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Are Schools Focusing Too Much on the Active Shooter Scenario?

Experts say the training and security measures focused on school shootings are flawed and overshadow more common types of violence on campus.

Active shooter training

School shootings have captured the attention of the American public and certainly school administrators, who feel compelled to do something to prevent or mitigate the effects of a similar incident taking place on their grounds.

Solutions — in the form of cameras, metal detectors, buzzers, bulletproof white boards and the like — are coming out of the woodwork and are being foisted upon administrators. There is a lot of training available too, such as the Run, Hide, Fight video that demonstrates what to do in the event of an active shooter, including taking down an armed gunman. 

But there are problems with these approaches and educators are missing key elements of managing these scenarios by relying on some of the technology fixes and the active shooter training, some experts say.

The Run, Hide, Fight training is an alternative to waiting for law enforcement to arrive, which is ineffective since most violent acts are usually over in minutes, before law enforcement arrives. The objective of the training videos is to condition students and administrators, anyone faced with the potentially deadly situation of an active shooter, to recognize the best avenues for avoiding bloodshed.

Running is the first option. If you can get away from danger, do it, the video teaches. If not, find a place to hide quietly. And last, if in close quarters with a gunman, with no place to hide and no avenue for escape, become offensive by throwing objects at him to distract him or even resort to physical combat.

Proponents, and there are many school campuses taking part in such training, say this is better than becoming a sitting duck.

But there are those who say the training is flawed, asks too much of school administrators and students, and misses key components like threat assessments, all-hazards training and collaboration. 

Are Schools Less Safe?

“We’re very concerned that a lot of schools are less safe today than they were before Sandy Hook,” said Michael Dorn, a former law enforcement officer and now executive director of Safe Havens International, a nonprofit campus safety organization.

One of the reasons, Dorn said, is the heavy emphasis on the active shooter scenario, which ignores other threats, and that some of the training is not evidence-based and not proven to work, such as the Run, Hide, Fight video, created by the city of Houston with U.S. Department of Homeland Security funds.

That thinking is in line with that of Curt Lavarello, executive director of the School Safety Advocacy Council, as well. He knows of no instances where a classroom has been trained to disarm a gunman and has actually done so successfully. He was speaking of the “fight” component of some of the trainings being offered to school districts, which instruct teachers and even elementary school students how to disarm a gunman.

Asking teachers or students to have the wherewithal to attack an armed gunman and hold him down “gets way, way off base,” Lavarello said. “We’re doing something that is not only inherently dangerous but it’s untested.”

Dorn likened the “Fight” part of the video to close quarters combat taught in the military. “When you’re training people to disarm somebody, it’s the highest level of close quarters combat. It’s harder to teach that than to teach them to shoot somebody or stab them with a bayonet.” And yet it’s being done with a 10-minute video or two-hour class, he said.

Dorn’s organization conducts assessments for schools to see how prepared or unprepared they are, putting them in a scenario and observing the reaction. Often the reaction is counter to what is safe and effective, and oftentimes those who’ve watched the Run, Hide, Fight video perform worse than those with no training at all.

“The video is very frightening to educators,” Dorn said. “They freak out and do the most bizarre things. We ask them why they did what they did and they say, ‘I saw the video and that’s what the video told me to do.’”

One elderly man got so panicked during a drill that he jumped through a plate-glass window. And that’s just one case. Dorn said one state has had nearly a quarter of a million dollars in emergency medical bills in the last 18 months just from training. In addition, he said about one-fourth of all participants in the assessment drills will attack the gunman, whether the gunman is suicidal, down the hall, waving the gun or not. 

There have been real shooting scenarios where citizens unsuccessfully tried to stop a gunman and Dorn acknowledged that it has gone both ways, where citizens were successful. For instance at Thurston High School in Oregon, students disarmed a gunman after he opened fire. But, as in the case of a Wisconsin high school principal, people have been killed by becoming aggressive with an individual brandishing a gun. At the assessments, people are going out of their way to attack the gunman.

