I know an insurance executive who likes to inspect the schools that his company insures. He has children of his own, and says that one day he would like to teach.
While inspecting an elementary school he stopped at the emergency exit when he noticed that the panic bar was too high for small children to reach. Then he pushed on the bar. It took all of his strength to open the door.
"Fix it, or we won't insure you!" he told the school superintendent.
In the aftermath of the terrible tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., where 26 children and school personnel died at the hands of a deranged young man, the time has come to stop feeling powerless and do something.
Insurance companies aren't new to this
And insurance companies are equipped to do just that. Many are in the business of insuring schools, because every school has to have insurance coverage for the inevitable lawsuits from an accident or tragedy related to school activities.
But, more importantly, insurance companies have seen it all before. For all intents and purposes, sociopaths like Adam Lanza are terrorists. Insurers have been dealing with terrorism and ways to prevent it for years. And, like law enforcement, they possess a vast knowledge base that can be used to stop it.
Since 9/11 our country has become infinitely more sophisticated in identifying and preventing terrorism on the ground and in the air. This is due in part to "hardening" or making obvious targets more difficult to penetrate. Another aspect is vigilance. We have learned that when we see something, say something.
As a result, corporate headquarters, tourist attractions, sports stadiums and concert halls are more adept at thwarting potential terror plots. And mass murderers who once targeted colleges and high schools are often deterred by security guards and metal detectors.
But now there's a new threat. Terrorism is being perpetrated on those least able to fend for themselves -- young children. And their also-young killers, like the ones we have come to identify with schools such as Columbine and now Sandy Hook, represent a different skill set. They don't look like terrorists. Instead they are the kid next door who might act odd, but you don't really pay attention.
And they commit these acts in "soft" targets such as elementary schools and movie theaters where they are familiar with the layout. The Sandy Hook gunman attended the school where he committed his atrocities.
How to 'harden' the target
But this doesn't mean they can't be stopped. Just like terrorists and other criminals, these youthful killers follow a pattern. They aren't geniuses, just troubled, lonely young men with easy access to guns. Disrupt the pattern and their plans often fall apart, just the way terrorist plots have been foiled in the years since 9/11. Insurers, working with law enforcement, can develop an action plan based on what they already know, and what killers like Lanza teach them:
- You can't post a police officer at every elementary school nationwide. But insurers can insist that schools alarm all windows and doors, which, if triggered, ring not only in the school but also in the local police station. Shatterproof reinforced glass would also deter low-tech break-ins.
- Police stations should have an emergency response team on standby and a plan to reach the school quickly.
- Schools should designate an area inaccessible to the public where students would assemble to board buses or for fire drills.
- Even though the gun control debate will continue, life and home insurers can insist that those who want to purchase either kind of policy acknowledge whether or not they have guns and if there is a gun safe in the house.
- Consult those who know. Ironically, urban schools, where guns threaten the streets on a daily basis, now seem safer than suburban enclaves like Sandy Hook. Inner city school officials have to have more situational awareness and, in turn, take more precautions.
- Insurers should actually "walk the schools" to judge whether they are safe.
Any security precautions will have to be paid for by taxpayers, either for heightened security or in higher insurance premiums for schools that choose to ignore safety issues.
But we live in a world where danger haunts not just us, but also our innocent children. Just ask the families of those who lost their loved ones at Sandy Hook Elementary School and they will tell you that it is worth whatever it costs.