The phrase “active shooter” has become a part of the nation’s vocabulary following the horrific events at Columbine, Sandy Hook and other schools across the country. These events have had a galvanizing effect on security and have single-handedly redefined the way that police respond to these types of events. The task of forming specific protocols and action plans now applies to institutions ranging from elementary schools through major universities.
While there are some variations based on location or building design, a common thread is found in them all. While not a “once size fits all” solution, most plans include a few critical components.
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The first action to take place in most protocols is to sound an alarm. By notifying law enforcement and staff that an active shooter is on campus, staff can help to protect a higher percentage of students. Next comes a lockdown procedure, which is the process by which staff physically shut down the school. In well-developed programs, staff are taught to barricade doorways and other access to students. If possible, some facilities encourage students to hide. During the event, staff should work to communicate with each other to once again provide a solid stream of information going out to personnel.
If there is no other option, then people are encouraged to fight back against their attackers. The use of improvised weapons and tactics is also often encouraged. This idea has drawn some criticism from theorists, but the alternatives to fighting back are typically not pleasant. During an active-shooter incident, at the first possible safe moment, staff and students should evacuate the facility. A well-designed plan will have specific locations for people to gather and allow police to account for everyone.
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While a “hide and hope” plan looks good on paper, there are many moving parts that can complicate this plan. For this to be effective, students and staff must be in traditional classrooms with very little, if any, activity in the halls or other grounds. Lunch periods, assemblies or time between classes are weak links in this protocol. These shortcomings have not gone unnoticed by staff and parents alike. It has also been the seed for countless discussions on what else could be done. These discussions acknowledge that a plan is better than no plan and that people cannot be complacent with whatever plan is in place.
The idea of training teachers to carry weapons in schools is a controversial one. One side states the undeniable fact that staff are the first line of defense for children and training them makes that defense more effective.
In May of 2015, Oklahoma Governor Mary Fallin signed a bill legalizing armed teachers and staff on Oklahoma public school campuses. The bill allows “the carrying of a handgun onto school property by school personnel specifically designated by the board of education, provided that person has undergone the training requirement and received the certification requisite to it.” The program allows schools to designate specific employees to attend specialized training to prepare them for their new responsibility.
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The counter argument to this falls into two camps. First are those who simply detest firearms in general. The second camp is based around the idea that carrying a firearm on campus requires extensive professional training. They are concerned that bills like this are just for show and do little to protect students and staff.
There was a day not that many years ago when students practiced procedures for protecting themselves in the event of a nuclear bomb blast. Even today, students in the Midwest practice tornado drills. Similarly, some schools in the United States now practice lockdown procedures to help kids understand what to do in the event of an emergency. Depending on the school, the drills can be as basic as practicing a complete lockdown to actually hiding in the classroom.
The idea of an active shooter on a school campus causes a variety of very passionate responses from different people. Parents of children in a school that is locked down can be driven to panic. The idea of their child in harm’s way is one that no one wants to experience. This heightened emotional state can cause parents to try to intervene. Having parents drive to the school to try to get their child or even arrive on the scene armed with the intent of helping protect kids is not uncommon.
Law enforcement has its own point of view on an active-shooter situation. Its focus is to protect the innocent and neutralize the threat as quickly as they safely can. To some it cannot happen fast enough, but acting too quickly can have tragic consequences. Police must do their best to quickly decide who is a good guy and who is a bad guy. This is the primary reason why police discourage parents from rushing to the scene. It can dramatically complicate their job when unknown people arrive on the scene, especially those who are possibly armed. Police have no way of knowing that a man with a rifle is a shooter or a panicked father trying to save his child. This scenario can lead to an even more tragic outcome.
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Schools work to do the best they can to balance security with an open learning environment. Administrators and teachers are not security experts, yet they are tasked with protecting some of our most precious things. This is where cooperation between law enforcement and schools mixes perfectly. Many schools have officers on campus under the title “resource officer.” These officers can act as a stopgap in the event a shooting takes place. While not a perfect solution, it is better than only having a classroom assistant at the front gate.
Finding A Safe Space
Contrary to popular belief, the steps taken in elementary and high schools do not vary much from those practiced in colleges and universities. The challenges faced by advanced academia are generally based around space. Large campuses with large student bodies complicate security protocols and make defending the campus more difficult. In the end, however, the goal is the same, to balance security with access.
While many groups claim that school shootings are at epidemic levels, a closer look at their numbers shows a great deal of data massaging. Many of the statistics are artificially inflated by including suicides, accidents and incidents that took place outside of school hours. While one shooting is too many, it has to be put into perspective. There are nearly 106,000 public and private schools in the United States. There have only been shootings at 0.009 percent of public and private schools since December of 2012.
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When compared to the number of students enrolled in schools and the actual number of homicides, it suggests that a student is more likely to be hit by lightning than to be involved in a school shooting. The thing we must all remember though is that the “lightning strike” is not affecting a tree or random building, it is affecting our children. Because of that, school employees and law enforcement officers must and will continue to work together to maintain a safe environment for all students to learn and grow.
This article was originally published in the SURVIVOR’S EDGE™ Winter 2016 edition. Subscription is available in print and digital editions here.