Security & Planning

Preparing Teachers and Staff for an Active Shooter Event

Adults, not students, should bear responsibility for controlling the situation.

According to the Department of Education's National Center for Educational Statistics, nearly every school in the country now conducts lockdown drills to prepare students for an active shooter on campus. For the most part, law enforcement agencies highly endorse these training programs. They claim that when an incident occurs, the students’ training helps them secure the school; stop the active shooter; and protect students, teachers and staff.

These drills and sets of instructions on what to do in an emergency have been provided or created by several different organizations during the past 10–15 years. They are often modeled on instructions given to adults in an emergency. However, all too often, they have little to do with schools, students or school safety.

For instance, one drill that is available from Ready.gov, a U.S. government national public service campaign, is referred to as “Run, Hide, Fight.” This drill was created for adults, not students, and its focus is on workplace violence, not school violence.

Children running in a school hallway 

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In “Run, Hide, Fight,” if workers believe an attack is happening or about to happen, they are advised to stay alert, run for safety, hide, call 911 if possible, and—as a last resort—to fight. As to fighting, the program calls for those in harm's way to “attempt to disable the attacker,” “be aggressive and commit to your actions,” “recruit others to ambush the attacker” and “be prepared to cause severe or lethal injury to the attacker.”

Such instruction in a crisis is possibly good advice to a fully grown, healthy adult. But is this good advice to give 10-year-old children? Probably not.

Worse, many psychologists, educators, and parents now suggest that such drills and training cause considerable student anxiety, depression and fear, and can impair the entire learning experience.

“The best way to make schools safer is to focus on proven policies and programs instead of extreme drills that rob children of their belief that schools are extremely safe places,” said Shannon Watts, founder of gun safety group Moms Demand Action.

Further, some now suggest that drills involving children should take a back seat to drills that focus primarily on the adults working in schools. These drills would instruct teachers, for instance, on how to handle a potentially dangerous situation—such as an active shooter in the building.

The assumption is that when the adults remain calm and know what steps to take to protect themselves and their students, “the children will literally reflect that emotional state and follow through with whatever they are asked to do,” said Bruce D. Perry, founder of the ChildTrauma Academy.

He also believes that scare tactics, which are a key part of many school lockdown drills currently in use, “do not make kids more thoughtful, compassionate, or empathic,” (i.e., help them protect themselves and each other) but instead “do just the opposite.”

Situational Awareness

Let us assume that these last observations are correct. Instead of lockdown drills for students, what if teachers were given more training on handling—and, if necessary, defusing—an emergency in a school?

According to Mike Keenan, a security and risk management specialist with TAL Global, an international risk management consulting firm working with educational facilities around the globe, the first thing we need to know is that “every situation is different.”

That said, even though the particulars may be different, teachers and other adults working in schools should follow standard “situational awareness” steps when an attacker or shooter is in the school. These are usually the same in every situation and include the following:

  • Know ahead of time the location of all the school’s exits.
  • Know where first aid materials are stored in the school.
  • Be aware of areas where students, teachers and staff can hide in an emergency, both inside and outside the school.
  • Stay calm, walk and act with confidence.
  • If there is an active shooter, yell to others, “active shooter!” Then, provide instructions as to where to hide or evacuate.
  • Do not assume anything to be nonthreatening; always assume there is danger.

These emergency steps should be taken when there is (or might be) someone in the school with the intent of doing harm. But let’s take the next step. What if there is an opportunity for the teacher, or an adult in the school, to talk to the active shooter? Especially if the shooter is a student, according to Keenan, the following de-escalation technique can prove very impactful.

“It's called the L.E.A.P. formula,” Keenan said. “This is a strategy that works well in a number of situations when dealing with angry or threatening people and is frequently taught to law enforcement professionals, including those in the FBI.” As described by Keenan, the L.E.A.P. acronym stands for:

  • Listen: Understand where the person is coming from. Possibly, they are mad at a teacher. Understand what is triggering the event.
  • Empathize: Showing genuine sympathy with the attacker can be a big step in quelling the situation. Say something like, “I understand how you feel. I probably would feel the same way.”
  • Ask: Ask the person how the problem can be resolved safely and without violence. Ask, “How can I resolve this for you?”
  • Paraphrase: Throughout the discussion, repeat back or summarize what the attacker has said. Repeating their words back to them shows you have listened and understand. Again ask, “How can I resolve this for you?”

“While [the L.E.A.P formula] can prove very effective, teachers should always also be aware of their surroundings and protect themselves in the process,” added Keenan. “When speaking with the attacker, stay a few feet away, and stand at a 45-degree angle. This is less threatening to the aggressor.”

Protecting the School Package

We have covered a lot of territory here. We have suggested that more emphasis should be placed on the steps that teachers and staff, instead of students, can take when a serious emergency arises. Situational awareness teaches us how to analyze our surroundings and deal with an emergency as it unfolds. The L.E.A.P. formula also provides ways to defuse a tense situation—at least until law enforcement arrives.

But what about the “school package”? What steps can we take to protect the school facility? Doing so will also help protect those who use the facility.

Keenan advises taking the following pre-emptive steps to ensure the safety of the property as well as everyone inside it:

  • Use a drone to photograph the entire school property. “This can uncover openings and weak points school administrators may not even be aware of,” Keenan said.
  • Strategically place and install high-definition, zero-light “smart” cameras. These cameras are triggered by movement and can take crystal-clear video footage of surrounding areas, day or night.
  • Consider the use of geo-fencing. These systems create a “virtual boundary” around critical areas of the school property. They can trigger a warning if, for instance, a child suddenly leaves a secured area, or if an unknown person enters a secured area.
  • Conduct a risk assessment. This process helps identify weak spots and unidentified openings where an attacker can enter the school property. Keenan added that it is his experience that an outside source should conduct risk assessments. “Teachers and adults that work in the school every day tend to lose touch with their surroundings,” he said. “Fresh eyes can point out problem areas that are often overlooked.”

This article originally appeared in the Spring 2021 issue of Spaces4Learning.

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