As for having guns for protection in the classroom, Lavarello said it’s asking for trouble. For one thing, police arriving on a scene would have the daunting task of identifying a “good shooter” versus a “bad shooter.” He said that from his 25 years as a law enforcement officer (18 in schools) he understands that in a high-stress situation like an active shooter scenario, even a trained shooter will hit the target about 30 percent of the time.

“The school teacher who may qualify at the pistol range once a year is not going to hit the target in a high-stress situation like an active shooter,” Lavarello said. “And in a school, the backdrop of missing rounds is other kids.”

Physical security, in the form of police officers or security officers has increased since Sandy Hook, and that’s a good thing and advocated by most security professionals. These can be multi-hazard professionals, trained in all-hazards response and, perhaps, shared with the local law enforcement office.

Other Violent Acts

In Run, Hide, Fight, students and teachers are taught to run if it’s safe and hide if it’s not, but they don’t remember that part correctly or misidentify the situation in simulation. Assessments reveal that when given scenarios where there is someone with a gun walking 75 yards away, they do unthinkable things like leaving second-graders exposed.

There are more common types of violence on campus that are being overshadowed by the active shooter hype, such as suicides and other incidents: “The guy who pulls out a buck knife on a teacher or the guy who’s emotionally unstable and comes in and starts beating up the secretary with the wooden nameplate on her desk,” Dorn said. He cited a study that listed 63 homicides in the last 15 years with twice as many suicides. Kids are shooting themselves in front of classes or in the principal’s office, and those instances are twice as common in terms of the number of deaths and five times as common as shootings.

Proponents of the fight and countermeasures say those are meant to be last resorts; when everything else is off the table and the subjects are in close quarters with a gunman. And it’s an alternative to the “lockdown” procedure, which produces easy targets.

But teaching students to hide under a desk or lie down on the floor is counterproductive when it comes to survival, they say, and recent shootings such as Sandy Hook prove that. At Sandy Hook 39 rounds were fired into a room of about 17 square feet where kids were hunkered down. “That was somebody’s strategy,” said Lt. Joe Hendry with the Kent State University Police Department. “That’s not a great idea for this circumstance.”

Same thing at Virginia Tech and the movie theater in Colorado, where a number of people were shot lying on the ground. “Those are not survival tactics,” Hendry said. He’s a proponent of the counter aspect and teaches students to become harder targets, to distract the shooter with noise and movement.

Janice Evans, chief policy officer and director of communications for Houston Mayor Annise Parker’s office, where the Run, Hide, Fight video was produced, stated that the “fight” portion of the video is not transferable to a school situation. “However, the ‘run’ and ‘hide’ segments can be applied to schools.” She said the video has been viewed by nearly 3 million people on YouTube and her office continues to get requests for it from corporations and public agencies around the country.

Brad Spicer, CEO of SafePlans, agrees that passive targets are easy victims. “It’s not that we think that young kids can pick up a book and take out a bad guy. We’re saying don’t just tell kids to hide under a table and hope the bad guy doesn’t come in,” he said. He said bullets aren’t magic and don’t automatically find their targets, so being active, making the shooter make decisions and presenting him with challenges can save lives.

Marianne Derbyshire Alvarez is the vice president at the ALICE Training Institute. ALICE — Alert, Lockdown, Inform, Counter, Evacuate — is a training strategy for schools, including K-12 schools, businesses and hospitals to improve the odds of survival among students and employees during a “violent intruder event.”

Alvarez called ALICE a toolbox that provides options other than the traditional actions of lockdown and wait. ALICE is based on the principle that every circumstance is different and there is no one-size-fits-all method for survival, she said. And the order of response is based on the situation, meaning whether it’s Lockdown, Evacuate or Counter (distract the shooter) the best choice depends on the circumstance.

But can children or even adult employees stay calm and focus on the right solution when shots are being fired? “That’s where training comes in,” Alvarez said. “Just like police are trained over and over, we actually visualize what we may go through so that if we are faced with it, then we just do it.”

