Safety & Security

No Single Answer

Each time there is a mass casualty school shooting, school leaders encounter a period of increased interest in prevention and preparedness measures. Considerable pressure for schools to buy an array of products and to implement new and improved procedures and training programs often occurs. There are a variety of approaches with many options. There is no set of “best practices” for active shooter events. Though this term is bandied about in connection with active shooter incidents, there are currently no active shooter approaches that meet the rigorous standards of this term.

No single product, training program or practice can reliably prevent all planned attacks by intelligent, violent and determined attackers. Attacks have taken place schools with extensive prevention measures in place. While there are no absolutes in preventing these events, there are possibilities and probabilities to reduce the chances that an active shooter event will occur. There are also concepts that can increase survivability if an attack occurs in spite of prevention efforts.

The following observations are based on what I have learned providing post-incident assistance after 10 active shooter incidents and/or targeted shootings in campus settings:

Don’t put all of your cookies in one jar

A comprehensive approach is far more reliable than an intensive focus on one or two key strategies. For example, while multi-disciplinary student threat evaluations have stopped many school shootings since the concept was developed by the Bibb County Public School Police Department in the early 1990’s, the strategy may be of little value for an aggressor who is not from the campus community. Each of the 10 planned school shootings I have worked has been very different from the other nine events. Using a heavily layered approach can also provide multiple opportunities to identify and stop a planned attack.

Focus on the strategies that we know work before emphasizing concepts that might work

Though there is no reliable database of averted attacks, there are many instances where planned attacks have been averted. A variety of techniques have been utilized to prevent planned school shootings over the past 25 years. These concepts include multidisciplinary threat evaluation, pattern matching and recognition, visual weapons screening and 24-hour anonymous reporting systems. I have worked campus shootings where each of these proven approaches has been ignored, while theoretical and often more expensive approaches have been implemented. Even worse, there are compelling indications that a number of new and innovative approaches can reduce survivability. Just because a new approach is popular does not mean that it works. Bloodletting was wildly popular with doctors before it was proven to be dangerous.

Seek to achieve balance between technology and human factors

While there are a variety of technological approaches that can enhance survivability, providing reliable information and meaningful practice using them are necessary. With so many amazing technologies available today, we have become conditioned to seek technology fixes for pressing societal concerns. However, complex societal problems like active shooter incidents require human decision making. These difficult situations can best be address by properly trained people who have thoughtfully developed and implemented tools to help them.

Use a variety of scenarios in training and drills

School employees should be exposed to a variety of scenarios that involve firearms, as well as the types of weapons that are used far more often in the campus setting. Training staff how to respond to individuals who are brandishing and using knives, pipes, crowbars and hammers not only prepares them to handle the more likely campus weapons situations, but will also help them prepare for the wide array of active shooter scenarios we have already experienced. A rigid focus on a few types of active shooter scenarios is inconsistent with the research on effective life-and-death decision making.

Utilize free quality resources

There are a variety of excellent free resources that can help people prevent and prepare for active shooter events. Seven of our analysts helped author the United States Department of Homeland Security IS 360 web-training program. This free course covers this topic in far more detail than a 700-word column. There are other free resources that can help address these statistically rare but catastrophic events. While there is no simple solution to this global societal problem, there are ways to significantly increase survivability for situations where violent and determined individuals seek to carry out these deadly attacks.

This article originally appeared in the February 2016 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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