A couple of times this week, the topic of teaching staff and students to attack active shooters arose. I had a call from one of the nation’s largest public school systems on this topic, which have preparedness measures in place that would rival those of any public school system or university in the nation but are always seeking ways to improve. The topic also came up during a session with K-12 and public safety officials from South Dakota. As has been the case every time this topic is discussed, there are strong views and many concerns with either a passive-protective or an aggressive-assaultive approach to this rare but real threat.
There has been a fair amount of dialogue about this approach for institutions of higher learning as well as for K12 schools. The law enforcement community has increasingly focused on alternative approaches based on several specific instances.
Tactics Differ, Depending on Training
In some cases, staff and students are taught a variety of techniques to distract and overwhelm a person who is actively shooting victims in a confined space, such as a classroom. Some trainers have taught students to have one or more students attack an aggressor from one side of the doorway while another group of students rushes the gunman from another direction. At least one trainer teaches teachers and students to place a table several feet in front of the classroom doorway to disorient and distract a shooter as they enter the room so students can then attack and disarm them.
Another training group has taught students as young as kindergarteners to throw textbooks at the head of an armed aggressor and then to rush them. One very professionally filmed and produced training video advises college students to spread out in their classroom rather than to cluster into a tight group to make it harder for an aggressor to shoot as many victims if they force their way into the classroom.
Most of these techniques are grounded in military and law enforcement training concepts that have been vetted at least to some extent by an informal evaluation and in some instances, controlled setting research, on how the human brain responds to different situations (such as an object approaching our face at a high speed).
Application to Campus Setting is Questionable
I have to say that though I understand that each of these concepts may apply in the military and law enforcement tactical arena, I am skeptical as to how well they can be applied by K-12 students under the actual stress of a crisis, such as an active shooter situation. I am also very concerned about how well students of even college age will be able to remember not to attempt these types of approaches if an attempt is made to take hostages.
I shudder to think what might have happened if a group of kids had thrown text books at Randy Addis when he took hostages in a Georgia High School in the early 1990s with a handgun, semi-automatic rifle, shotgun and a bomb. I have talked with a number of people who have witnessed and survived multiple victim campus shootings at K-12 schools and institutions of higher learning who might easily have been killed had they provoked the shooter who, for whatever reason, selected not to shoot them.
While I might apply some of these same concepts if I were present when someone were shooting people in a confined area and I didn’t happen to have my Glock or 1911 with me, I am a grown man who was a cop for 20 years, and I know what it is like to be shot in real life.
Concepts Don’t Always Work in Real Life
Like most veteran law enforcement officers, I can recall vividly dozens of innovative police tactical concepts that seemed really cool at the time but proved to be ineffective and even dangerous in actual street application. Some of these techniques worked extremely well in controlled simulations but were abandoned after highly trained and practiced cops were unable to apply them under actual field conditions far less dire than a gunman in an enclosed area.
In one instance, my partner and I both applied different techniques we had been taught and had practiced intensively every day for two weeks while attending the police academy. Both techniques failed, and the suspect attempted to snatch my revolver from my security holster during the scuffle.
Having such a close call while working as a university police officer taught me to be pragmatic when evaluating the latest and greatest way to physically stop a dangerous person. While both techniques were incredibly effective in the controlled environment of the gym and had been developed by leading experts, they both failed and could have resulted in death.
If two weeks of academy instruction with hundreds of repetitions followed by periodic practice in the techniques were not enough for successful application on the street, how likely is it that a third grade student or a middle school student will be able to apply them when they are terrified? One of the choke holds I was also taught in that same academy was later abandoned because so many people died while being subdued using that technique under actual field condition. At the time it was taught, it was considered a proven, safe and reliable way to subdue people, and I can recall successfully applying that same choke hold to a very large suspect who had been doing a good job tossing three of us around like matchsticks. I thought it was a great technique and was fully sold on it until a number of people died from its application around the nation.
Training Must Focus on Evacuation, Shelterning in Place
While staff and students in institutions of higher learning would more likely be able to learn the proper application of these types of techniques (attacking an active shooter - not police choke holds!) given adequate time and opportunity to practice them, have they already been prepared for much more likely mass casualty events? Do they know how to use proven techniques like severe weather and earthquake sheltering concepts?
A valid concern here is that there are still many schools that have never done a proper spread of emergency drills to practice skills that are far more likely to prevent mass casualty losses. For example, severe weather sheltering, sheltering place for chemical incidents and reverse evacuation are probably far more important emergency protocols for most campus organizations, yet are practiced or taught in only a small percentage of K-12 schools and institutions of higher learning.
I think some of the active shooter concepts being discussed and even taught in our nation’s schools are definitely worthy of discussion and testing. I also feel that they are still theoretical concepts at least in terms of their application by students, particularly in the K-12 setting.
Having seen how students and staff respond to the stressors of far more simple situations in both the K-12 and higher ed settings for 10 years each, I think such approaches should be very carefully evaluated. As I told several members of the crisis planning team for one of my K-12 clients last week, I am not sure I would dedicate the time and resources to train 300,000 students and 18,000 employees on what are still unproven concepts in the K-12 setting when proven concepts could be taught to the same number of people in less time to cover a far wider array of more likely situations.
I know this somewhat ducks the answer to the extremely valid question “What do we teach people to do when a gunman forces their way into a room?” but there are other, simpler responses that have worked when staff and students were able to function emotionally (evacuation for one example).
I know I will strike a nerve with some folks on this blog and welcome dissenting views and thoughtful dialogue. This is too important a topic to rest on any one person’s viewpoint, and I know that there are a number of intelligent, thoughtful, caring and experienced people who may hold a different viewpoint. I for one, would welcome your thoughts on the topic regardless of whether you share my concerns or not.