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Ending Targeted School Violence

What We Can Do Now

December 20, 2012

As a father to an eight-year-old elementary school student, I have asked myself repeatedly, what could have been done to prevent the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary? Despite the inauthentic political rhetoric and the genuine outpouring of grief and sorrow after each of these tragic occurrences, they continue to occur and grow in their degree of depravity. Listening to commentators and politicians talk about the issue has only served to infuriate me further. It appears that they are using the murder of innocent children to further an ideological agenda that may cause the environment which produced these horrific events to become more conducive to repeated tragedies, not less.

I spent over a decade of my life as a special agent with the United States Secret Service and never experienced a violent incident at any location visited by a protectee in my custody, despite some of them having threat profiles which virtually guaranteed an attack if these individuals were left unprotected. It is this set of experiences which makes me ask the very basic and no longer avoidable question, “Why can’t we keep our children safe?” Acknowledging that these events are exceedingly rare, it is the nature of these acts and their devastating consequences on the most innocent among us, which do irreparable damage to our collective national psyche and makes even extremely rare occurrences too much to bear.

Given the severe consequences of any failure to properly secure the life of a protectee in my custody, I was accustomed to ignoring variables which would play no role in the enhancement of a security plan. This approach appears to have escaped the political-class as there is a growing group of political opportunists clamoring to jump in front of the television cameras to propose politically expedient “solutions” which will do next-to-nothing to ensure this never happens again. In my home state of Maryland, State Senator Brian Frosh, who is exploring a run for Attorney General, has stated that he is planning on introducing legislation to ban “assault weapons”. He claims that banning assault weapons would, “reduce the slaughter” and continues with, “Would it stop the gun violence? No. But would it save some lives? Absolutely.” I use these quotes to clearly illustrate this point; the State Senator, with zero experience in risk assessment, threat mitigation or structural security is proposing a sweeping ban on a category of weapons which he struggles to categorically define, yet he is “absolutely” sure it will save lives?

He claims it will save lives despite nearly a decade of data showing this claim to be inconclusive at best and misleading at worst. Psychologically unstable and sociopathic individuals, throughout recorded history, have always found a means to implement their deadly plans despite societal norms and regulatory and legal structures designed to thwart them. It is time to take a different approach to school security and stop focusing on chasing lightening.

If we want to stop these acts from occurring on school grounds we must begin to examine methods by which we can ensure that they are “hard targets” and stop focusing on political talking points. In addition to the gun-control politicians, there are groups expressing concern regarding targeted school violence yet, when asked about security, they frequently state that they don’t want our schools to look like “war-zones”.

Two points on this topic. First, we don’t determine where unthinkable acts of violence are going to take place, the attackers do. Second, while in the Secret Service, we traveled with our protectees to schools, churches, foreign embassies and most every other category of structure in existence, and I ask you, do you ever recall the President appearing on television as if he were walking into a figurative “war-zone”? I conducted President Obama’s security advance to an actual war-zone in Afghanistan in December of 2010 and managed to make it appear on television as a troop rally. Modern security techniques place a premium on discretion and implementing a robust security plan in a school environment is no different.

Here are some steps we can take immediately to create a safer school. First, we should adjust the current focus from strict access control to threat mitigation. Most of the schools I have visited assume they are secure because you must be “buzzed in”. This approach conflates an “access control only” approach (something that is valuable at a football game or ticketed event) with security. The problem with this approach in a school is that any historical look at targeted incidents of school violence shows that these acts were largely committed by people familiar to the school. In these cases the assailant would have likely been granted access, regardless of the security level of the open door he was walking through. Assuming now that access is not an issue for the assailant we should be asking ourselves, “what next?” The answer here may be uncomfortable for some but we must consider placing discreet, armed individuals within schools to ensure that any armed assailant, once inside a school and bent on destruction, is confronted by potentially deadly force. It may not stop every attack but it will buy the one commodity which, in the security field is irreplaceable, time. Time allows law enforcement the opportunity to respond and an emergency plan to be implemented.

The second step which can be immediately implemented is to create “boxes within boxes”. I used this method in the Secret Service as a tool to ensure ever increasing layers of security, both discreet and indiscreet, as one moves through secure zones. If we were to view the outer grounds of the school as the “big box”, it would be the area where we would apply the most liberal access control and mitigation measures. We can view the school structure as the “box in the middle” and correspondingly increase the level of security. Access control doors, combined with enforcement and mitigation measures (i.e. discreet, armed security), guarantees another block of invaluable time as a potential assailant must navigate through this to implement his plan.

Finally, we must consider creating “smaller boxes” throughout the school in the event the assailant makes it past the first two layers. This can be done by ensuring all of the doors to the classrooms can be closed and locked from the inside and that the students are grouped in an area of the classroom where they cannot be seen through any window or door-glass.

This is by no means an exhaustive list of security enhancements and I understand that it may frighten some to have to consider these measures, but going forward we must take a hard look in the mirror and ask ourselves if we are willing to accept the alternative?

Daniel Bongino

Daniel Bongino began his career with the NYPD in 1995 as a Police Cadet while attending The City University of New York full time. During his tenure in the Cadet program, Daniel was a member of the distinguished pattern identification unit which specialized in the identification and apprehension of serial criminals. Daniel proudly joined the ranks of the U.S. Secret Service in 1999 as a Special Agent where he graduated the Secret Service training academy with honors. Beginning his career in the New York Field Office, he was assigned to investigate federal crimes, including but not limited to, computer crimes, bank fraud, credit card fraud, protective intelligence and counterfeiting. His early career was marked by a number of investigative successes. Although the details of his signature investigation are still for official use only, it involved over 300 million dollars in potential financial fraud and a nexus to international terrorism. This joint investigation in cooperation with the FBI, IRS, SSA and a number of local police agencies, was responsible for collapsing a major international fraud ring. The investigation earned Daniel the Department of Justice recognition award, along with other agency specific awards, for excellence in federal investigations. Daniel left the New York Field Office in 2002 to become an instructor at the Secret Service Training Academy in Beltsville, Maryland. He was the project manager for the re-design of the investigative tactics training program which he subsequently taught to incoming trainees. Daniel was awarded a number of commendations for his work in researching and re-designing the investigative curriculum to reflect current trends in federal crime. In 2006, Daniel entered into duty on the elite Presidential Protection Division in the administration of President George W. Bush, graduating at the top of his class in the difficult detail training program. Daniel distinguished himself early by becoming one of the earliest tenured Special Agents to be given responsibility for an operational section of the protective detail. Daniel remained on protective duty during the change in administration to President Barack Obama and again distinguished himself by quickly becoming the highest ranking member of his operational shift of agents. With this distinction came greater responsibility and Daniel quickly rose to the challenge. He was designated as the lead agent responsible for the coordination of the President’s trip to Prague for the signing of the START treaty, his visit to Jakarta, Indonesia, among a myriad of terror threats, and finally as the lead agent responsible for the President’s visit to an active war zone in Afghanistan. With the successful coordination of these historic events, Daniel was awarded a series of commendations and left the protective detail as one of the most distinguished agents in their history. Daniel transferred to the Baltimore Field Office in 2010 where he immediately made an impact on the community, breaking up one of the largest fraud rings in Maryland’s history.

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