Schools are very collaborative organizations and seek to represent the contexts in which they are rooted. However, school leaders must maintain the distinct purpose of advisory groups as informing those that make decisions and not allow such groups to transform into a small group model which develops protocols and policies that are then vetted by school leaders and school boards. This over-stepping of “advisory” groups can have devastating consequences when applied to school safety practices. My purpose is to help you to understand the differences between an advisory group and small group model – knowledge that acquires a heightened relevance when a school contemplates its own potential response to a high-profile safety event, such as the Sandy Hook massacre.
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WHAT IS A SMALL GROUP MODEL?
Per Dougherty (2012) “The small group model recognizes that many decisions are made by neither individuals nor organizations, but by small groups convened for a specific purpose” An example of a single project that would entail convening a small team of “experts” could be the emergence of a highly contagious pandemic in the United States. In this scenario, imagine that the world is scoured for the top minds in areas such as: medical scientists; logistics – distribution; transportation / Infrastructure; communication; manufacturing; & military. Experts would be brought together assuming the composite group gels and functions to flexibly work together and call upon other resources in order to achieve the target.
Subgroups that would inform these experts might include global information integration specialists (GIS) who could feed population data to the experts such as population densities, locations and types of medical facilities, etc. Envision the “main” small group of consisting of 15-20 experts. It is essential to keep the group “small” in order to maintain a sharp focus on the target – halting the spread of the virus. The group should have a facilitator(s) to calibrate, and re-calibrate discussions toward the target and remove and replace group members that are not effectively contributing to the process either through personality conflicts or insufficient skill set.
INHERENT DANGERS OF DEPENDING UPON SMALL GROUPS
Dougherty added: “One of the main dangers inherent in the social influences associated with small groups is the tendency toward GROUPTHINK that results from strong internal pressure placed on individual members to conform to the evolving group norm. Several problematic issues can arise from a non-cohesive group of experts faced with working together to address a high-stakes, time-urgent sentinel event.
Viable options might be discarded for “popular” options.
No guarantee that group members will congeal into a functional unit.
No guarantee of magical EMERGENT PROPERTIES – “have to re-deal the hand until you get the right cards and this will take courage as egos will be bruised”.
Groups might simply be expected to work on their own and determine a division of labor. This is a flawed, but not uncommon approach. Specific to schools – when school planning is conducted by a third-party, administrators are better positioned to contribute and reflect versus making sure that everyone else has an opportunity to offer input.
WHY AN ALL STAR ROSTER MIGHT STRUGGLE TO FIND SUCCESS – ORGANIZATIONAL THEORIST DR. RUSSELL ACKOFF’S AUTOMOBILE EXAMPLE
Russell Ackoff (1919-2009) was a pioneering organizational theorist and a systems thinker who has inspired me in many ways. In his days, Russell Ackoff would often demonstrate systems thinking with an example about building an automobile. The story would go something like this: Suppose you’re building the best automobile in the world. You would go about it by first bringing each of all the car models in the world to one place. You would then hire the best automobile engineers and mechanics in the world and ask them to determine which of the cars has the best engine. If the engineers say that the Rolls-Royce has the best engine, you would pick the Rolls-Royce engine for your car. Similarly, you would ask your engineers to find out which of the cars has the best exhaust system and pick that for your future car. Using this method, you and your team would go through the necessary parts for building an automobile and in the end have a list of the best parts available in the world. You would then give the list to your engineers and mechanics and ask them to assemble the car.
What do you think you will get? The answer is obvious: you don’t even get an automobile! The parts won’t simply fit together. An engine from a Rolls-Royce won’t work well with an exhaust system from a Mercedes. The performance of the automobile is dependent on the interaction of its parts, not on the performance of the parts taken separately.
Advisory Groups should be advisory and that point made clear from the start. A cursory Internet search reveals that many schools host community “Input” sessions to help craft the school’s response to safety events.
BE CAREFUL ON HOW THIS IS EXPLAINED TO PARENTS AND THE COMMUNITY – YOU WANT THEIR OPINIONS, BUT AT THE SAME TIME THEY ARE NOT SAFETY EXPERTS
School safety decisions remain in the hands of the school administrators (and experts accessed by administration) and the school board. Community sessions that craft practice are a great way for school boards and administrators to diffuse responsibility – you see this with schools that tend to have all decision made by group consensus. (In this sense, such practices have appeal to administrators and boards). Administrative discretion must be enabled for the response to any safety situation. Make clear that CONTEXT and SITUATION will dictate the response. SCHOOL SAFETY is too technical and life or death to make protocols per consensus of 500 people attending an “input session” in an auditorium. You are not talking about changing a school calendar to year-round schooling. Again, life or death.
PARENTS WILL WANT TO BE CONTACTED THE MOMENT A SCHOOL CRISIS SITUATION IS DIAGNOSED
Avoid the pressure to place “alerting parents” at the top of your response tree as the last thing you need is to have parents flood the scene and you have to manage your own staff, facility & responders.
FOUR BIG PROBLEMS WHEN SMALL “ADVISORY” GROUPS DICTATE SCHOOL SAFETY
(1) You have not assembled a group of diverse experts – but rather a group of mostly parents. Most school safety knowledge of members of advisory groups is distilled from the biased mass media.
(2) Groups tend toward “group think” and also toward diffused responsibility.
(3) Advisory groups will be reactive to media hysteria and also advocate for “visible” fortifications. These folks won’t be reading the 277-page “Final Report of the Sandy Hook Advisory Commission” released more than 2 years after the massacre. That document suggested an agenda for school safety planning that was guarded about an over-emphasis on site fortification. At the time of the massacre, Sandy Hook Elementary was probably as “stout and prepared” for an intruder as any school in the country – one could even argue that it was ahead of many schools with its regular intruder lockdown drills.
(4) An advisory group is only partially informed of school operations and for that reason would be unable to develop a coherent plan that accounts for the various school systems, such as technology and transportation.
MY OPINION IS THAT IMMEDIATELY FOLLOWING SANDY HOOK, SCHOOLS THAT SENT HOME “ASSURANCE” LETTERS ABOUT REVIEWING SCHOOL SAFETY PROCEDURES MADE THE WRONG DECISION – WHY?
(1) Schools should always be reviewing safety practices and such board policies should also have a scheduled review cycle.
(2) We were only provided the media perspective of the Sandy Hook massacre, which is dramatic as much as it is incomplete. The complete report on the Sandy Hook massacre, all 277-pages, was not released until March 6, 2015. (The Sandy hook massacre occurred on December 14, 2012).
(3) Parents will demand that you “harden” the target. Fortification of schools and armed security is visible. Such measures are deterrents, to a point… Attackers will often shift the attack to a weaker access point. For example, an aerial photo of Sandy Hook Elementary School showed that Adam Lanza could have driven his vehicle onto the playground with relative ease.
(4) Most sentinel events, such as Sandy Hook, reveal undetected, unreported or un-acted-upon leakage days, weeks or months prior to the actual attack. Hence, if you are going to install bullet-resistant glass in your school entrance, don’t overlook the accessibility and functionality of your school’s threat input system. Believe it or not, many schools still rely on “tell an adult” as the primary way to report a threat.
By the way, it’s a smart decision for schools to provide parents with information about how to talk to their child about the frightening, invasive mass and social media coverage of Sandy-Hook-level events. Free resources are available at Parents Guide to Helping Kids Cope with Terrorism
Dougherty, K. (2014). Military Decision-Making Processes. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, Inc.
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