Preventing School Weapons Assaults

Shootings at K-12 schools in Vermont, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Colorado, and the horrendous attack at Virginia Tech remind us of the potential for school weapons assaults. Keeping in mind that the vast majority do not involve firearms or multiple victims, we will explore the techniques that have proven to be effective at preventing the more common but less deadly attacks, as well as what the U.S. Secret Service refers to as“targeted acts of violence.”


Overcoming the“It can’t happen here” mindset

The first step is an awareness of the risk for this type of crime. We often see weapons assaults taking place in schools with relatively low inherent risk levels — when this risk is badly managed.


Attacks come in many forms

We often allow the media to drive our views on campus safety. This is why the American public may believe the following myths.

    • The homicide rate in American K-12 schools is rising.

    • Campus weapons assaults occur more at K-12 schools than at institutions of higher learning.

    • Campus weapons assaults have not been a serious problem in other countries.

    • The Columbine High School attack is the worst carried out at an American K-12 school (95 were killed in an arson at a Chicago Catholic school in 1958, and a farmer killed 40 students and townspeople in Bath, MI, in 1927).


    When we lecture on the complex topic of campus assaults, we emphasize the importance of a risk assessment process for campus safety. Too many school safety efforts are emotionally based rather than the result of rational analysis.


    Campus officials must be aware that edged- and impact-weapons assaults occur far more frequently than shootings. While the media tends to focus on multiple-victim incidents, these deadly attacks are atypical of the majority of campus weapons assaults. A good safety strategy provides protection against all types of weapons assaults.


    While we know from interviews with hundreds of student weapons violators that it is important to respond properly to tips and to make it easy for students to report weapons, we know that most students who carry a weapon to school do not show or tell anyone. Therefore, we must also use other means to detect weapons on school property and deter students and others from carrying them.


    Most weapons assaults are preventable

    We know from experience that many school weapons assaults are preventable. In the 10 years that co-author Michael Dorn served as the Chief of Police for the Bibb County Public School System, the department averted six planned school shootings, one planned school bombing, and a planned double suicide, while reducing student weapons violations by more than 90 percent. We have seen a number of school systems use techniques mentioned in this article to prevent shootings and bombings while dramatically reducing weapons violations on their campus.


    Only a comprehensive approach will provide real protection

    Different weapons assaults require different prevention measures. Examples of some prevention measures include informational efforts, policy implementation, metal detection at special events, random metal detection, canine vehicle searches, visual weapons screening, traffic enforcement on and near campus, multidisciplinary threat assessment techniques, tip lines, banning high-risk individuals, and a variety of other techniques which have proven to be effective time and time again. It is critical to tailor prevention measures to each campus’ unique setting. What may be reasonable at one facility might be ineffective or unnecessary at another.


    Reduction of triggering behaviors is as important as reducing weapons on campus

    School administrators should understand that most school weapons assaults bear no resemblance to these high profile multi-victim shootings. Most are not preplanned events, are non-fatal, involve edged weapons rather than guns, and occur after triggering behaviors like fights. Every time a fight occurs on campus, there is an increased chance that a shooting or stabbing will take place. Two things must be present for a weapons assault to take place — a weapon and the desire to use it. Therefore preventing fights on campus is just as important as deterring weapons violations.


    Only armed personnel are capable of handling incidents involving weapons

    While some schools are still protected by unarmed security or police personnel, it is reckless and negligent to ask these personnel to handle any situation involving a weapon without armed assistance. Campuses where security and police personnel are not armed should carefully evaluate these situations. While arming officers involves a commitment to more careful pre-employment screening and advanced training, it is also the only effective way to counter a number of specific threats. In fact, an increasing number of K-12 schools are arming their campus police with carbines and rifles, understanding that this measure can avert the use of deadly force and allow officers to properly neutralize an “active shooter,” while reducing the danger to innocent bystanders and police when the weapon is used (compared to a relatively inaccurate pistol).


    While most targeted acts of violence have not been stopped by armed officers, it should be noted that all but a few occurred where officers were stationed on the affected campuses. When armed officers are not in use, local police should be requested to handle all instances where a weapon is reported. To do otherwise has resulted in needless shootings, stabbings, and hostage situations at schools.


    We have seen no convincing evidence of an increase in the number of school weapons assaults; in fact, recent research demonstrates a significant reduction. The incidents that do occur reinforce the need for every public and independent school system to ensure reasonable measures are in place. While school weapons assaults are relatively rare events, it is a good idea to periodically re-evaluate strategies in place to reduce the likelihood that a tragic weapons assault will occur on campus.



    Michael Dorn and Chris Dorn have helped reduce the threat of weapons violence in schools around the world, training more than 100,000 people a year on proven lifesaving techniques. To download a concealed weapons demonstration and other free resources, visit their Website at www.safehavensinternational.org


About the Authors

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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