Homeland Security and Public Safety

School Security: Planning Tips for an Active Shooter Scenario

Sgt. Jesus M. Villahermosa Jr. of the Pierce County, Wash., Sheriff’s Department addresses how schools can develop better plans and prepare staff members for an emergency.

Sgt. Jesus M. Villahermosa Jr. has been a deputy sheriff with the Pierce County, Wash., Sheriff’s Department since 1981. Villahermosa served 15 months as the director of campus safety at Pacific Lutheran University in a contract partnership where he worked on all security aspects related to staff and student safety. He has been on the Pierce County Sheriff’s SWAT Team since 1983, and he currently serves as the point man on the entry team.

In 1986, Villahermosa began his own consulting business, Crisis Reality Training. He has primarily focused on the issues of school and workplace violence.

In this Q&A, Villahermosa addresses how schools can be better prepared and secure for an active shooter emergency.

You have been in the school safety business for more than 26 years. Are there more issues with school violence today or is school violence just more publicized?

I truly believe that there is more school violence today than ever in the history of our country, especially in the area of school shootings. One website, stoptheshootings.org, states that there have been 387 school shootings over the last 20 years. I’m pretty sure we didn’t have that many in the previous 30 years to that 20. I believe that school violence is more publicized, but that is because it is so much more extreme than what we have ever seen.

In working with schools and school districts, what are some of the basic messages that you tell them about school violence and its prevention?

The first message that I try to get most schools to understand is that violence can happen at any school in the country. In fact, over the last 20 years, 50 percent of school shootings have occurred in towns with populations of 50,000 or less.

The next and most important message is that we have to have solid relationships with our students. In the 25-year study conducted by the Secret Service, 81 percent of school shooters told a friend that they were going to do the shooting, but no one came forward to warn the school staff or students. When the foundation of a school is built on trust and respect, I believe that students will come forward to report these incidents before they occur. One statistic that you won’t find anywhere else, as I discovered it while writing my book, is that whenever a school shooting plot gets foiled because it was brought to the attention of the school or law enforcement, no shooter has ever come back to commit a school shooting. That is a 100 percent intervention rate.

What role does the school need to play in working with local law enforcement agencies?

According to a U.S. Government Accountability Office study that was released in 2007, 27 percent of schools have never practiced their plans with their emergency responders. Schools and emergency responders need to coordinate their plans collaboratively and then practice those plans both in a tabletop exercise and in a drill-type scenario with role players.

School emergency management plans are critical to everyone understanding how to react to school violence. How do you put together a good plan, and who needs to be involved in the planning process?

I focus largely on school and workplace lockdown plans as almost everyone has some type of multihazard plan already in place. Based on that, I believe it is critical that we train the students, staff and parents in what a lockdown actually is, how to respond to the active killer event, and what options should they know in order to increase their chances of survival. For years, law enforcement and firefighters have been called the first responders, but I don’t agree with that title as we were not there when the shooting started. The true first responders, as I like to call them, are the victims who are engaged by the shooter and it is them we should be training to survive these events. With all due respect, law enforcement and firefighters are responding to a known lethal threat event and can utilize certain techniques to reduce their exposure to that threat, whereas the true first responders never even knew what hit them until it happened.

As far as who should be involved, planning should include the schools, law enforcement agencies, fire departments, emergency management, hospitals and any other entities in your geographic area that would be impacted by such an event. I would also encourage schools to have a select group of parents and students involved in the process as well in order to get their support in the planned response.

The Columbine High School shooting changed many things about how law enforcement responds to an active shooter incident. What are some of those changes?

The biggest change is that no one waits for SWAT anymore. It’s kind of like the 9/11 incident where the terrorists took over four planes. Up to that point, everyone was cultured that the bad guys would land the planes and then negotiate for something they wanted before letting the hostages go. 9/11 has since changed that as anyone trying to take over a plane is jumped by numerous passengers with no chance to turn a plane into a giant flying missile again. When an active killer event begins, responding law enforcement officers are trained to immediately pursue the killer -- to engage him in order to distract him from shooting more victims. In the process, if we can neutralize or capture the killer that is a bonus for everyone. This is why you are seeing numerous events where the killer is turning the gun on himself just before law enforcement engages him.

When a shooting incident is in process at a school what can teachers, staff and students do to protect themselves?

I teach the acronym LEAST (Lockdown, Evacuation and Survival Tactics). The two most used tactics that have demonstrated the best results are lockdown and evacuation. People need to remember that when a shooter has started a shooting spree, only those near the shooter are at immediate risk. That means that in most cases, more than 90 percent of staff and students, depending on the school’s size, are not at immediate risk and lockdown is a great option. Again, this is depending on the location of the shooter and how many staff and students are present when the shooting begins. For those in lockdown, the first consideration is to make sure the door locks. If not, barricading or running, a.k.a. evacuating, are great options. Additional options include hiding, crawling, the power of your voice and, last but not least, fighting. All of these tactics have helped students and staff across this great country to survive these tragic shootings events, but they are not going to use them if we don’t talk to them about it realistically.

Eric Holdeman  |  Contributing Writer

Eric Holdeman is a contributing writer for Emergency Management and is the former director of the King County, Wash., Office of Emergency Management.

He can be reached by emailTwitter and Google+.