5 Questions for Marlon Byrd: How to Thrive

5 Questions for Marlon Byrd: How to Thrive
5 Questions for Marlon Byrd: How to Thrive
By Sacha Zimmerman

Director of School Safety Marlon Byrd joined Sidwell Friends last fall after decades of experience as a police officer and safety expert. Byrd supervises the School’s safety officers; maintains relationships with local law enforcement; coordinates with off-duty police officers who provide security to both the Bethesda and DC campuses; and regularly conducts safety audits, amends protocols, and trains students, faculty, and staff. Byrd also oversees monthly fire and lockdown drills.

1. What is your law enforcement background?

I spent 23 years in the police department in Ithaca, New York. My first couple years, I did regular street patrol. Eventually, I started our community-policing division. We created a unit where part of my job was actually being in the high schools. It wasn’t that we were concerned about crime in high school; it was about forming normal relationships with the students, because ultimately, you’re going to engage with them out on the street as well. So being able to meet them in their space without there being a police response to a complaint, it really allowed for a better relationship. Then I became a detective sergeant for about 10 years, and finally I got promoted to lieutenant. I ran a lot of units, and I was the crisis negotiator for a joint task force made up of mental health experts and police. I was the person who came in and talked people out of very distressing situations and brought everything to a close without violence. Then I went to the FBI Academy in Quantico for a two-month, executive-level training program with law enforcement officers from all over the world.

2. How did you end up in school safety?

I was recruited to work at the Maryland Institute College of Art, or “MICA,” right in the city of Baltimore as their associate vice president for campus safety. Of course, you’re in a city that’s having all types of challenges, and the campus was experiencing a high rate of crime. A lot of MICA’s safety work was antiquated, the training wasn’t the best, and the staffing wasn’t where it needed to be. We had to come up with a full plan to address this, and we were successful: After two years, we had a drop in crime of 60 percent. It was huge. Deployment was right, personnel was right, and we updated technology to focus on deterrence as opposed to response. We deterred a lot of crime—so much so that the Bolton Hill neighborhood reaped the benefits. Even the Baltimore PD was like, Oh jeez, the numbers are going down! It was great to get contacted by parents who were ecstatic that their kids were now in a safer environment.

3. What’s the biggest challenge working in a K–12 setting?

Violence and active shooters are the biggest challenge of working in a school environment. People have this misconception that because the president’s kids went here, the School is like Fort Knox. And, of course, we have security measures in place: cameras, gates, guards. But I believe in making secure spaces without creating a fortress. At many schools, if something happens, they immediately say, Oh my God, everybody shelter in place. I’m not a proponent of that because of the emotional turmoil it has on the kids (and even the adults), and it disturbs learning. That’s why we create these modes. For example, we can have a closed campus without a lockdown. A “closed campus” means something’s going on off campus but close by; so, we’re not letting kids leave and we’re restricting access to campus, but we’re continuing classes. With a “secure campus,” no one’s coming in whatsoever and no one’s leaving; you can still go to classes, but we restrict outdoor activity. Then you have “shelter in place,” where you stay where you are; you don’t have to get under tables, but you limit movement—no going to the bathroom, no moving around. Then, you go into “lockdown”—shades down, chairs against the door—and that’s because there’s presumed violence or a weapon on campus. That’s the only time you’re going to do an actual lockdown. Lockdown should not be the first response. When people are unsure about what to do, they immediately go to, What’s the safest possible option? It’ll never hurt to be the safest, right? I’m gonna go ahead and lockdown, and we’ll just deal with everything else afterward. That isn’t sustainable, it’s disruptive, and it’s going to have emotional and educational repercussions down the road.

4. What other fixes have you put in place at Sidwell Friends?

Having the gates in place is critical, and so is having cameras associated with those gates. Cameras can give you alerts in real time if someone breaks a certain barrier. Cameras also allow us to go back and say, Hey, how did that happen? Or: How did that strange object get there? Patrols are also critical. The officers don’t spend much time inside the school buildings because, again, that’s the kids’ space. We aren’t policing the students. We want to be a deterrent to those who may want to come across the gates. Perception is reality. By being visible, it sends a message to the criminal mind that this is not a target. Having guards at different locations at different times and switching it up—those are key parts of the security system at both campuses. Putting these procedures, protocols, and guidelines in place helps protect the School 24/7.

5. What does working with children in 2023 mean to you?

Working with K–12 is refreshing because you get to see all this energy and learning. I have a master’s degree in criminal justice and was an instructor at a community college. I’m always thinking in terms of, How can I educate this person not just for today but for the for the days to come, for the years to come? When I talk to young folks, I recognize they’re coming up in a post-Columbine generation. We’re doing these lockdowns, and it’s based on the fact that it revolves around violence. When I’m engaging with kids, I want them to recognize that they can use the information I’m giving them at school when they’re at the mall with their friends. It’s an opportunity to teach them how to handle adversity anywhere. We’re dealing with something uncomfortable, but life can be uncomfortable. How can we manage that? We start addressing these issues early so kids have the tools and coping mechanisms to handle stressful situations.

We’re at a point in K–12, where we need to rethink how we educate—not in the sense of English and math: How do we educate the other components of life? Crimes on campus can derail a young person, but we can make sure they are equipped with the necessary tools and education to endure anything. I’m a big fan of acknowledging that everyone can survive any type of incident and emergency, but we have to give kids the information and tools to have the best chance possible. Not teaching students how to survive during an active shooter or assailant situation does a disservice to the kids and the community. The biggest hang-up is often the adults. Kids get it—like I said, they’re post-Columbine. When I talked to the Middle Schoolers, I asked by a show of hands who has been doing a lockdown since 1st grade. Every hand went up. That can be a somber moment: Oh my gosh, you guys have been dealing with this since you were six years old. But it’s their conditioning; that’s the world that they live in. So, yes, they live with lockdowns, but they’re also more prepared. Then they can transfer those skills to the mall, to an earthquake, to any emergency-response situation. It’s critical we give them everything possible to survive and come out unscathed.

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