In 2013, Kevin Wren stood in front of the Board of Rock Hill Schools and held up a picture of a local high school football team in a huddle.
Wren, the district’s newly hired director of risk, safety and management, was trying to explain the importance of teamwork and drilling to board members. It was a creative way for an area outsider to make a point in a region that’s widely known as “Football City USA.”
“As he presented his plans for an improved emergency response system, he used a team analogy,” Rock Hill Deputy Superintendent Anthony Cox explains. “He said, ‘You don’t play a game without practicing, right?’ And that flipped a switch for board members to think of safety as more than just collateral.”
At the time, Wren was just three months into his role as the district’s security manager and he knew he’d have to speak the local language if he wanted to implement a series of ambitious overhauls during his tenure. A light had gone off for Wren when he attended his first football game at Rock Hill, which attracted more than 6,500 fans and was aired on ESPN.
“I was very surprised the first year I showed up,” Wren remembers. “You have to cater your messages to every group.”
The presentation to the school board exemplified a skill that Wren has proven adept at: an ability to relate to people, from students to city counselors, in order to get his message across and his goals accomplished.
Wren reasons he developed that kind of adaptability during his years working as a police officer and a school resource officer, first in North Augusta, Georgia, then in South Carolina at Mount Pleasant and Charleston.
“As an SRO, every time you turn around you have to change your body language and how you’re speaking. It just comes from dealing with students and parents and administrators,” Wren says. “You learn what to say and how to say it pretty fast.”
That versatility is also a skill that has proven vital for a Georgia-native in a city with few strangers, and it’s a big reason why Wren has been named Campus Safety’s K-12 Director of the Year.
Inspired to Serve
Originally from Augusta, Ga., Wren credits his parents and an especially passionate SRO he had in high school for getting him interested in public safety. That SRO, Lewis Blanchard, is still so close with Wren that he recently shared an old photo of Wren at the age of 15 in the local sheriff’s office doing drills to celebrate Wren’s 40th birthday.
“Watching [Blanchard] growing up and the things he did for students was just unbelievable,” Wren says. “He had a passion for school safety and really taught me what it means to protect kids.”
After becoming a field training officer out of college with the North Augusta Department of Public Safety, Wren voluntarily took a demotion to fill an SRO position when one opened up at North Augusta High School.
“I’ve always known I wanted to work at schools,” Wren says. “You ask any new officer why they joined the police force and they’ll say they want to help people. So I say, ‘All right then, where are you effecting change the most: Arresting the same crackhead on the street every week or going into the schools and mentoring kids and getting their lives on the right track? That’s what it boils down to for me.”
After getting married, Wren moved to the Mount Pleasant Police Department and then worked for the Charleston County School District for ten years. Tragedies Wren witnessed in Charleston, including seeing a student die in front of him after being shot, have further motivated him to push through bureaucracies and improve schools’ emergency preparedness.
The Bull Moves to Rock Hill
Deputy Superintendent Cox clearly remembers the day he met Wren. He was expressing an opinion to a room full of people at a conference in Charleston when Wren stood up and disagreed. Cox went back and forth with the stranger for a moment, in an exchange neither person is comfortable calling an argument these days, and the two were later introduced during the show.
“When we became friends I realized how much he knew,” Cox says of Wren. “He’d been an SRO at Wando High School, which is the largest high school in South Carolina, so I knew he was an ideal candidate for our open emergency management position.”
The stubbornness Wren showed during his debate with Cox came in handy when he faced challenges to his policy proposals early on at Rock Hill Schools.
“I remember my first year, an employee referred to me as being like a bull in a china shop,” Wren says of his aggressive approach. “I came in saying, ‘We need to fix this, we’ll need to get that and change this.’ It’s because I’ve seen firsthand the consequences of not being ready to deal with these situations.”
Wren’s determination is what drives him, but his ability to explain himself is what has allowed him to accomplish so much in Rock Hill.
“It’s human nature to hate change, I hate change too,” Wren says. “Sometimes I heard ‘We’re in Rock Hill, not Charleston.’ But once people understood where I was coming from, that I was passionate about protecting these kids, they got on board. So that’s where I had to start.”
Overhauls a Smashing Success
The 2013 school board meeting actually wasn’t the first time Wren’s public speaking skills had been tested at Rock Hill. Three days after being hired, Wren was asked to give a brief presentation on emergency response to more than a hundred teachers and administrators.
