Public Safety & Homeland Security

School Security: Planning Tips for an Active Shooter Scenario

Sgt. Jesus M. Villahermosa Jr. of the Pierce County, Wash., Sheriff’s Department addresses how schools can develop better plans and prepare staff members for an emergency.

by / June 24, 2013

Sgt. Jesus M. Villahermosa Jr. has been a deputy sheriff with the Pierce County, Wash., Sheriff’s Department since 1981. Villahermosa served 15 months as the director of campus safety at Pacific Lutheran University in a contract partnership where he worked on all security aspects related to staff and student safety. He has been on the Pierce County Sheriff’s SWAT Team since 1983, and he currently serves as the point man on the entry team.

In 1986, Villahermosa began his own consulting business, Crisis Reality Training. He has primarily focused on the issues of school and workplace violence.

In this Q&A, Villahermosa addresses how schools can be better prepared and secure for an active shooter emergency.

You have been in the school safety business for more than 26 years. Are there more issues with school violence today or is school violence just more publicized?


I truly believe that there is more school violence today than ever in the history of our country, especially in the area of school shootings. One website, stoptheshootings.org, states that there have been 387 school shootings over the last 20 years. I’m pretty sure we didn’t have that many in the previous 30 years to that 20. I believe that school violence is more publicized, but that is because it is so much more extreme than what we have ever seen.


In working with schools and school districts, what are some of the basic messages that you tell them about school violence and its prevention?


The first message that I try to get most schools to understand is that violence can happen at any school in the country. In fact, over the last 20 years, 50 percent of school shootings have occurred in towns with populations of 50,000 or less.

The next and most important message is that we have to have solid relationships with our students. In the 25-year study conducted by the Secret Service, 81 percent of school shooters told a friend that they were going to do the shooting, but no one came forward to warn the school staff or students. When the foundation of a school is built on trust and respect, I believe that students will come forward to report these incidents before they occur. One statistic that you won’t find anywhere else, as I discovered it while writing my book, is that whenever a school shooting plot gets foiled because it was brought to the attention of the school or law enforcement, no shooter has ever come back to commit a school shooting. That is a 100 percent intervention rate.


What role does the school need to play in working with local law enforcement agencies?


According to a U.S. Government Accountability Office study that was released in 2007, 27 percent of schools have never practiced their plans with their emergency responders. Schools and emergency responders need to coordinate their plans collaboratively and then practice those plans both in a tabletop exercise and in a drill-type scenario with role players.


School emergency management plans are critical to everyone understanding how to react to school violence. How do you put together a good plan, and who needs to be involved in the planning process?


I focus largely on school and workplace lockdown plans as almost everyone has some type of multihazard plan already in place. Based on that, I believe it is critical that we train the students, staff and parents in what a lockdown actually is, how to respond to the active killer event, and what options should they know in order to increase their chances of survival. For years, law enforcement and firefighters have been called the first responders, but I don’t agree with that title as we were not there when the shooting started. The true first responders, as I like to call them, are the victims who are engaged by the shooter and it is them we should be training to survive these events. With all due respect, law enforcement and firefighters are responding to a known lethal threat event and can utilize certain techniques to reduce their exposure to that threat, whereas the true first responders never even knew what hit them until it happened.

As far as who should be involved, planning should include the schools, law enforcement agencies, fire departments, emergency management, hospitals and any other entities in your geographic area that would be impacted by such an event. I would also encourage schools to have a select group of parents and students involved in the process as well in order to get their support in the planned response.


The Columbine High School shooting changed many things about how law enforcement responds to an active shooter incident. What are some of those changes?


The biggest change is that no one waits for SWAT anymore. It’s kind of like the 9/11 incident where the terrorists took over four planes. Up to that point, everyone was cultured that the bad guys would land the planes and then negotiate for something they wanted before letting the hostages go. 9/11 has since changed that as anyone trying to take over a plane is jumped by numerous passengers with no chance to turn a plane into a giant flying missile again. When an active killer event begins, responding law enforcement officers are trained to immediately pursue the killer -- to engage him in order to distract him from shooting more victims. In the process, if we can neutralize or capture the killer that is a bonus for everyone. This is why you are seeing numerous events where the killer is turning the gun on himself just before law enforcement engages him.


When a shooting incident is in process at a school what can teachers, staff and students do to protect themselves?


