Know When to Lockdown

Much of the work done to prepare for campus crisis situations focuses on active-shooter situations. This is only natural, since the media has focused extensively on extremely rare but deadly targeted acts of violence at our institutions of higher learning. However, this over-emphasis on active shooter situations often leaves campus employees ill prepared to implement a lockdown for the most common campus weapons situations, which far outnumber active shooter situations.

In fact, campus officials have often failed to implement a lockdown for situations including single-victim school shootings, aggressive persons, intruders with other types of weapons, and other dangerous situations. During our assessment work with more than 2,000 K–12 schools, our analysts have conducted more than 1,700 school crisis simulations during structured interviews. Using scripted and video school crisis scenarios and scoring instruments, we have been able to gauge more accurately how school staff will react to a wide array of life-or-death situations in the first critical 30 seconds of an incident. In these simulations, roughly 70 percent of the time K–12 employees fail to think to initiate a lockdown for situations that do not involve a person firing a gun. Our experience working with colleges and universities and occurrences of actual incidents suggest that the problem is at least if not more severe on higher-ed campuses.

Analyses of Actual Events
This matches what we are seeing in situations where actual events have taken place. For example, in a forensic analysis of a single-victim school shooting at a school where an active-shooter exercise had been conducted and more than $49M of federal grant money had been expended on security and emergency preparedness, a lockdown was not called for more than eight minutes after a building administrator reached a student who had been shot. Like most campus shootings, this incident involved a single victim and a single perpetrator, and the school’s efforts were focused on handling an incident with very different dynamics. As a result, the administrator was unable to adapt to a far easier but different scenario than what she had been prepared extensively to address.

We see many instances where campus personnel fail to lockdown because the lockdown protocols and training are poorly structured. For example, nationally, employees regularly fail to implement a lockdown for scenarios depicting the following types of situations:
  • An out-of-control woman brandishing a large knife in an office area.
  • A dangerously mentally ill woman brandishing a butcher knife in the cafeteria.
  • An out-of-control person threatening office staff with a claw hammer.
  • An intoxicated man brandishing a large crowbar.
  • A man, appearing angry and focused, who refuses to stop and identify himself when asked by multiple campus employees.
  • An intoxicated man waving a handgun outside of a facility with students present in the area.

The research on how the brain functions under life-or-death stress helps us to understand why an overemphasis on any one type of crisis event can reduce the ability of employees and students to handle other types of situations, and how death can result. Plan structure itself can also prove to be a problem.

‘Where’ Shouldn’t Matter, ‘What’ Should
For example, using the location of the incident rather than the level of the threat as a driving force in lockdown protocols can be a deadly practice. The unfortunately common “inside” versus “outside” approach to lockdowns has resulted in missed opportunities to prevent injury because the approach is counter to what the research shows on how the human mind and body function under life-or-death stress. Trying to fit inside and outside threats to a reaction rather than the nature of the threat is like putting kerosene into a car that runs on gasoline from the standpoint of how the brain works under stress. I base these observations on my work with clients on seven different active-shooter situations in American and Canadian schools as well as with far more common crisis situations involving campus aggressors who were not active shooters.

The ability of any staff member in a campus facility to initiate the lockdown process during the first critical 30 seconds of an event no matter which employee becomes aware of the threat, where he or she is on campus, or what the nature of the threat requiring lockdown is, is a life-or-death consideration.

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