By Shannon Baker
More than 187,000 U.S. students have been exposed to gun violence at school since 1999, the Washington Post recently reported.
Gun violence also has touched churches in the U.S. as well. Consider First Baptist Church, Sutherland Springs, Texas; Church of Christ, Burnette Chapel, in Nashville, Tenn., Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, S.C., and Wedgwood Baptist Church, Ft. Worth, Texas, sadly among others across denominational lines.
“Being unprepared is no longer an option,” Michael Lawson, director of campus security at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, told church leaders who attended three church security conferences this spring.
“When people attend your church, they expect that reasonable measures have been taken for their safety and security,” he said.
That safety and security includes “all people, places, property, and programs of the church”—even events that are not sponsored by the church but are held there. It is 24 hours a day every day to include all activities of the church.
“Everyone should be prepared to respond to a threat or emergency,” he added.
Lawson, who also has served as a police officer with the Wake Forest, N.C., police department, said churches are often considered soft targets for perpetrators.
He noted that “visible security can help fight the perception that the church is vulnerable to those who would cause harm,” he said, citing an article in N.C.’s Biblical Recorder.
But where does a church begin?
Lawson suggested looking first at the church’s insurance policies.
Liability insurance covers accidents, he said, but insurance generally denies coverage for intentional acts.
“This is a conversation you need to have with your carrier,” he stressed. Some questions to ask them include “What if a security person hurts someone? What if they have to shoot someone? What if someone claims excessive force?”
Some insurance may require additional coverages to cover these extreme circumstances, he said.
Lawson said churches should survey their buildings and property to look for safety concerns (“general issues or situations that might lead to accidents or injuries”) as well as security concerns (“situations that might allow for or be used by someone wanting to commit a crime, violence, or damage”).
“Be sure to look at exterior as well as interior,” he cautioned. In particular, pay attention to landscaping and outside storage that can obsure perpetrators and ensure there is adequate lighting everywhere.
He also advised churches to think wisely about their signage.
“Don’t give away too much information,” he said, noting one church’s “teller” room signs.
“Generally, it’s not a good idea to tell people where the money is being counted,” he said.
He also said it was a good idea to control access to the building, by monitoring who has keys.
Likewise, he suggests installing security alarms and cameras (with someone actively monitoring them) and even an intercom system to help monitor access.
To discourage theft he said to take inventory of valuable items, such as televisions.
“Be sure to mark these items with the church’s name and record their serial numbers,” he said.
For general safety, Lawson advised churches to be prepared with emergency first aid kits and stocked products in case of power outages and/or storms.
Fire prevention is also a concern, so it is important to have maintained and inspected fire extinguishers, a fire alarm and sprinkler system, and even evacuation plans and routes, he said.
Turning his attention to children, Lawson said, “The first priority in safety and security is protecting those who cannot protect themselves… When a parent drops their child off, there is an expectation of safety.”
According to the National Center of Missing and Exploited Children, approximately 800,000 children are reported missing in the U.S. That’s roughly about 2,000 a day! Of those, there are about 115 abductions by strangers cases.
Unfortunately, that means most children know their abductors, he said, stressing the importance of having strict guidelines about who can pick up children —and who can work with them.
Screening and background checks, which include criminal checks and sex offender checks, and ongoing training for church volunteers and staff is a must, he said.
Strict drop-off and pick-up procedures assist workers in keeping children safe. He urged the churches to encourage parents to inform church of special circumstances, such as custody orders or domestic violence situations that may exist.
It is also important to always have a method to contact the parents or guardians in cases of emergencies, he said.
Concerning medical emergencies, Lawson suggested churches train some members in First Aid, CPR and AEDs (automatic external defibrillators) and even keep a list of any nurses and doctors in their churches.
“If there are no doctors or nurses, this is a great witness opportunity for you!” he said.
Lawson also said to have clearly planned, coordinated and practiced evacuation plans with designated rally points and a way to account for people, especially children. He recommends designating a safety person for every event on campus.
In light of recent shootings, Lawson suggested churches also plan how to barricade perpetrators from entering church areas.
Barricade systems, such as NIghtlock or Barricuda lockdown devices, can “immobilize or block the door in some other mechanical way” than the normal lock, he said.
CHURCH SECURITY TEAMS
A church security team is advised, he said, but “forming the right team is not as simple as just taking whoever volunteers.”
Potential team members should be in good standing with the church and exercise good judgment, integrity, and compassion, and see the effort as a ministry.
Ushers and greeters, in addition to the security team, should be trained to spot any threats to the congregation.
RESPONDING TO THREATS
Citing a U.S. Secret Service training manual, Lawson said to look for unusual body movements (stiffer arms, constant adjustments, awkward bending and sitting, etc.) and patterns of behavior or dress that do not fit the circumstances (does clothing fit the season? Are they overly loose or baggy? Are there bulges in the clothing?).
In any case, communication is critical. Security teams can rely on radios or cell phones to communicate to each other and to law enforcement. Planning ahead of time to have certain people designated to make calls is important.
Notwithstanding all preparation, Lawson acknowledged active shooter situations are unpredictable and evolve quickly, usually over within 10 to 15 minutes.
He advised several good practices for dealing with such a situation. Be aware of your environment and surroundings. Take note of nearest exits. And consider your best option: run, hide or fight.
Run, he said, if there is an accessible escape path.
“Evacuate regardless of whether others agree to follow,” he said, adding how to approach police. “Keep your hands visible and follow their instructions,” he said, explaining officers’ are quickly accessing the situation and are seeking first to stop the shooting.
“Keep in mind they don’t know yet if you are the shooter,” he said, urging each person to remain calm, follow commands, and avoid quick moves toward the officers.
“If you cannot evacuate, find a place to hide out of the shooter’s view,” he continued, instructing them to limit movement and to silence cell phones.
“As a last resort, fight!” he said, recommending they act as aggressively as possible, throwing items and improvising weapons.
“Whatever you do, commit to your actions,” he warned.
As with all other church efforts, it is important to devise a security plan for natural, medical and other emergencies, which at a minimum should include emergency response procedures, routine plans for safety and security, communication guidelines, and contact names and numbers.
To assist churches, he gave the following resources: Federal Emergency Management Agency, FEMA.gov; Dept. of Homeland Security, DHS.gov; Dept. of Education, ED.gov/emergencyplan.
“Keep the plan in known locations where it can be accessed in an emergency,” he said.
To view videos and see other church security resources, visit online at https://bcmd.org/resource/congregation-security-and-safety.