Safety & Security

Media Driven School Safety

One question we hear after every mass-casualty school shooting is some variation of “what changes do we need to make from last week’s shooting at XYZ school?” For years, I have advised people to be extremely careful about making major changes based on what, by its very nature, is inaccurate information. Making major changes based on media and social media portrayals is inherently unwise and can be extremely dangerous. I am currently providing post-incident assistance of varying types for five different K-12 planned school attacks. Prior to this year, I have provided assistance on 10 other planned school attacks. The most consistent observations from these events have been:

  1. They have all been terrible and highly consequential events.
  2. They all reinforce the fact that no school is immune to the potential for an active assailant event.
  3. They are all strikingly different from one another. There have been significant differences that have made each attack unique.
  4. Most of the attacks have involved some interest in and research of previous attacks by the attacker.
  5. The most important lessons learned during post-incident evaluations are rarely things that have been discussed much in the media, in school safety presentations, articles etc.
  6. The media coverage and social media discourse of the events turns out to be highly inaccurate.
  7. Many “lessons learned” in presentations at professional conferences and in articles within the first year following an incident turn out to have significant gaps in accuracy in contrast to a complete case file.
  8. Many of the most important lessons to be learned are not confirmed for at least a year after the attack.
  9. I frequently note changes that are made in reaction to an event would not have changed the outcome of the event had they been in place at the time of the attack.

We often cannot discuss specifics of a particular case due to court order, or a confidentiality agreement with our client. We also have concerns that discussing specifics of an event prematurely can cause trauma to people who were directly impacted by an event.

I frequently have to bite my tongue when I hear people relate what happened in an attack to make a learning point, sell a product, or advocate for the need for what needs to change to address the “new” lessons from a particular active assailant event that I have direct knowledge of. Typically, someone is passionately explaining how people died or were spared death because of something that was done or not done in a case I have worked. As I listen to the dialogue, I often note that the conclusions are faulty because the facts do not support the basis for the approach being suggested.

Though the intent is quite different in these situations, I am reminded of Soviet propaganda that typically had a grain of truth, but was largely inaccurate in overall context. I recall one of my Russian history professors using a headline from Pravda to explain how the concept was used by the Soviet government. He described the article as something like, “Soviet athlete wins second place while American runner finishes next to last”. In this instance, the final race was between two competitors, the American who finished first and the Soviet lost the race.

Similarly, the “lessons” from the Columbine, Virginia Tech, and Sandy Hook attacks where people still claim that victims died because they locked down simply don’t match the fact that no victims were killed in a locked interior space in any of these three attacks. These oft-repeated inaccuracies have caused immense damage to school emergency preparedness. The oft-repeated myth that people have died because they didn’t run in a particular school shooting is another example. While running should certainly be an option, my experience has been that in a number of these attacks, running out of the school would have increased the opportunities for attackers to kill even more victims. I recently conducted an assessment where an independent school was about to train all students and staff to climb out of classroom windows and run if they heard gunfire or had any indication that someone had a gun on campus. Given the school’s design, this would be a recipe for disaster in the majority, if not all, of the active assailant attacks I have worked.

This article originally appeared in the September 2018 issue of School Planning & Management.

About the Author

Michael S. Dorn has helped conduct security assessments for more than 6,000 K-12 schools, keynotes conferences internationally and has published 27 books including Staying Alive – How to Act Fast and Survive Deadly Encounters. He can be reached at www.safehavensinternational.org.

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