If I Had (Only) A Hammer – Insights by Guy Higgins

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Abraham Maslow, famous for his hierarchy of human needs, said in 1966, “I suppose it is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail.” 

That observation came to mind recently when I read two articles concerning school safety in the light of much-reported incidents of gun violence. 

The first article, Report: Commission Advises Florida to Arm Teachers, discussed a single recommendation made in a 458-page report commissioned by the state of Florida following the shooting last year at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland Florida.  Obviously, that singled-out recommendation concerned arming teachers.

The second article, What if someone was shooting?, was published by the Washington Post and discussed the psychological impact of school lockdowns on students.  The authors researched school lockdowns and found that some schools (and their students), were subjected to multiple lockdowns over the course of a single year.  Some of those lockdowns – with students silent, huddled in the dark – lasted hours.  The article concluded with a plea for gun control.

Obviously, the impacts of the shootings at Marjory Stoneman Douglas were devastating.  The psychological impact of school lockdowns on students can be as severe as the psychological impact on the survivors of the Parkland shootings.  These are serious issues that deserve, and have attracted, the attention of parents, government officials, school staff and faculty, students and citizens. 

Ensuring the safety of students, staff and faculty in our schools, is a “wicked hard” problem.  “Wicked hard” problems are those problems that have a vast range of contributing factors and for which there is no single, easily determined solution.  Neither the plea for gun control nor the recommendation to arm teachers should be dismissed out of hand – but neither is the solution to the problem of school safety.  Both are “end-point” solutions – actions focused on guns in schools.   

School safety needs to be addressed from a system perspective.  What is the school supposed to do and how does it go about accomplishing that – from start to finish?  Obviously, the mission of schools is to provide an education to the enrolled students.  Equally obvious, that needs to be done in an environment in which those students are, and feel, safe. 

Both education and safety have to be broken down into their component parts.  That is not the purpose of this post, but it is important to recognize that there are components to school safety – just as there are to delivering an education. 

School officials, in addressing those components of safety, must have, at their disposal, the tools they need to accomplish their goal of creating a safe environment.  That means tools to address all of the components of school safety.  If the only tool they have is armed teachers or if their only tool is reliance on gun control, they will be seriously disadvantaged.  Like the man with only a hammer, they will start to see school safety through the lens of that tool.

School administrators need to have the use of a complete toolkit for addressing the components of school safety.  Such a toolkit includes, but is not limited to, the following:

  • Development of situational awareness – the understanding of what’s happening in and around the school with all its diverse dynamics, programs, clubs, teams, and pressures.  It also includes what’s happening within the locality of the school and must incorporate both physical and social (including social media) factors.
  • A disciplined process to identify potential problems early to enable intervention and provide help to troubled members of the school community – both students and adults.
  • A disciplined process to record incidents (and protect those records) so that trends over time can be seen and the records of specific incidents are not lost as isolated events.
  • An adjustable range of responses so that the administrators are not faced with a binary choice of either (e.g. completely locking down the school or ignoring the situation). 
  • Enhancements to ensure physical security.

There are many more tools that can and should be included in this toolkit, but the purpose of this post is to highlight the need for the toolkit and not a single tool – the proverbial hammer.  The idea that today’s problems can be solved quickly with any single initiative is dangerously false – all the easy problems were solved millennia ago.

Today’s problems need to be addressed from a system perspective and subject to Predict.Plan.Perform. ®


Guy Higgins, Firestorm Principal – Firestorm Colorado

Guy Higgins and his business partner, Jennifer Freedman are Firestorm Principals. committed to the importance of planned resilience in the face of disruption or crisis.

With more than sixty years of combined business experience, they are committed to the importance of planned resilience in the face of disruption or crisis. They assist companies and organizations plan for and achieve breakthrough performance, even in the face of disruptions and disasters that can severely cripple their ability to do business or put them out of business entirely. Learn more about Guy and Jennifer. 

Interested in working with Firestorm? If you are looking for a professional consulting and training business opportunity that will put your experience and contacts to work, check out our Franchising opportunities. Firestorm can show you how preparedness can create opportunities for you and help others.

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