ALICE emphasizes that “Counter” is a last resort to be used only when all other options are no longer viable. And unlike the Run, Hide, Fight video, where fighting is an option, the countermeasure in ALICE is a diversion aimed at distracting the shooter and allowing time for individuals to escape. “Say you’re the shooter and you’re approaching some people and they all start throwing books at you or a cup of coffee,” Alvarez said. “Isn’t it going to be more difficult for you to hit that target with things flying at your face?”

ALICE Training is a method of mitigating the circumstance of an active shooter incident once that happens. It’s not meant to replace assessments of facilities and the mental health of students and employees. Alvarez said she’s a “big believer” in threat assessment teams for schools or any agency and having different groups meet once a month to discuss individuals who might need to be watched or investigated.

All-Hazards Approach

The emphasis on an active shooter scenario detracts from other important trainings like tornado drills, CPR and shelter in place, Dorn and Lavarello said. And school districts, deluged with quick fixes from vendors, are investing in things they don’t necessarily need.

“We do a lot of school safety assessments and I get the million-dollar question: ‘What do I need? Do I need cameras? Metal detectors? Retina scanning?’” Lavarello said. “We tell them to take a step back and truly look at what the needs are.”

The way to do that is through an assessment, which can be done by a professional or even a principal from another school. But oftentimes the most important security measure lacking on campus is supervision.

Lavarello said he recently did an assessment for a school district in a city that was ready to shell out nearly $5 million on walkthrough metal detectors. He was on several of the district’s campuses for hours at a time before anyone approached him to ask who he was and what he was doing there. At one point there were nearly 40 buses unloading children, he said, and not one administrator or adult was around other than the bus drivers to inquire as to who he was.

“Here the district was ready to make this huge purchase and yet they weren’t even doing the simple things.”

Dorn agreed, saying supervision is almost always implicated when a student is killed on or near campus. More emphasis on student supervision will reduce the number of deaths from tornado, school traffic fatalities, suicide, and reduce bullying, child abduction and sexual molestation, he said. “And it’s cheaper than teaching people how to pack a gun.”

Part of that is just being available, greeting students as they arrive at school, communicating with them and developing a rapport. Cameras are great but they are mostly used as evidence and schools usually don’t review video at the end of the day.

Amy Klinger, director of programs at the Educator’s School Safety Network, acknowledged that it’s fine to purchase buzzers, locks, cameras, metal detectors, etc., but it’s also important to realize that they are but a first line of defense and that there must be a second line. She said if someone wants to get onto school grounds, they will, so there’d better be a second line of defense, and that should be trained, alert personnel.

Like Dorn and Lavarello, Klinger does intruder assessments and finds the same things: Nobody engages the visitor. “That’s a huge vulnerability for schools,” she said. “Maybe they’re there to steal iPhones or snatch a kid or shoot up a school — you don’t know.”

Dorn said de-escalation training is a no-brainer because it works. Evidenced-based anti-bullying programs work as does training on pattern matching recognition — learning how to spot a desperate individual can help administrators become more able to detect danger and act accordingly to de-escalate it.

Assessment training should not just be about who the next shooter might be but who has the potential to be violent to one’s self or to others in any way. It could be merely a student who appears to be engaging in risk-taking behavior all the way up to a person who projects the ability to be violent.

Klinger said that in more than 75 percent of school shootings, three or more adults were concerned about the individual prior to the shooting, and threat assessments and appropriate training are ways to connect the dots. “But it also is predicting kids at risk for suicide, self-mutilation, substance abuse or running away. So it’s exactly what we need to be doing because it’s an all-hazards approach to preventing these events.”

Schools, businesses and the public have — for the most part — waited for law enforcement to arrive on the scene during situations like an active shooter. But prior collaboration with law enforcement, and fire and EMS is an important part of mitigating events.

“School districts and colleges should reach out to local first responders and develop a relationship and an understanding of how things work in each realm,” Lavarello said. They should go hand in hand to make kids learn to their maximum capacity.”