Despite the statistical rarity of mass shootings at schools, events are so bone-chilling that that prevention and response has become a priority in every community. As a former Chief of Police on a university campus, a graduate of the Emergency Management Academy and a host of FEMA courses, I have written a number of well researched articles on school safety and active shooter response in addition to conducting full scale exercises and first responder training. I do not minimize the seriousness of the threat, nor the need for preparation. We’ve had enough experience since Columbine to have learned a few things and ignored a lot of other things. Here are some fact-based observations:
1) The number of well-armed attacks on mass numbers of students is much rarer than reported. In counts of “school shootings”, those violent crimes that are actually interpersonal, domestic, or gang related, or completely unrelated to the fact they occurred on school property also get counted. Certainly potentially deadly, these cases are not what we have in mind when we imagine the horrific random attacks designed to kill as many people as possible, and not the kind of crimes for which much of our preparation attempts to address. These crimes target individuals who happen to be on a campus when contacted by the assailant.
2) We probably need to stop doing active shooter drills in our schools. There are several reasons for this.
a. One is that the drills can traumatize students and teachers, normalizing an expectation of imminent violence.
b. Secondly, since most attackers are students or former students, drills train the shooters as well responders.
c. Thirdly, there is no template for the way attacks play out. In other words, we are likely drilling a practice that would be irrelevant in an actual attack.
d. Fourthly, first responder participants in a drill likely will not be the ones responding to an actual event. When the call goes out, every law enforcement agency with a radio will be responding, from the local agency that you’d expect to the game warden. Seldom are all of those agencies represented in full blown exercises which are, by the way, a hugely expensive endeavor.
e. Fifthly, most active shooter events are over by the time law enforcement arrives, which limits the value of full-scale deployment practices
f. Sixth, not every police leader has actual expertise in this type of response and, therefore, may not be aware of best practices or be willing to coordinate with the vast number of agencies and personnel to coordinate a response.
3) Complex systems of response don’t fit with human nature. There are many well intended systems of signs, placards, codes, etc that are part of some emergency plans.
a. The human brain is less effective when there are too many things to remember. In police training we know this as Hick’s Law, a principle in psychology that says the more choices you have, the slower the decision-making process becomes. Having a seldom used system that requires a lot of decision making increases the likelihood of that system failing.
b. The frequency of employing the knowledge of these emergency procedures will result not only in their lack of use in a crisis, but also in their lack of awareness by new staff, first responders, substitutes, and visitors.
c. Coded public address announcements, and even sophisticated alert systems via cell phone, are likely to be heard and received by the attacker or given too late for effective response.
d. A failure to adhere to the system with 100% accuracy can result in unnecessary panic and are not a reliable indicator of a situation inside a classroom. Does that OK placard in the window really mean the room is safe? If the teacher forgets or chooses not to risk moving toward the door to put up the right placard, will the SWAT team be tossing in a stun grenade?
4) The attraction of evacuation must be resisted.
a. There have been zero – yes, zero – k-12 students killed who were behind a locked door secured as soon as an intruder or threat appeared. The classroom with a locked door is unquestionably the safest place for anyone to be in a school shooting. Any protocol that moves students from that safe “protect in place” location increases exposure to attack.
b. Marching students from inside the school to another location with their hands over their heads makes reunification, accountability, and protection less effective. Allowing students to stay in their classrooms with a safe adult allows the situation to be controlled better than any other strategy. Students can be counted, identified, and released to parents directly from classrooms more efficiently than after a mass exodus past potentially hazardous locations.
c. This includes bomb threats. The preferred protocol is to have students remain in place while the threat is assessed, or the premises are searched. Bombs are much more likely to be anti-personnel or of limited power than to be of such magnitude that structural damage is likely. That means that movement outside the classroom more likely exposes students to an explosive device than protects them from one. Classroom walls are the students’ best protection while first responders arrive.
5) Prevention and intervention are possible. Schools are often afraid of privacy concerns like juvenile laws, FERPA, HIPPA, and protecting victims and therefore do not share information about the behavior of students. This is exactly why the Virginia Tech killer wasn’t stopped before he murdered 33 people. On the university campus where I most recently served, our CASH (CAmpus Safety and Health) team reviewed reports of concern from law enforcement, students, faculty, and staff to “connect the dots” on concerning behavior and develop intervention strategies for potential threats from on or off campus. Other behavioral intervention team strategies are available to copy that can be effective and pass legal review.
I am not addressing security hardware or security personnel in this commentary, but I’m convinced that it is time to simplify our preparation and response to the threat of a mass killer.