Homeland Security and Public Safety

Most Schools Are Ill-Prepared for an Active Shooter Scenario

It will take an all-hazards tactic, additional campus safety personnel and a new approach to building design for schools to become more hardened against the threat.

It will take an all-hazards tactic, additional campus safety personnel and a new approach to building design for schools to become more hardened against the threat of an active shooter on campus.

But before all of that happens, we will undoubtedly see more events like the one that shook the country on Dec. 14, 2012, when 20 kids and six staff members were shot to death at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn.

“The chilling fact is, it’s happened before and it will happen again,” said Bo Mitchell of 911 Consulting. “One danger here is that we always prepare for the last crisis, so we are all preparing for Hurricane Sandy and the Newtown massacre. Both were devastating but employers have to prepare for all hazards — bomb threats, suspicious packages, bullying at work and bullying at school are examples.”

There are people planning the next attack now, according to Bill Lowe, associate professor of emergency management and terrorism at Jacksonville State University in Alabama. He said copy-cats often fantasize about killing large numbers of people, but some never go through with it. They may post a threat on Facebook or talk about it, but their actions don’t go beyond the planning stage. “The ones I’m concerned about are the ones who aren’t stupid enough to put it on Facebook. They’re doing it silently, and it’s happening right now.”

Lowe said at some point schools will have to be built more strategically to harden them against intruders. That would mean building a school where access could be controlled by having fewer entrances, Lowe said. “The goal is to deny access to the building and delay access to victims.”

Lowe advocates having an all-hazards security officer on campuses. The officer would be trained for many different scenarios and be armed. “If you can justify having a librarian in the school, then how do you justify not having someone responsible for intruder protection, fire protection — someone trained to deal with emergencies?” Lowe asked. “I see this person being sort of multi-capability officer.”

During a traditional school year, this multidimensional first responder could work for the school district for nine months and the police or sheriff’s department for three, Lowe said. “The sheriff’s or police department could pay a quarter of his or her salary, and the school district pays the rest,” he said. “If you have somebody who can fill multiple roles, then you’re amortizing that cost over many different things.”

In addressing whether teachers should carry firearms, Lowe said, “I don’t know that I embrace that.”

He said as children get older their propensity for violence increases and that makes colleges a likelier target of gun violence. The older children have more issues with mental health, access to drugs and firearms, and the capability to use them.

Many colleges and universities have a full-time police department and understand the risks, however, an active shooter situation is unknown until it happens. “If you were to ask any police chief or sheriff, ‘Is your community prepared for an active shooter event?’ all of them would say, ‘Absolutely,’” Lowe said. “That’s what they think, but they won’t be tested until it happens.”

An example is the Aurora, Colo., shooting where a gunman killed 12 people in a movie theater last July. The gunman began his rampage by releasing two canisters of pepper spray, which hampered police and emergency medical efforts. That was a new twist, Lowe said. “[Pepper spray] hangs around for a long time and once it’s on the victims, it affects them for a long time.”

Most Unprepared

In general, Mitchell said, schools and businesses can and should examine their emergency plans and how they would respond, not only during a shooting but also during various potential hazards.

Emergency plans should be for all hazards, not just for an active shooter situation and should include trainings that incorporate everyone associated with that school or business, according to Mitchell.

Mitchell said schools are employers first and most employers are not well prepared. “For every one organization that is well planned, trained and exercised, there are 10 that are not,” he said. “Every employee has a legal right to review their employer’s emergency plan. That’s federal law.”

Schools and businesses all have the same problem: They think they are well prepared but they’re not. Mitchell said there is ample research done by the Government Accountability Office, the National Association of School Resource Officers and other national organizations that point to a lack of preparedness for K-12 schools and businesses.

Jim McKay  |  Editor

Jim McKay is the editor of Emergency Management. He lives in Orangevale, Calif., with his wife, Christie, daughter, Ellie, and son, Ronan. He relaxes by fly fishing on the Truckee River for big, wild trout. Jim can be reached at jmckay@emergencymgmt.com.