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Safety & Security

Fear Itself

Winston Churchill absolutely changed the course of history when he convinced the British people that they could withstand what appeared to be an unstoppable German military machine. While the dangers to Great Britain were unprecedented in the nation’s history, Churchill understood the dire need to replace the fear that gripped England with a burning desire to defeat very deadly and heavily armed foes. Though the challenges we face in school security are far less overwhelming than what the British faced in World War II, I believe we could take a cue from Churchill’s approach. Though he needed to inform the British people of many frightening facts to unite his country, he understood the need to create resolve instead of abject fear.

I recently interviewed with a reporter from Politico who wanted to know what had changed about school violence since the tragedy in Newtown, Conn., last year. One of the things I mentioned to her was that our analysts were noting a significant increase in the number of missed action steps when we conducted controlled school violence crisis simulations since the Sandy Hook school shooting. I also informed her that we were noticing a dramatic increase in the number of school employees who verbalized attacking people in school violence scenarios, where it would clearly increase the danger for students and staff for them to do so in the situation depicted.

When the reporter asked why we were seeing such responses, I told her I felt one reason was fear. A number of researchers point out that people who are gripped by fear typically suffer from a reduced ability to think and act. While people who experience first-hand incidents like mass-casualty school shootings will typically experience significant fear, inadvertently teaching people that they are likely to die in a school violence incident is completely counter to what law enforcement officers, fire service professionals and military personnel are taught. Trainers in these fields teach trainees that they can and should focus on surviving deadly encounters. In short, the men and women who face the potential for violent death on a regular basis are taught that they can survive almost anything. School violence training should be no different in this regard.

During more than 40 school security assessments since the Sandy Hook attack, we have encountered a startling number of school employees who tell us they are quite afraid that they may be killed in an act of school violence. For example, we have had numerous school employees tell us that they expect to die if there is ever an active shooter in their school. As with commercial aviation crashes, many people presume that most occupants of planes that crash die, when in reality, the data tells a completely different story.

Just as the majority of building occupants in mass-casualty school violence incidents survive, Ben Sherwood, the author of “The Survivor’s Club: The Secrets and Science that Could Save Your Life”, tells us that more than 95.7 percent of all passengers survive commercial plane crashes. The intensive media focus on mass casualty plane crashes shapes our perception because the media coverage we see usually involves those rare instances where most or all of the passengers on a plane are killed.

Similarly, media coverage of the Sandy Hook incident has often included statements that there was nothing school officials could have done to prevent the deaths that occurred. I have had dozens of educators tell me that they had accepted this view as a fact prior to our training.

One Connecticut teacher whose child survived the Sandy Hook incident told me that she had been so gripped by fear after the attack that she felt nauseous at the start of every school day. She told me that she had felt she had no control over her fate. At the end of the training she reported that once she learned evidence-based concepts to enhance survival, she felt considerably more control over her own safety and that of her students. While she understands that no measures can offer a 100-percent guarantee, she now knows there are things she can do to dramatically improve safety in her classroom.

Take care not to increase fear as we try to raise awareness. Intensive and often wildly inaccurate media coverage, combined with profiteers who use fear as a powerful marketing tool, have done enough damage as it is. Research on this point is very clear. Excessive fear and the panic that it can cause really can kill.

This article originally appeared in the April 2014 issue of School Planning & Management.

About the Author

Michael Dorn serves as the executive director for Safe Havens International, Inc., an IRS-approved, nonprofit safety center. He has authored and co-authored more than 20 books on campus safety. He can be reached through the Safe Havens website at www.safehavensinternational.org.

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