By J.D. VerHoeven, Concilium Co-Founder and Director of Analysis and Scott Stewart, Vice President of Intelligence, Torchstone Global

The recent tragic mass attack on a church school in Nashville, Tennessee, on March 27th has brought to light the need for churches to secure their schools. As one media report has noted, there is no standard approach to school security, and state regulations of private schools vary greatly. Private schools are often not required to have a security or safety plan. However, this shooting underscores what all churches should already know: their schools need layered security and safety plans and measures to detect, deny, and defend.

Securing a church school differs from securing other church activities in an important way. Like your Sunday morning children’s ministries, your schools are exclusive clubs, access to which must be limited to students, approved staff and parents, and vetted visitors.. The ministry priority at a church school is the education of students in both sacred and secular subjects in an orderly environment. The openness desired for Sunday morning gatherings and benevolence ministries has no place in a school setting.
However, security measures must still be consistent with your church’s mission. For this reason, the ideal arrangement for a church school is to have trained armed security in the form of paid staff security specialists, otherwise known as civilian “school resource officers.” Paid staff can embody the church/school’s spirit and Christian witness while being equipped to address any number of criminal threats that may develop. The training and arming of administrators, custodians, and even teachers may also be desirable.

Of course, this pathway is not always ideal financially and may be out of reach for many church schools. Unfortunately, It is difficult-to-impossible to spread a volunteer church safety team across school hours. If your church has available volunteers, then that avenue should be pursued, but part of that course of action must be the study and practice of active shooter response tactics, marksmanship, and verbal de-escalation skills, not to mention the screening of the volunteers’ backgrounds, character, and attitudes.

Hiring security guards from private security companies should be approached with cautious attention to detail. What’s the training and skill level of the guards available to you for the price you can afford? Entry-level security guards may be less skilled than many of your existing staff, church members, or even parents. In many cases, you can train your own volunteers to a higher level than an entry-level night watchman licensed to monitor a warehouse or a bank of camera monitors. The guards you hire need to be ones specifically trained and equipped for the school setting, and school administrators need security vendors to allow them to critique job performance and ask for personnel replacements if guards’ attitudes and behaviors are undermining the school’s mission. One layered approach may be to hire low-level guards to monitor parking lots, but train and arm certain staff members to shift to a security function once a potential threat has been reported by the guard. Volunteers can be used to supplement the guard, or if you prefer, the guard can be viewed as a supplement to the volunteers.

Whatever course of action a church takes must be done in accordance with local laws and should ideally be vetted for legal and insurance implications.

Layers are, indeed, important. Schools must be able to detect an attacker’s surveillance and planning efforts or immediate pre-attack indicators, deny an attacker access to buildings (or at least delay it) and then to classrooms, and defend against an attacker. The Nashville school seems to have responded very well in terms of lockdown and evacuation. However, it also appears not to have detected the approach of the shooter (who sat in her parked car for almost 15 minutes before shooting her way into the building) and not to have defended against her with deadly force.

It is important to mention that locks alone do not prevent glass from being broken and locks disengaged. The Sandy Hook killer also shot through glass doors to gain entry with terrifying results. Most schools and churches do not use steel doors for main entry because they are not aesthetically pleasing, and clear glass is the preferred option. Forced entry and bullet-resistant (FE/BR) glazes and window films, however, can prevent the glass from being easily broken or at least provide an additional delay to get the students and staff into lockdown locations. It is also important to understand that lockdown/evacuation plans cannot stop a killer, only prevent them from accessing victims. Locks and lockdowns may have saved lives in the most recent case, and different glass would probably have further slowed the killer. However, only armed security could have stopped her faster than the police did, and their nearly flawless response still took 17 excruciating minutes.

In conclusion, the recent tragedy in Nashville has highlighted the need for churches to prioritize school security measures to protect their students, staff, and visitors. While there is no one-size-fits-all solution, it is important to implement layered security and safety plans and measures to detect, deny, and defend against potential threats. It is crucial to work within legal and insurance parameters and to vet personnel thoroughly, whether hiring private security guards or utilizing church volunteers. Locks and lockdowns are not foolproof, and forced entry and bullet-resistant glazes and window films can provide an additional layer of security. However, ultimately, armed security is the most effective way to stop an attacker who has penetrated physical access controls. Churches must be proactive in their approach to school security to ensure the safety and well-being of their students and staff.