be held accountable if they take no action after a threat is reported.

Every school in America should be hardened to prevent the type of attacks that occurred in New York and Texas. We were very quick to harden our airports and our aircraft after 911.  Why can’t we embark on a nationwide program to do the same for our schools?  Congress should fund a program for federal grants for hardening schools. There should be widespread congressional support for such a program.

Here are some suggested steps:

  • Teachers must clearly understand that their responsibilities include security and security awareness.  As a police chief I frequently entered schools through unlocked or propped open doors — this must change.
  • All doors should be controlled by access badges, swipe cards, etc.  First-floor windows should be bullet-resistant glass.  
  • Mantrap entrances should be at every single school as the controlled access point to the school.  A mantrap entrance is a set of secure double doors with bullet resistant glass and high-security locks where you can control the access of a possible suspect.  All entry to the school after the starting bell should be through this portal only.  Certain schools could also utilize metal-detection technology at this access point.  
  • Classroom doors should have secure locks so that a teacher can secure the door on the inside to prevent access.  High- security fences should be installed around the school and the playground to prevent and channelize an attacker.  Security cameras should be placed around the outside as well as the inside of any school.
  • Every school should have armed security personnel present before, during and after school.  I believe these officers should have specialized training beyond the concept of a “school resource officer.”  Retired police officers and certain members of the military could fill this role in the same manner as courtroom security officers function at our judicial offices country wide.  Why can’t we provide the same level of security to a class room that we afford a judge?

During WW2, this Nation became the “Arsenal of Democracy” in a very short amount of time. President John F. Kennedy challenged us to go to the moon in ten years.  We accomplished his goal in less than ten years.  In less than one year after 9/11, our government stood up the Department of Homeland Security, the Transportation Safety Authority and took measures to strengthen airport security and harden aircraft doors. 

Don’t our students, often called our “most precious resource,” deserve the same level of security as an airport, a politician or a judge?  I think they do.

The author served for ten years as an Army Infantry Officer, with two tours in Viet Nam.  Mr. Subelsky was assigned to several of the most storied Army units, including the 4th Infantry Division, the 173rd Airborne Brigade, the 82nd Airborne Division, the 101st Airborne Division, and the 75th Ranger Regiment. During the war, he also served as an advisor to a Vietnamese Ranger Battalion.

Mr. Subelsky’s experience in law enforcement and counter-terrorism operations is even more extensive and over thirty years spanned the range from being a sheriff’s deputy, police officer, Chief of Police and Federal Bureau of Investigation Special Agent.  With the FBI, he investigated international terrorism cases and led a Special Weapons and Tactics team for ten years and then was a Unit Chief in the Domestic Counter Terrorism Division.  After retiring from the FBI, Mr. Subelsky served as an Operations Officer in the Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Security Agency.