In the 18 months after a gunman shot and killed 20 children at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Connecticut, there were 74 shooting incidents at schools in the United States, according to some advocacy groups. Each new occurrence gives security experts insight into the preparedness efforts undertaken by schools. For example, the most recent shooting as the magazine went to press, at a high school in Troutdale, Oregon, resulted in the death of two students, one of whom was the gunman. A security assessment immediately after the shooting noted that students and staff had been trained on how to respond to a shooting and that quick reaction by those inside the high school likely saved lives. However, according to press reports, the school had multiple buildings with multiple entrances. There were no checkpoints for visitors, and someone could enter the main classroom building from a parking lot and walk, unimpeded, into a common area where students gather.
Despite the sickening regularity of new school shootings, every such instance traces its roots to Columbine. The 1999 massacre in Littleton, Colorado, marked a turning point in virtually all aspects of school shootings, from the behavior of the assailant to the police response strategy to the concept of what constitutes a safe school building.
“Columbine set the stage to tell us that we’re not ready, we need to change,” says Timothy Dimoff, CPP, a former SWAT team member and president of SACS Consulting and Investigative Services, a firm that specializes in active shooter situations. The key lesson of the event, Dimoff says, was that “the first responders are no longer the police. The potential victims in the buildings are now the first responders.”
In large part, this was because Columbine was “the launch pad” of a new kind of assailant. Before Columbine, police responded to active shooter situations using a more traditional model. The police response time might be 12 to 18 minutes; once on the scene, a SWAT team would often set up on the perimeter and work through a command post. The assailant might make demands; sometimes police brought in family members, and would negotiate. More often than not, “we’d have a peaceful ending,” Dimoff says.
But the post-Columbine assailant operates more like a terrorist, with a new credo: “Kill people, create a body count, and get the media on the national and international level to take notice of you and what you did,” explains Dimoff. The traditional model of setting up a command post is now insufficient. “While you’re doing that, someone’s getting killed,” he says.
As a result, the police response to school shootings has changed dramatically. Response time has been reduced to less than 10 minutes. Working from the perimeter is no longer correct procedure; officers are trained to go in immediately, often alone. Neutralizing the shooter has become the imperative, and it comes before first aid. Officers are trained to “walk over people” to get to the assailant, Dimoff says.
These changes have brought the police response to current active school shooter situations up to speed. “Now, we’re increasing the probability of saving lives,” Dimoff says. “Here’s the next piece that I’m pushing hard on right now: We now need to get people in the building to change how they respond.”
Following is a look at how training, building security, and evolving philosophies are shaping how school districts are preparing for active shooter situations.
Jen Kappler helped conduct active shooter response training sessions at a K-8 grade Catholic school in the Cleveland area. The school decided to implement such training after the shooting at Sandy Hook, Kappler says. The Sandy Hook incident hammered home the stark reality that school shootings may happen not just at high schools and colleges, but grade schools as well.
Kappler was chosen as the school’s security liaison because she has a background as a personal safety and self-defense instructor, is an enthusiastic volunteer, and is also the mother of several students.
For purposes of verisimilitude, the training firm hired by the school brought weapons loaded with “simunition” bullets and fired off a few rounds during the training sessions. Trainers taught school faculty to fight back if appropriate. In one scenario, teachers were told to take off their shoes and throw them at the shooter, with the objective of distracting the assailant.
However, it was decided that students would not be instructed to fight back. Administrators were concerned that this would increase “the fear factor” in young children, and they also anticipated that parents would object.
During the training sessions, teachers were encouraged to think of three main options in an active shooting scenario: hide, barricade, or evacuate. They practiced approximating a shooter’s location, and then brainstorming about whether they would hide, barricade, or evacuate in such a situation.
In situations where hiding was the best option, teachers were instructed to avoid having students huddle together in a corner, which could result in greater fatalities as it allows the shooter to aim at a large group. “The main objective was how to arrange students in a lockdown to avoid the ‘sitting duck’ situation,” says Kappler.
For the barricading option, teachers were encouraged to think about what they could potentially use to block the door, such as desks or cabinets. (After the training was over, some teachers chose to rearrange their classrooms to make barricading more feasible.) To aid evacuation, the school instituted a color-coded mapping system so that whoever reported the shooter could also report his or her approximate location in the school. Knowledge of the shooter’s location helps teachers determine whether evacuation is an option, Kappler says.
In the end, teachers came out of the training wanting more training. Since much of active-shooter response relies on intuition and reaction time, and there is no way to predict every situation or response, further sessions would be welcomed, notes Kappler. “As ongoing training becomes possible, teachers are hoping for more situational training where they are able to practice split-second decision-making in a simulated shooting, with the luxury of debriefing on what made sense and why,” she says.
Some schools have decided to undergo a physical security assessment, a trend which has grown in popularity in the last five years, Dimoff says. It can involve a change of perception: “We’re looking at the school no longer as just a friendly part of the community, but as a physical building that needs to have a security assessment,” he says.
One such school district that has made changes is Miller Place Union Free School District in New York, located on the north shore of Long Island in Suffolk County. The district serves 3,200 students and includes two elementary schools, a middle school, and a high school.
Several years ago, the school decided to upgrade its physical security, with a particular focus on improving its ability to go into lockdown. The district worked with architect Michael J. Guido, Jr., who has assisted dozens of school districts throughout Long Island.
