Fighting the Last War

The absolute carnage of World War I resulted partly from military leaders failing to accept the influence of technology on warfare. Large numbers of troops were sent to their deaths by being ordered to charge across open expanses laced with land mines, strewn with barbed wire and raked by machine gun and artillery fire. Decades later, French troops would be defeated in a decisive battle at Dien Ben Phu by a manner of warfare that was extremely effective against French commanders insistent on fighting a war using tactics that would have been effective for a different war in a different place. Our own civil war, the Boer war and the actions in Grenada and the Falklands all involved at least one side, if not both, being behind the times and suffering catastrophic results for it.

Some also fight the“last war” in school safety. They work arduously responding to a select few high profile past events, while failing to address more common threats facing our schools. For example, most school safety plans have protocols for the extraordinarily rare“active shooter scenario” while lacking viable hazardous materials incident protocols, yet schools are forced to evacuate or shelter in place on a daily basis around the nation to hazardous materials accidents in our communities. While it is clearly helpful to examine major school crisis events to gauge safety efforts, school and public safety officials must not put too much stock in exactly how a few unique incidents have played out, while ignoring more prevalent types of incidents. While some base the emphasis of their prevention and preparedness efforts on the next Columbine or Beslan, others are taking a much more practical and comprehensive approach.

No one can tell us whether the next tragedy in an American school will be the result of a terrorist attack, multiple victim shooting, hazardous materials accident, airline crash or an earthquake. This means schools should focus on the all hazard planning concept recommended by the United States Department of Education, the United States Office of Homeland Security and FEMA rather than focusing narrowly on a few terrible anomalies that have already occurred.

A proper safe school plan will help address even the most catastrophic of school crisis situations, while also covering far more common problems such as bullying, disruptive behaviors, workplace injuries, student weapons violations and gang activity. Unfortunately, unsound school safety information abounds on websites, in consulting services, at professional conferences, in publications and in the media. Last year, one large school system squandered more than $10,000 hiring extra police officers on overtime because of reports in the media warning that schools might be hit by terrorists on Election Day. Those of us with actual experience and solid formal training in antiterrorism do not make these types of ridiculous and speculative predictions because of the immense harm it can cause. This baseless prediction, given what we know of terrorists tactics, resources and motivations, left many school officials scrambling to meet a nonexistent threat.

Anyone can make up dozens if not hundreds of “what if” scenarios for future terrorist attacks. This can lead to a tremendous waste of precious resources by spreading them into too many divergent directions. Millions of dollars have been wasted by school systems and public safety agencies responding to a variety of unfounded “what if” terrorism scenarios bandied about by amateurs since September 11, 2001. Millions more are wasted by narrowly focusing on a few extremely unlikely past events. Tragically, these communities face actual school safety problems that have not been adequately addressed while precious resources were wasted on often ridiculous predictions or anomalies.

School officials should be extremely careful from whom they take their advice. When considering a school safety book, listening to “experts” on the news or evaluating the accuracy of a conference speaker, examine the credentials of the source of information. It is truly astounding how many people advise schools about anti-terrorism measures, emergency preparedness, bullying, crisis response and recovery, or other critical areas of expertise without having any real credentials in these very specific and defined fields. Evaluate school safety information with a critical eye to the future as well as the past. Make sure you are covering all your bases and don’t be led down the wrong path by those who really don’t know how to guide you but will try if you let them. Stay focused on the “what is” instead of the “what ifs” and you can avoid fighting the last war and losing the next one be it a tornado, act of violence or hazardous materials incident in your community.

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