Safety & Security (Prepare and Be Aware)

What We Should Fear At School

In response to years of school violence, some school districts in Missouri are paying $17,500 for a 40-hour firearms training program for two staff members. The course teaches the staffers to handle a gun and the tactical movements that might be necessary to approach an active shooter.

North of Missouri, Iowa has racked up about $250,000 in hospital emergency room costs for teachers injured while training to fight off an active shooter.

“We have teachers and staff that don’t know how to carry out a lockdown, and we’re teaching tactics in one-hour classes that Navy Seals spend months learning,” says Michael Dorn, executive director of Safe Havens International, a non-profit campus safety organization based in Macon, Ga.

“This kind of training is a media-driven security response. We have to be more analytical.”

Safe Havens takes just such an analytical approach in its recently released “Report of Relative Risks of Death in U.S. K-12 Schools” by Stephen C. Satterly, Jr.

In the introduction to the report, Satterly writes: “This study addresses the question of the various fatal risks schools face, and how active shooter incidents, as a subset, compare with the other mortal dangers faced by children. This information is designed to help school and public safety officials utilize scarce time and resources to address all school safety risks in an efficient and logical manner.”

In short, the report finds that fatalities caused by active shooter events represent a tiny fraction of the fatalities suffered in schools. Yet spending to avert and combat active shooters has grown to high levels.

“Schools too often ignore the basics,” adds Dorn. “At Sandy Hook, teachers didn’t have keys to their rooms, and they had not received any training in locking down the school or their rooms.”

In other words, why pay for expensive firearms and tactical movement training before teachers know how to lock down a classroom and move students away from windows.

The Safe Havens report studies 1,313 fatalities that occurred in K-12 schools in the United States from 1998 through 2012 and catalogs the causes. In some cases, estimates were used for the latter years because a full accounting had not yet been completed.

The findings are surprising.

What causes the most fatalities?

School transportation-related incidents cause the most fatalities. The Safe Havens report estimates that between 1998 and 2012, a total of 525 people died while riding school transportation or as pedestrians struck by school transportation or by other vehicles on school property. That is 40 percent of the total fatalities for the study period.

A category designated “other homicides” caused 339 fatalities or 26 percent of the total. This total does not include several categories of homicide, which the report counts separately. Categories NOT included in other homicides are: homicides committed during an active shooting event, in the course of a robbery, and related to bullying, as well as gang-related homicides, hate crimes resulting in homicides and suicides.

One hundred thirty four deaths, just over 10 percent of the total, came about from unknown causes. Just under 10 percent of the total, 129 people, committed suicide. These four categories account for 86 percent of the fatalities over the 15-year study period.

What about active-shooter incidents?

The study counts active-shooter incidents according to the definition of Active Shooter used by the Department of Homeland Security: “An active shooter is an individual actively engaged in killing or attempting to kill people in a confined and populated area; in most cases active shooters use firearms, and there is no pattern or method to their selection of victims.”

“One of the reasons we did this study was to figure out a better number for active shootings,” says Dorn. “We were getting calls from the news media asking why there was such a discrepancy in the numbers reported for active shooting incidents and fatalities. Other reports included incidents that weren’t strictly active-shooter incidents.

“By applying a strict definition, we believe we have a pretty good number, which is lower than most.”

The DHS definition eliminated targeted acts of violence, gangrelated homicides, hostage incidents and stand-alone suicides, which are often included in active-shooter statistics.

Using the DHS definition, the report counted 22 active-shooter incidents on K-12 school property and at K-12 school events from 1998 through 2012. Those events caused 50 student fatalities and 12 staff deaths, 4.72 percent of the total number of fatalities.

The report also notes that during the study period, there were four years with no active-shooter incidents and that the number of incidents occurring in a year never rose above four. “Looking at the data points over the 15-year period, it does not appear that there is an increase in the number of active-shooter incidents in schools,” writes Satterly in the report. “But looking at the past three years, the number of active shooter incidents appears to be on the increase; however, more time will have to pass to see if this pattern continues or not.”

Remaining categories

Interpersonal disputes account for another 61 fatalities — 4.65 percent of the total.

Each of the remaining categories accounts for a fraction of the total: Gang-related incidents took 24 lives, 1.83 percent of all fatalities.

The weather has caused fatalities, too. The report notes 22 fatalities, 1.68 percent of the total, from high winds caused by storms such as tornadoes.

Accidents, robbery, bullying and hate crimes fill out the rest of the causes of death, each accounting for less than 1 percent.

Managing security and safety by the numbers

What do these numbers suggest about security and safety strategies? “The report shows that we need a comprehensive approach to school security,” says Paul Timm, PSP, president of RETA Security in Lemont, Ill. “It can also help us adjust the resources we devote to each piece of the pie.

“The report shows the importance of preventive programs, too,” continues Timm. “We need suicide prevention programs, drug and alcohol prevention programs, anti-bullying programs and others.

“That said, a report like this shouldn’t make us think less about physical security and security technologies. We have to have good access control, visitor management, communications and video systems.”

A key takeaway is that fatalities from active shootings are miniscule compared to transportation related fatalities and other homicides. Even suicides are double the rate of active-shooter fatalities.

“Don’t ignore active-shooter training, but don’t put all of your resources there, either” advises Dorn. “It’s wrong to do two days of active-shooter training that you may never need, when you don’t provide CPR training.

“Many schools don’t train teachers and staff to supervise dismissal at the end of the day, and students are being hit by vehicles. Managing the movements of traffic and students at the beginning and end of the day are basic safety measures that can save lives.

“That’s the main message of the report: take care of the basics first.”

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

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