“Most people wouldn’t have even tried to explain the policies, but Kevin had boiled down our main emergency response plans onto green cards that he handed out, so he just stood up and said, ‘Here’s what we’re going to do, if you can understand these drills, you can handle the rest of the procedures,’” Cox says. “That allowed people to get an understanding of our plans without being overwhelmed with all these pages of information.”
Since that day, Wren’s approach has continued to impress district officials. Early on, Wren made it a priority to improve the district’s relationship with local emergency agencies. He established contacts with the city police department, the York County Sheriff and EMS offices and other crisis management agencies.
“When I sit down with [local law enforcement], I’ve got built in street cred because I was one of them, I’m not an educator,” Wren says. “It’s easy talking security with public safety teams because they understand the importance of that stuff, so I’m just preaching to the choir to them.”
Wren added that his relationship with local emergency agencies has helped him craft new emergency operations plans, revise the district’s memorandum of understanding with police and ensure that the district is involved in those agencies’ regional drills and exercises.
Since his first meeting, the school board has also been receptive to Wren’s message. Working with board members, Wren has overhauled six safety and security policies in the district and implemented four new policies in areas including visitor management, access control and video surveillance.
Other changes, of course, came at the football stadium. Rock Hill’s South Pointe High School and Northwestern High School won their divisions’ state championships on the same day last year (a fact district officials are quick to mention) and thousands of people regularly attend their games. Wren banned book bags from the stadiums and developed new protocols for crowd evacuations. New severe weather warning and lightning prediction systems were also purchased for stadiums and other key facilities.
Other security upgrades include a new radio system that streamlines lockdown communication, security camera and GPS additions to school buses and a new district-wide video surveillance system.
Practice Makes Perfect
New plans, policies and systems are only useful insofar as employees understand them. Wren has several methods of ensuring district employees are familiar with his initiatives. He has employed concepts from FEMA’s Incident Command System (ICS) and National Incident Management System (NIMS) to develop effective table top drills for administrators.
The district conducts four tabletop exercises a year and a “First Five” policy mandates that employees spend at least the first five minutes of every school administration meeting on a specially tailored safety lesson or exercise. Wren personally conducts group training for custodial staff members, bus drivers and nurses. Teachers represent a bigger group, so Wren partnered with Safe Havens International to develop training videos and a course that teachers take online.
“I’m constantly working to improve how we drill. We’ll have schools pull the alarm at odd times of the day, or we’ll pull a kid from a teacher and see if the teacher reports the missing student properly,” Wren says. “When I’m reading drill reflection forms, it should never say ‘Everything went well.’ That just means you didn’t throw enough curveballs. We should be learning something every time.”
Eventually, Wren wants to develop a school assessment program within the district that certifies schools for completing certain drills and rewards them.
Versatility Pays Off
Cox thinks every district in the country should have someone like Wren, who he describes as one of the most ethical people he knows. Tight budgets shouldn’t be an excuse, Cox says.
“You should be able to find funds at the state and district level,” Cox explains. “Because the costs of failure are astronomical, so you really can’t afford not to have a campus safety director like Kevin. You can always realign resources, and a decrease in accidents will also help pay for it.”
Cox suggested districts talk to local police about providing crossing guards and negotiate lower insurance premiums to open up money.
Meanwhile, Wren’s ability to excel in different situations continues to pay off. When a video of a school resource officer throwing and dragging a student went viral from Richland, South Carolina, Wren worked with Rock Hill’s communications director on a campaign of positive information and even wrote a news article that garnered considerable attention on the subject.
Wren is also working with state legislators on a school safety committee subgroup, presenting facts on school security and representing security managers across the state.
“Kevin has made it a point to be versatile, whether it’s emergency management, behavioral intervention with students, OSHA safety,” Cox says. “He’s just as likely to be talking to state legislators as he is to be talking with a student who’s exhibiting concerning behavior.”
Wren, though, is quick to defer credit to other individuals who have helped him along the way, including his community.
“I’ve got a school board who wanted security improvements and a community that passed a $110 million bond referendum to thank,” Wren says.
Other security managers have support, but Wren’s passion for helping students is what makes him stand out. On top of his regular duties, Wren is constantly prodding the facilities workers to improve the playgrounds as part of his goal to make Rock Hill campuses the safest in the state.
Wren also coaches a middle school soccer team, although the games don’t quite attract the same crowd as the football games. I guess you can’t change everything in Rock Hill.
This article was originally published on TechDecisions sister site, Campus Safety.