In particular, the districts wanted to address the problem that many schools face—classroom doors with key locks that only lock from the outside. This means that in a panic situation like a school shooting, a teacher would have to step outside, retrieve a key, place it in the lock, and turn it.
The district opted to install a wireless proximity card-based locking system. Teachers wear the card on a lanyard around their neck, and when they bring it near the lock, it locks automatically. In addition, the entire system is programmed so that it can be controlled from the principal’s office, and a few other points. Thus, if a shooter enters the building, the principal has the power to immediately lock all classroom doors, Guido says.
To continue its security upgrade, the district is now in the process of applying a special film to all classroom door windows. The film is not bulletproof or even bullet-resistant, but it hardens the glass so that it does not shatter when shot. This prevents the shooter from shooting out door glass to open a locked door.
Given the history of school shooters opening locked doors by shooting out glass, the window film treatment, which costs significantly less than bulletproof glass, is currently a popular upgrade in many school districts.
As schools all over the country conduct active shooter training sessions, there continues to be discussion regarding the merits of different approaches, as well as disagreement about how well police, teachers, and staff are being trained.
Active shooter expert Lt. Col. (Ret.) Dave Grossman, a former Army Ranger and West Point psychology professor, argues that not everyone is complying with the post-Columbine police response philosophy that calls for police to neutralize the shooter as soon as possible. At Sandy Hook, for example, almost six minutes elapsed between the time the first police officer arrived at the school and the time that officers entered the building, according to a report on the police response that was issued in December 2013 by the Connecticut Police Chiefs Association. During that six minutes, police apprehended several unidentified persons outside the school.
After the release of the report, Newtown police said that, given the small amount of accurate information available to the first officers who arrived, they had acted properly in not entering the building before making sure that the unidentified persons outside the school were not involved in the shooting and didn’t pose a threat. But Grossman, speaking on the topic at the GovSec conference earlier this year in Washington, D.C., suggested that police were following outdated response procedures.
Active-shooter response training sessions have been updated as well. One is “Run Hide Fight,” an approach supported by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) that was originally developed for the workplace, but is now used in some schools. Under this approach, evacuation is the preferred course of action, if possible; if not, finding a secure hiding place comes next. If hiding is not an option, then students and teachers are instructed to fight with anything available, instead of passively waiting to become the next victim. Another training approach, ALICE (Alert-Lockdown-Inform-Counter-Evacuate), is specifically geared toward school shootings, and also uses the run, hide, and fight concepts.
While these training methods are controversial, Grossman advocates teaching schoolchildren to fight a shooter. “If you don’t tell them what to do, you’re telling them to do nothing,” Grossman said at GovSec. He argued that too many response training models put too much emphasis on evacuation, which he says can be dangerous with an active shooter roaming the halls of a school.
Grossman argues that fighting back can and should be taught to young children, just as kindergartners are taught to stop, drop, and roll in case of fire. “Preparation does not cause anxiety,” he said. “Denial causes anxiety.”
Grossman advocates for what he calls the “Out Model” approach for response training: Keep Them Out-Get Out-Fight It Out. For the first option, he says that schools should ensure that all classroom doors can be locked from the inside, and that all door windows are treated with the special film discussed earlier.
“Provided [the shooter] can’t shoot out that glass, inside the classroom with the door locked is one of the safest places on the planet,” he said.
The Columbine shooting changed school security in another way–it acted as a catalyst for efforts by schools to address the root causes of violence, says Barbara Coloroso, a school violence expert and author of The Bully, the Bullied, and the Bystander: From Preschool to High School—How Parents and Teachers Can Help Break the Cycle.
The equation of bullying, Coloroso says, is “I’m an I, and you’re an it.” The target is dehumanized and can be hurt, while the aggressor feels no compassion. In some school shootings, the shooter succumbs to the bullies’ methods, and internalizes this attitude toward his or her victims.
Antibullying programs may help this situation, but schools often need more. What’s particularly important, she says, are programs that address school climate to ensure a safe environment for all students. Such efforts can go hand-in-hand with physical security improvements, which also enhance safety. School cameras, for example, can make students feel safer because they feel less likely to be targeted if the aggressors are being filmed.
“Put in an effective security program with all the technological tools that are sensible and available, working hand-in-hand with a deeply caring school environment where everyone counts, and everyone matters,” Coloroso says.
Paul Timm, PSP, president of RETA Security, also advocates a comprehensive approach to school security. “You can have all the [security] systems you want, but unless people are following good practices, those systems become valueless very quickly,” he says.
Timm sees three prevention areas where schools are becoming more active: antibullying initiatives, drug and alcohol abuse programs, and dating violence education. The first is “a growing area, as we now have to account for social media,” he says. The second and third are already in use in some high schools, but there’s also a current need among younger students.
Finally, there’s another root-cause issue that is starting to gain a foothold in some schools: mental health education. Some schools are bringing in speakers from groups like the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) to discuss issues like depression, schizophrenia, or bipolar disorder. “What they find is kids saying, ‘I had no idea–this is exactly what my sister is experiencing,’” Timm says. (While no one mental health issue is causally linked to school violence, several school shooters were under psychiatric evaluation at the time of their crimes.)
This education process, Timm adds, has also revealed a hopeful trend. Compared with their older peers, students are less likely to stigmatize those with mental illness—leading to optimism that, in the future, people needing help will be less likely to shy away from seeking treatment.
“That stigma is going away,” Timm says, “and this generation of kids, they are helping to throw off that mantle.”