How Private Security Guards Protect Hollywood Kids at School

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Security scene at a Los Angeles school

Reps from Gavin de Becker and Associates talk to The Hollywood Reporter about methods and offerings to keep kids safe, whether from paps or shooters.

In today's era of deadly school shootings, the recent massacre at a Pittsburgh synagogueexplosive devices sent in the mail and the ever-invasive world of social media, parents in Hollywood are relying on private security to keep their kids safe on and offline — including in the classroom.

Top security firm Gavin de Becker and Associates (GDBA) has seen an increase in inquiries from schools and from clients with kids during the past year, because of recent shootings, threats and media coverage. 

GDBA vp protection strategies James Hamilton and senior vp Bryan Niederhelm spoke to The Hollywood Reporter about the services most often requested by Hollywood clients and how they're trying to keep star children safe in public schools, private schools and universities.

After taking on a client, one of their first steps is the vulnerability assessment to determine "where are they most likely to have what we call an inappropriate encounter,” ranging from a rogue photographer to a shooter, said Hamilton, who previously spent 17 years in the FBI as a special agent.

Then GDBA presents options to the family to strike a balance: “It's not a one size fits all,” he added. "We could create the greatest protective strategy for a child, but no parent is going to allow them to go to school that way … There has to be a balance of being a kid with going to school and with balancing the threat.”

Depending on security at the school and the family's requests, GDBA may drive the child to school, make sure they get to the classroom and then pick them up at the end of the day. Or they might decide to keep one of GDBA’s 750 “protectors” — bodyguards — in the closest office, but not actually in the same classroom as a student. Or if “the threat profile is so bad,” if a school didn’t have enough technical measures like alarms or safety protocols in place, “we would feel better that the protector is directly in front of the classroom,” Hamilton said.

Niederhelm doesn't address whether these protectors are armed, but he said that "we always want to equip, whether it's us or other people in a position to respond to violence, with some type of ability to respond effectively to stop violence — and that can take on many forms."

"It also has a lot to do with the culture," Niederhelm said. "One private school might be all for having firearms accessible, sometimes they might want to equip teachers with those, but the only way to stop lethal force is with lethal force ... so to expect for there to be an ability to prevent an active shooter situation without having the right tools at the disposal of the right people who have the right type of training is just not practical." (The GDBA team does not advocate for arming teachers).

Their staff are armed with "a variety of legal counter-measures to violence," a rep said. "But the more important thing ... is the training and the mindset. Not only are they equipped properly and trained properly, but they are empowered to intervene,” Hamilton told THR.

The school has a say when it comes to bringing weapons onto campus, “especially if it's a private school,” but GDBA has found that schools are cooperative — they see the value in protecting students.

“Every school has a different tolerance to certain security precautions,” Niederhelm said. Often the protectors try to “blend in ... we dress casually, we have a backpack with some of our gear in it.” When bodyguards go on field trips with clients, they’ll go “under a guise” as a chaperone or medical officer — indeed, they all maintain emergency medical skills. The schools are thus “very understanding and cooperative” after their questions are answered.

For schools in the Los Angeles Unified School District, no armed bodyguards are allowed, said LAUSD spokesperson Gayle Pollard-Terry to THR. "Only armed school police or local law enforcement who are on campus handling a critical incident or an investigation."

Other schools were "not at liberty to discuss" specific safety procedures, said a rep from Harvard-Westlake School, Ari Engelberg. "It probably goes without saying, but we take the safety and security of our school community very seriously," Engelberg tells THR. Meredith Williams of Laurence School adds, "We can't talk about our security procedures for the sake of keeping our school secure! Security is a top priority for us, so that's all I can say." (Reps for other Los Angeles schools Wildwood, Viewpoint and Summit View did not respond to requests for comment).

GDBA has various secret methods for safeguarding clients, starting with thorough background checks on nannies or social media training about avoiding geo-tagged locations. For school drop-off, they may use different vehicles (even bulletproof cars) and different entrances, trying to avoid predictable patterns in the commute. If a child likes to stop by Starbucks daily, “that pattern that is created is something that we would want to avoid,” Niederhelm said. So the bodyguard would instead have the drink waiting in the car already.

While some famous clients go as far as to homeschool kids or ban them from all social media to avoid security or privacy risks, others want their kids to “do the whole thing, have the whole experience.”

GDBA wants to open up lines of communication between clients and schools, and encourages Hollywood parents to ask questions about policies.

Hamilton is adamant that parents “must” ask: "What does the school have? Do they have locks on their doors? Do they have a siren? Do they have an ability to shelter in place or lockdown?"

He will frequently ask the campus resource officers, “Can you do single-officer response?” meaning “Can you address a threat by yourself or do you need to wait for backup?” Though his training recommends single-officer response, “I still hear in 2018, varying responses from police officers I ask that question to. Some will say, 'Yes, sir, I'll go right in.' And some will say, 'I have to wait for backup.'" Some even tell him they have to wait for SWAT.

But California is ahead of the curve when it comes to school shooting preparedness, Hamilton said. 

If clients want their children to be more prepared, GDBA offers an advanced threat assessment academy at Lake Arrowhead twice a year, which principals or admin can attend. Another option is the IMPACT Personal Safety Class for Children, where industry clients as young as 8 years old take private classes with siblings and friends to learn self-defense.

"It's a very personal decision for a family and parents to make in regards to how security interacts with their children,” Niederhelm said. "It's an overall way of life."

This post was updated Nov. 1 at 2:48 p.m.