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7 Lessons Learned from Sandy Hook

Strategies that have been proven to work in other active shooter incidents also applied to the 2012 Newtown, Conn., mass school shooting.

Five of our analysts reviewed the Sandy Hook School Shooting summary report that was released by Newtown, Conn., officials Nov. 25. Although we came to a number of significant conclusions about the mass shooting, it is important to note that these are preliminary as they are based on the limited information provided in the report.

Our conclusions are supported by our discussions with several people who were directly involved in the incident. That being said, depositions from litigation that will most likely follow will provide an even clearer picture because aspects that are not typically covered in a school shooting investigation will be explored by school security expert witnesses and attorneys for each side. If additional information is released at a later time, our conclusions could change.

The conclusions that follow are particularly important because they counter theories that were discussed extensively following the shooting but have now either been disproven or brought into question.

1. Actions by school personnel saved lives. Although loss of life was extensive, some actions by school staff clearly reduced the number of fatalities at the school. Of considerable importance, the staff in the school office took actions to protect themselves, which allowed them to survive so they could call 911. Although there appears to have been some delay in this being done, this action prompted a faster police response. As the report concludes that the shooter killed himself shortly after police arrived, ending the killing, had office staff either frozen at their work stations or unsuccessfully attempted to attack the heavily armed killer, police response would have been slower.

2. Locking interior doors worked. As in the vast majority of K-12 school shootings in the United States, not a single student or staff member was killed behind a locked interior door. Although many people have stated that staff and students should have evacuated, the report indicates that where lockdown was accomplished fast enough, no victims were killed.

Despite the fact that the locked front entry door was breached, the report indicates that no interior doors were breached by force. Keeping in mind that most of the staff and students in the school survived, this affords additional evidence that lockdown is still one of our most effective tools to prevent death in mass casualty school shootings.

Interestingly, the first instance of a successful school lockdown occurred less than 10 miles from Sandy Hook Elementary School in Danbury, Conn., in 1900. In that case, a teacher prevented a man with a gun from entering the school by securing the front door to the one-room schoolhouse.

3. Lockdowns must be implemented quickly. While the incident demonstrates the value of the lockdown concept, it also demonstrates one more deadly instance of the failure of the application of the lockdown concept. While the lockdown procedures taken in the building protected the majority of the other occupants, most of the deaths in the school occurred in/at two classrooms where the doors did not get locked in time. With 20 of the victims being killed in/at two unlocked rooms, this incident demonstrates the need for all school personnel to be properly trained, specifically empowered and practiced in making independent decisions to implement a lockdown, evacuation or sheltering for severe weather without being instructed by anyone to do so.

The report does not offer any findings as to why the lockdown application failure occurred. There could be a variety of reasons for this. For example, one of the teachers who was murdered was a substitute. In some past incidents, substitute teachers have not been issued keys and could not secure their classroom doors. We find this to be true in many of the schools we conduct school security assessments for. In other cases, staff have not been properly prepared to find their key, move to the door and secure it fast enough.

In our school security assessment project crisis simulations, we have found that many school employees have unrealistic beliefs about how much time they will have to lock a door. For example, when we spot check teachers by asking them to show us exactly what they would do if they heard gunfire in the hallway, we see seriously delayed lockdown responses. For example, under the slight stress of a school safety expert asking them to react to this scenario, we often see that it takes the employee between 30 and 40 seconds to find their key and lock the door. In some instances, it takes the employee more than a minute to do so.

4. All school staff must be trained and empowered to act. The report indicates that staff in the office never ordered a lockdown. While the report indicates that office staff accidently activated the intercom, the report states they did not intentionally lock down the school. While there could be a viable reason for this that is not included in the summary report, these findings demonstrate the need for all school staff to be trained, empowered and practiced in implementing a school lockdown when appropriate without being directed to do so by a supervisor.

The report also indicates that numerous phones in the school can be used to access the intercom system. This finding should serve as a reminder that staff should be trained and empowered to use these types of capabilities to order a lockdown when appropriate. This should also encourage schools to expand the number of areas from which they can make school-wide announcements.

5. Staff, students must be taught how to respond under stress and on the fly. The report indicates that 10 students survived the attacks in the two unlocked classrooms by fleeing the rooms. This finding demonstrates the importance of staff and students being trained not to remain passive when they encounter an active aggressor in an enclosed area. The research on how the human brain functions supports the importance of teaching people to be prepared to change responses when a situation dictates.

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