When Young Lives Are at Stake

She died lying on the floor in a hallway of her own school. She was an academically high-performing student who was loved by many and who will be missed by her parents, friends, teachers and others who had the good fortune to know her. The emotionally troubled teen who stole her life on that fateful morning shot her not in an attempt to kill, but rather to wound her. In fact, it was not the school secretary, none of the five security officers, the school resource officer nor the school’s principal who called 911, but the girl who shot her best friend who made that call. In fact, many minutes passed after the first administrator first reached the victim before an ambulance was summoned or a lockdown ordered. Though many millions of dollars had been spent on security and emergency preparedness, elaborate crisis plans developed and a full-scale active shooter exercise conducted at the school, a total and catastrophic plan failure occurred.

This true story is but one of many instances where an incident has revealed dramatically how school emergency preparedness plans that can appear to be sound and robust can fall apart at the seams. This typically occurs when preparedness concepts are not grounded in research, evaluation and assessment. Though well-intentioned, key officials in this district simply did not know what they did not know.

Evaluated concepts

Many school crisis plans look great sitting on a shelf yet lack reliability when tested by a major crisis. A number of truly brilliant men and women have expended immeasurable time and energy studying, researching, testing, assessing and evaluating ways to better prepare schools and other organizations for crisis situations. This article will draw on the work of these great minds. I will make my best effort to convey their findings accurately.

We will also rely upon what I have been able to learn after having been brought in after the fact for seven multiple casualty school shootings in the United States and Canada. We will also draw on lessons learned from similar reviews of hundreds of other school crisis events ranging from accidents, medical emergencies, fires, tornadoes and single-victim shootings and stabbings. We will also learn from the results of more than 2,000 one-on-one school video and scripted crisis simulations conducted for our clients at public and non-public schools across the nation. The concepts discussed in this article are not those that simply sound good, they are based on extensive formal evaluation and testing.

Locally tailored crisis plans

Schools that opt to rely upon plans that have been purchased rather than those that have been properly developed to fit local risks, realities and resources are at serious risk for plan failure and are significantly exposed to civil liability. Often referred to as a “plan in a can,” these plans can also become “exhibit A” during litigation because they can provide strong evidence of a lack of proper planning.

While these plans often look great, may seem like an easy solution and are easy to simply purchase or download, they are based on a very dangerous concept. The idea that procedures that will work fine for schools with dramatically varying physical designs in communities with very different public safety response capabilities may not fare well under careful scrutiny by a qualified school safety expert witness in litigation. If you can simply buy and issue it, the plan is not reliable.

For example, a lockdown protocol for a school system in a community where a many officers can arrive quickly at any school may not work for a school where the average response time for life-or-death emergencies runs beyond 20 to 30 minutes. Reliable plans should be developed with significant input from area law enforcement, fire service and emergency management personnel. They should also be developed with the assistance of various sectors within the school organization such as facilities, transportation, food service and risk management.

Role-specific crisis plan components

Many schools still rely on one standardized emergency chart that attempts to guide a variety of different employees with the same action steps. However, different categories of employees do not perform the same action steps in a crisis. For example, a building principal does not do the same things that a teacher, school bus driver or custodian do in a fire. While there are several ways this can be accomplished, employees should be provided with action steps that fit what they will do in an actual event rather than a plan so generic and redundant that it is of little value. At the high end of unreliability are “skeleton” plans that comprise one to 10 pages. These types of plans have a very high fail rate when tested because this approach is counter to what we know about how the brain works under life-or-death stress.

According to Dr. Gary Klein’s extensive research, people need a broad base of knowledge to prepare them to make life-or-death decisions for the wide variety of crisis events that they must be prepared for to succeed. While soldiers, police officers and firefighters may receive many months of formal training to be able to accomplish this, such an approach is not practical for schools. The written preparedness plans issued to individual employees help to fill this need.

Mental simulation

While traditional drills, tabletop exercises, functional exercises and full-scale exercises are valuable and much-needed ways to allow people to practice while testing plans, procedures and equipment, they all have one limitation. None of these approaches afford every employee in a school to practice and gain experience in making life-saving decisions. Mental simulation has been utilized by law enforcement officers, military personnel and the commercial aviation industry to reduce death for decades. This research-based approach involves affording people opportunities to mentally simulate a variety of crisis situations using scripted and video scenarios in short but more frequent periods of time.

Permission to live

One of the best opportunities to reduce the mortality rate in mass casualty incidents at schools involves what I call “permission to live.” Permission to live simply involves planning, practicing and specifically empowering all school employees to take immediate life-saving action to prevent serious injury and death. A five minute delay in activating the fire alarm led to 95 deaths in the tragic Our Lady of the Angels school fire in 1958. Though the school conducted nine fire drills each school year and students could be cleared from the building in under three minutes, the principal activated the school’s fire alarm every monthly fire drill. This accidentally conditioned teachers and other employees to wait until someone else pulled the alarm to evacuate instead of preparing them to be the one to pull the alarm. The effects of life-or-death stress on the human mind and body are well-documented and can be severe in untrained staff. This horrible event should have taught us how dangerous it is for the principal to always be the person to start a fire, lockdown, reverse evacuation, severe weather or room clear drill.

Sadly, 55 years later most schools are still conducting 1958-style drills. Most schools have never conducted drills that require rank and file staff to respond to a scenario that allows them to practice life-saving decisions without direction from an administrator. This helps to explain why we see delays of 1, 2 and even 8 minutes before an ambulance is called, a lockdown is implemented and other critical steps in schools where regular drills are conducted. Everything may go fine when the principal calls for a lockdown during a drill but not so well when a custodian has to recognize danger, take immediate action and notify the office. While school administrators should determine when drills are conducted, rank and file staff should be required to make decisions based on scenarios to initiate drills.


The type of catastrophic plan failure described at the beginning of this article has been avoided by schools that have spent millions of dollars less, have never conducted a full-scale active shooter exercise and lack most of the resources this school had. When a military hand grenade detonated amongst a group of a dozen students in a high school band room in Charleton County, Ga., many years ago, not one child died. They all lived because a building principal and his staff acted quickly and effectively to address a horrific incident. Preparation, not luck, and a focus on the basics made all the difference in the world at that school on that most challenging of school days. 

Michael Dorn is the executive director of Safe Havens International, a nonprofit school safety center. The author of 26 books on school safety, Michael’s work has taken him to Mexico, Central America, Canada, Europe, South Africa, Asia and the Middle East. Michael has provided oversight for school security and emergency preparedness assessments for more than 2,000 school facilities. Michael can be reached at www.safehavensinternational.org


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