In the foodservice industry, safety concerns have traditionally revolved around things like properly labeling expiration dates—not wondering whether the walk-in freezer could be barricaded to keep out a gunman.
But as a spate of high-profile shootings has pushed campus security to the forefront of the public consciousness, foodservice directors and operators, like all school employees, are grappling with situations they might not have considered before.
Incidents such as the February attack that killed 17 people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., and the heated debate on arming teachers that surfaced in its wake demonstrate just how high the stakes have become. Of the 200 “active shooter” incidents in the U.S. between 2000 and 2015, 45% took place on school or college grounds, according to the nonprofit National Center for Victims of Crime. In the past five years, at least four shootings have unfolded inside school cafeterias.
For foodservice operators wondering where they fit into the safety equation, experts say their role has been evolving in recent years. Lockdown procedures became the staff default in the years following the Columbine High School shooting in 1999, says Capt. Joseph Florentino of San Diego Unified Schools Police Services. In response to feelings of helplessness after the Sandy Hook massacre in 2012, the federal government pushed a “Run, Hide, Fight” initiative. After Stoneman Douglas, San Diego Unified voted to implement an options-based response procedure, meaning employees would be encouraged to use the best tools at their disposal depending on the specific situation.
“We want to give [staff] permission to think outside the box,” Florentino says.
At Shenandoah University in Winchester, Va., the just-launched Emergency Preparedness Instructional Center (EPIC) is training campus officials and staffers, including dining teams from nearby K-12 districts, to prepare for the worst. Program Director Matthew Watson emphasizes that if a dining team is serving college students who can help barricade a door or apply wound pressure, that’s a very different scenario to run through than keeping a group of kindergartners safe. Ultimately, planning ahead is key.
“With a dining facility, is [something like hiding] even a viable option? Maybe for the folks working the kitchen, but are they responsible for the students? And in a collegiate setting it’s a bigger challenge because they’re adults, but it still kind of falls under [the dining staff], or does it?” Watson says. “These are questions you want answered before something happens, and that way the staff knows what’s expected of them so, heaven forbid, if an incident occurs, they’re not left wondering whether that’s [their] responsibility, [or] ‘What should I do?’”
Other proactive options include reconfiguring dining spaces so students are clustered behind walls, or so staff have better lines of vision. In Florentino’s district, Food Service Director Gary Petill says his team members pride themselves on knowing their stations inside and out.
“Our people are very vigilant, knowing who should be in and around their area,” Petill says. “They’d be the first one to question somebody or to look at somebody who they’re not familiar with or who is carrying something that doesn’t look right.”
Recognizing warning signs
Perhaps more importantly, dining staff can act as the first line of defense in recognizing warning signs long before conflicts escalate. While confronting students directly shouldn’t be foodservice team members’ responsibility, reporting red flags to officials is essential.
“If you’re a cafeteria worker, you might be the one who’s going to see that kid who always sits out by him or herself, and he is hurting or is maybe being bullied,” Florentino says. “They see so much because the kids really let down their guard when they leave the classroom.”
It’s a heavy burden for staffers to take on, but one they feel ready to handle, Florentino says, unlike the possibility of being armed. Florentino and Watson agreed that while exploring all safety options is vital, tasking employees with carrying guns is risky.
The proposal, floated by President Donald Trump, among others, leaves too many questions unanswered, the officers say. Who would mandate the types of weapons and ammunition allowed? How would responding officers determine who was the “good guy?” Would staffers need to undergo physical and psychological testing?
Instead, Watson says EPIC encourages schools and foodservice companies working with schools to provide staffers the tools they need to feel prepared in any situation.
“What we’re doing is still empowering them without that risk of harm. What we’re doing is giving them some options so they don’t feel powerless [and] reaching that point where we’re giving them a life or death responsibility,” Watson says. “Because, obviously, staff members have so much on their plate as it is, so then to add something of such responsibility and weight is really asking too much.”
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