I teach the acronym LEAST (Lockdown, Evacuation and Survival Tactics). The two most used tactics that have demonstrated the best results are lockdown and evacuation. People need to remember that when a shooter has started a shooting spree, only those near the shooter are at immediate risk. That means that in most cases, more than 90 percent of staff and students, depending on the school’s size, are not at immediate risk and lockdown is a great option. Again, this is depending on the location of the shooter and how many staff and students are present when the shooting begins. For those in lockdown, the first consideration is to make sure the door locks. If not, barricading or running, a.k.a. evacuating, are great options. Additional options include hiding, crawling, the power of your voice and, last but not least, fighting. All of these tactics have helped students and staff across this great country to survive these tragic shootings events, but they are not going to use them if we don’t talk to them about it realistically.


After the tragic shooting and deaths at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., there was a call from different sources to either arm teachers or for schools to all have armed security personnel. What do you think of these two options?


Teachers armed: Absolutely not and there are many reasons for this. To think you are going to put a gun in the hands of teachers, whether they practice at the range or not, and to believe that simply by doing that that will transform them and make them run toward a shooter when everyone else is running away from him is naïve at best.

I have been on the Pierce County Sheriff’s Department SWAT Team for 30 years and a cop for 32 years. If I respond to an active killer event and I turn the corner while I am aggressively looking for the shooter and run into a teacher with a gun, I am very likely to shoot them immediately as I have no idea if they are friend or foe. If I don’t shoot them and they are a teacher, the fact that I have to take time to challenge them because they are armed and disarm them while I am trying to pursue an active killer will allow the killer to take more lives. If they are the bad guy but tell me they are the good guy it might provide the suspect a chance to shoot officers before they can react, even if it’s a suicide by cop situation.

I believe this issue will cause what I call the “great education divide.” Some staff are already proclaiming that if any teacher in their school starts carrying a gun they will leave that school to work at one where it is not allowed. The teachers themselves have strong concerns in allowing this to occur, and I’m really curious if someone who is willing to take on this responsibility is also willing and able to kill another human being when they only practice part time? And are they ready to go to prison should they shoot at the shooter and miss and hit an innocent student or staff member?

There are so many issues here, and for anyone to think that just putting a gun in someone’s hands will make them a sheepdog, as Lt. Col. Dave Grossman would say, is again naïve.

As far as armed security, I would say yes. I’m a little disheartened though in that part of President Obama’s proposal to add police officers in schools would only add 1,000 more officers in the whole country. We need more, and the public should have the trained professionals in the schools whose only job is to protect their kids. Teachers should teach, and cops should protect.


What types of new school design considerations should be made to better protect schools? Panic buttons, lockable doors, fewer windows, shades? These are some of the things I’ve read about.


Yes to all of the above. We should start by examining why calls to fire departments are now 90 percent medical aid calls and have nothing to do with fires. The reason is that the fire departments around this country have done such a fantastic job of teaching the country fire suppression techniques and making fire suppression a part of building a new building. In fact, fire suppression is required when constructing new buildings anywhere in the country. So why aren’t we putting the same emphasis on how we design schools and the training that should go with preparing for and responding to an active killer event? Haven’t enough staff, students and visitors died in this country to justify making school design and remodeling our new priority? Could you imagine the day when law enforcement only responds to crime-related calls 10 percent of the time? Now that would be a safe society.


As you look to the future, how do you see school violence prevention plans and procedures changing to keep up with the ever evolving challenge of school safety?


I think you just stated how. They need to keep up with a lot of the “what ifs.” For example, schools should be using prerecorded announcements in their lockdown plan through the PA system. Can you imagine being the staff member that has to announce a lockdown during an actual event? I doubt your voice would be calm. Schools also need to make sure that someone other than a school administrator has the authority to activate a lockdown. This is very tough for many schools to do given that the culture of education has been that the principal or other high-level administrators were the only ones that could authorize this type of plan implementation. I know of schools right now that have given employees PINs that allow them to activate an automated lockdown system if they see an active killer in progress. No calling the main office, and that’s if you can get through, and no waiting to find the administrator to authorize it. I just taught in the northeast part of Wisconsin where one deputy told me they are working on empowering staff with that tool, but they plan on being able to do it remotely through a cellphone so that no matter where the teacher is at, he or she can warn others. That is proactive thinking.
 

 

Eric Holdeman Contributing Writer

Eric Holdeman is a contributing writer for Emergency Management and is the former director of the King County, Wash., Office of Emergency Management.

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