Avoid the Active Shooter Trap

Be sure to also conduct shelter in place, severe weather sheltering and reverse evacuation drills.

Some years ago, one of my client schools spent a considerable amount of money installing new locks on classroom doors to allow teachers to lock their doors from inside the classroom so they would not be exposed to danger by stepping outside the classroom during a lockdown. I appreciate my client’s deep concern for the safety of staff and students, but at the time this expenditure was made, there were other safety concerns that would have been more likely to result in death on their campus. 

For example, at the time, the school did not have any AED’s. We sometimes lost more students to deaths from heart stoppage in a bad week than we lost from violence during an entire school year. 

This particular school has competent leadership and a very high focus on student safety. At the same time, like many campus organizations around the nation, they may not have been as effective at addressing their most pressing safety and security concerns in the proper order. A complete hazard and vulnerability assessment has helped them improve their focus, and they have worked diligently to address a much wider range of risks. 

Like many school organizations, they were caught in what I call the “active shooter trap.” Far too often, concern for active shooter situations is out of balance with other risks and hazards that also endanger human life and in some instances, can result in mass casualty or loss of human life.

For example, most K-12 schools conduct far more lockdown drills than they do shelter in place drills for external hazardous materials incidents even though more schools are affected by hazardous materials incidents than multiple victim school shootings. Simulations of hundreds of school crisis situations with school employees from a number of districts around the nation have also revealed that school employees who have drilled and trained extensively on active shooter procedures often perform worse on other scenarios requiring a lockdown (such as scenarios where an aggressor is brandishing a knife or other weapon) than employees who have had less training but have been trained with a broader focus. Research on how the human brain and body perform under stress helps us to understand these findings.  Focusing too much on any one type of crisis scenario can easily condition people to be very good at that one thing while not being very good at handling situations that are different from that scenario.

While all campus organizations should take the threat of an active shooter situation seriously and prepare staff and students to increase survivability of such an event, this should not be done to the exclusion of other problems. Like offsite family reunification protocols, hazardous materials incident protocols and a number of other life-saving concepts, active shooter responses are more complex than equally important but simpler protocols, such as fire evacuation procedures. Doing more lockdown drills than shelter in place, severe weather sheltering drills (where appropriate) and reverse evacuation drills is a recipe for disaster.  If active shooter preparations occupy more than 10% of your organization’s plan development, training and drills, the organization is probably out of balance in its efforts to prevent mass casualty losses. 

My client has never experienced an active shooter or even so much as someone threatening another person with a pocket knife on their campus. I am very glad they have not needed to rely on the locks they installed. I am more grateful they had the wisdom to dramatically broaden their concerns to other risks that were far more likely to occur.  That is how a great school becomes a superb school.

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Michael Dorn serves as the Executive Director of Safe Havens International, a global non profit campus safety center. During his 30 year campus safety career, Michael has served as a university police officer, corporal, sergeant and lieutenant. He served as a school system police chief for ten years before being appointed the lead expert for the nation's largest state government K-20 school safety center. The author of 25 books on school safety, his work has taken him to Central America, Mexico, Canada, Europe, Asia, South Africa and the Middle East. Michael welcomes comments, questions or requests for clarification at mike@weakfish.org. Note: The views expressed by guest bloggers and contributors are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of, and should not be attributed to, Campus Safety magazine.

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