As the 15th anniversary of the massacre at Columbine High School approaches, it is time to take a serious look at how far we have come in protecting our schools. Although preceded by infamous school shootings in Pearl, Miss., Paducah, Ky., and Jonesboro, Ark., and since eclipsed in body count by the massacres at Virginia Tech and Newtown, Conn., the attack on Columbine, where 13 people were killed and 24 were injured, is still the seminal event in American school shootings.
The senseless violence at Columbine forced the issue of school safety into the American consciousness, leading to modifications in police practices and a complete overhaul of school safety policies and procedures.
Because of the public hue and cry, law enforcement officials realized that when children are dying, tactical containment is not enough, so Active Shooter response became standard protocol.
In the aftermath of what was then the worst school shooting in American history, an enraged public also forced school administrators to bolster their safety readiness and preparedness efforts. State legislatures throughout the nation established school safety centers and mandated both district and campus safety plans.
Although there is little question that we are bettered prepared today than 15 years ago, there is still much work that needs to be done. Here are three steps that we can take to help prevent another Columbine, Virginia Tech or Newtown massacre:
1. Schools need customized plans. Though states had good intentions in mandating school crisis response plans, many districts, due to lack of resources, did the “cut and paste” method of planning to meet legal requirements. Some states even published “fill-in-the-blank” plans, and schools did exactly that, with little regard to their actual demographics or unique circumstances.
It is no wonder that we are still struggling with our response to school shootings, if from the very beginning our plans are not tailored to the characteristics of each campus and in sync with the resources needed to minimize damage. From a planning perspective, school and law enforcement officials need to sit down in the same room and compare policies and procedures, frankly discussing specific protocols concerning active shooter incidents in order to ensure law enforcement accessibility, proper resources and quick response.
School safety is not just a law enforcement response or a school responsibility. The lives of our children and their educational caretakers are at stake, and they deserve the time and resources necessary for our schools and police to plan and practice together properly. Without communication and coordination between schools and law enforcement, most school safety plans are destined to fail long before a shooter shows up on campus.
2. Drills need to be realistic. Most schools conduct what is known as “Tuesday morning” drills, or drills under perfect and very unrealistic conditions, where everyone is in his room, close to a phone or radio and able to secure himself at a moment’s notice. Such drills almost always go flawlessly, because they are practiced under ideal conditions and not everyday situations.
These drills almost never take into consideration normal occurrences such as substitute teachers in the building with little or no crisis response training; students in the bathrooms, walking in the hallways or outside on athletic practice fields; and teachers in common areas without access to communications. School safety drills such as lockdowns, evacuations and shelter-in-place should be conducted using realistic, everyday scenarios.
Research shows that at any given hour during the school day about one third of the teachers are not in their classrooms, so drills should be conducted when students are in the cafeteria, gym class or involved in activities where locking the door and closing the blinds is not an option.
In one portion of a report that detailed the mass murders of 20 first-graders and six educators at Sandy Hook Elementary School, it noted “that more than a dozen bodies, mostly children, were ‘packed like sardines’ in a bathroom.” So many people had tried to cram inside the bathroom that the door couldn't be closed, and the shooter gunned them all down, a police lieutenant surmised. If this was the case, it reaffirms the need to have both planning and practice under realistic, everyday situations.
School-based practice drills should be coordinated with local law enforcement officials to ensure that plans are complementary and not competing. Coordination between schools and police, fire and EMS first responders is essential to mitigate the damage inflicted by school shooters. Until school administrators and law enforcement officials can commit the time, personnel and resources necessary for proper interagency planning and training, our after-action reports will continue to focus on lives lost and not lives saved.
3. Increased training for staff and students. Since the first spate of school shootings in the late 1990s, schools have had an opportunity to prepare for these attacks. But beyond practicing lockdown drills, what have they really taught our teachers and students about surviving a mass shooting or active shooter incident?
Unfortunately, the answer is very little in primary and secondary schools, and even less in colleges and universities. Even though there are over 4,000 colleges and universities in the United States, the training provided to educators at this level is minuscule. Even after the bloodshed at Virginia Tech many professors are at a loss to explain even the most fundamental concepts of school safety.
Although significant progress has been made in primary and secondary school preparedness, the cold hard fact is that the majority of teachers still receive only a minimal amount of safety and security instruction with little attention paid to how to actually survive an incident. Many educators across the country receive only about an hour of annual in-service crisis response training – and most of that revolves around how to lock their doors and wait for the police.
Even more disconcerting is that other than practicing their drills once or twice a semester, most students receive no training at all.
Should they run, hide or fight, and under what circumstances should they take any action at all?
A lockdown procedure is a valuable and proven tool to deter offenders – but what if their door is breached, as happened in Newtown, or if they are exposed in an open gym or cafeteria like at Columbine?
Age-appropriate training should be provided throughout all levels of our educational system. Students need to know that their school is a safe place; at the same time, they should understand that bad things can happen and they must be prepared to respond. Learning the proper way to escape, seek cover or find concealment in the midst of a tragedy may mean the difference between life and death.
If tragedies like Columbine, Virginia Tech and Newtown are to have any value to us as a society, we must learn from them and adapt our law enforcement and school safety practices to meet these contemporary threats.
Proper planning by police and school administrators, practice by first responders and school occupants and training for all school safety stakeholders can and will save lives.
John Matthews is the executive director of the Community Safety Institute. He is a 30-year law enforcement veteran, the author of Mass Shootings: Six Steps for Survival , School Safety 101, and the co-author of The Eyeball Killer, a first-hand account of his capture of Dallas' only serial killer.