Protecting Our Schools…Beyond the Half Measures
“The gunman entered … and opened fire on ‘everything that moved... How can they attack something as sacred as a school?’"
This witness account, from the school shootings in Toulouse, France is reminiscent of the countless other incidents we have experienced across the United States, most recently at Chardon High School in Ohio.
When a shooting incident occurs in any of our nation's schools, news travels instantly. Coverage of the incident dominates our television screens—images of students and faculty streaming outside, parents rushing to police lines, stacks of SWAT teams preparing to enter school doors, media vans lined up on roadways—all of it creating an all-too-familiar scene. So familiar, in fact, that the images and details of each incident have become largely indistinguishable from others. As the discussion has become garbled, so have our strategies for dealing with shooting rampages in our nation’s schools. Following an incident, we’re riveted for a period of a week or so to the news coverage. We’re systematically guided through the stages of grief by network anchors and pundits: through our guilt for not having recognized the signs earlier…through our anger at the perpetrators…and finally, to our collective view of the incident as an anomaly—something that “could never happen here.” Months later, another school shooting occurs. This one seemingly disconnected from the one preceding it. And yet, the shooters’ characteristics are remarkably similar: chronic truancy, religious or political fanaticism, a preoccupation with weapons, someone socially marginalized…on “the fringe,” who is struggling with addiction…and who has announced his intent to kill. The symptoms and signs remain constant. And in our collective quest to better understand a shooter’s motives, the media narrative often conveys upon us a societal guilt-by-association for the carnage he inflicts. Defining the Problem
On occasion, we take a few steps back to gain perspective rather than catharsis. And in those moments, it’s possible to transcend our complacency and to see school rampages for what they are: acts of terror.
Defining the problem in these terms is a crucial first step toward effective defense—but that step has proven to be surprisingly elusive as we tend to focus instead on the psychology and motivations of the shooter in an incident’s aftermath. But the problem has remained constant: our children are at risk from those who seek media attention through acts of mass murder.
The problem of active shooters in our schools is not new. The first school massacre incident occurred in 1764 at a schoolhouse near Greencastle, Pennsylvania, when four Delaware warriors killed ten children and their schoolmaster. In 1927, a school administrator bombed the Community School in Bath, Michigan, killing 38 people—mostly children. Numerous other incidents have occurred through the years. The well known and often discussed, like Columbine and Virginia Tech, eclipse those that occurred decades ago, but are no less deadly, like South Pasadena Junior High School (1940) and University of Texas at Austin (1966). What Can be Done?
Identifying students who display at-risk behavior remains key to stopping a school shooting before it occurs. Homicidal ideation is perhaps the most obvious indicator that a teen may be considering such an act, but there are a host of others, to include: cruelty to animals, suicidal tendencies, and abuse or neglect at home. Reporting comments and observations in advance have prevented many attacks; however, forecasting a school rampage is not always achievable.
There will be more attacks. As youth addiction to point-and-shoot video games grows, and as weapons become more powerful, a perfect storm of entertainment realism and lethality has gathered, making the potential consequences of future school attacks even more catastrophic than the last. Defending against school rampages is a sensitive topic—far more so than preparing for tornados or fire. Active shooter drills involving all parties—students, faculty and first responders—are rarely conducted for fear that the visual of the drills alone will be met with cries of outrage from school commissions and PTAs.
The great irony is that school rampages are responsible for far more fatalities in our schools than severe weather, earthquakes or fires, combined.
So, rather than shrink from tabletop exercises and rehearsals, perhaps we should be insisting on them? Even the simple act of identifying the locations for staging areas, police command posts, media cordons, and reunification sites expedite incident response. Exercises also give faculty and students a reflexive understanding of school lockdown procedures, and how to effectively respond should they come face-to-face with a gunman. Drills and rehearsals have the added benefit of building relationships with local law enforcement before an incident occurs. The time for police, first responders and school administrators to be introduced to one another should never be in the midst of a crisis.