UPDATE: I first posted this article on April 23, 2014. I’m afraid I’ll be busy this week dealing with a pressing personal matter, so I thought it might be a good idea to repost it. It’s a topic that is not going away, and one that wee need to keep in the minds of school board and school administrators.
John Matthews is billed by Fox News thus:
John Matthews is the executive director of the Community Safety Institute. He is a 30-year law enforcement veteran, the author of Mass Shootings: Six Steps for Survival , School Safety 101,and the co-author of The Eyeball Killer, a first-hand account of his capture of Dallas’ only serial killer.
His April 17, 2014 article, “Fifteen years after Columbine: What we still need to do to protect our kids” is a remarkable compendium of suggestions, which on their face seem reasonable, but in reality, do nothing more than spend money to achieve little or no increase in deterrence and safety. He begins by noting that it has been 15 years since the Columbine attack, an attack he calls “the seminal event in American school shootings.”
The senseless violence at Columbine forced the issue of school safety into the American consciousness, leading to modifications in police practices and a complete overhaul of school safety policies and procedures.
Because of the public hue and cry, law enforcement officials realized that when children are dying, tactical containment is not enough, so Active Shooter response became standard protocol.
In the aftermath of what was then the worst school shooting in American history, an enraged public also forced school administrators to bolster their safety readiness and preparedness efforts. State legislatures throughout the nation established school safety centers and mandated both district and campus safety plans.
Matthews is correct that police procedure has changed, though not everywhere, and there is no national response standard, not that a federal mandate would help in this any more than federal mandates help in any other human endeavor. The primary change in police procedure calls for an immediate attack on any school shooter by the first officers on the scene. In other words, whoever gets there first has to run into the school, hunt down a shooter, and shoot him.
This is a 180 degree change from pre-Columbine orthodoxy. In those days—and this was played out at Columbine—it was assumed that time was always on the side of the police. Anyone causing violence in a school likely had political goals such as the release from prison of a friend, or some other revolutionary issue, so officers were taught to contain, control, and call for negotiators and SWAT. The first officers on the scene were not to do anything but keep the bad guys in, keep anyone else out, and sit back and wait until a negotiator could establish contact with the shooter(s) and through clever techniques, eventually end the crisis. That response model taught that the longer the shooter was in contact with his hostages, the greater attachment he would have to them, and the less likely he was to harm them. A bizarre side effect of that thinking was the Stockholm Syndrome hostages bonded with and actually assisted their tormentors.
What this response model failed to take into account was precisely what happened at Columbine and what has occurred virtually uniformly thereafter: the disaffected, even insane, shooter determined to kill as many innocents as quickly as possible before killing themselves.
At Columbine, the old response model was employed, and it cost lives. The attack began at 1119. At 1124, a school resource officer exchanged shots with one of the killers, but did as he had been taught and did not pursue him. At 1133, a local SWAT team was called out. Several officers would fire a few shots at the killers from outside the building as the attack continued, but the killers were not hit, or deterred. It wasn’t until 1206 that five SWAT officers entered one entrance of the enormous school. At 1208, having had no contact with police officers, the shooters killed themselves, a fact the police would not know for quite some time. At 1239 a police “mobile command bus” finally arrived. It would take until 1645 for the police to complete their initial search of the school. Both shooters were dead by their own hands only two minutes after a small element of a SWAT team finally entered the building, an element that had no contact with the shooters. Thirteen died and 24 were injured.
The new response model does recognize one important trend: seconds count. Once an attack begins, any delay in killing the shooter will cost lives, and the number of lives lost will depend upon the marksmanship and mercy of madmen. At Columbine, the killers had 49 minutes to murder as they pleased. They could have had substantially more time if they wished, and the police, despite the involvement of multiple SWAT teams and a “mobile command bus,” had no active hand in stopping the killing.
NOTE: It would be worth your time to review the timeline of the attack. Most striking is the confusion that reigned, and the utter ineffectiveness of the police response. This was due not only to the substantial size of the school, but the old response model smashing into contemporary killers.
Matthews has three ideas he suggests would prevent future school shootings:
1. Schools need customized plans. Though states had good intentions in mandating school crisis response plans, many districts, due to lack of resources, did the “cut and paste” method of planning to meet legal requirements. Some states even published ’fill-in-the-blank’ plans, and schools did exactly that, with little regard to their actual demographics or unique circumstances.
This is a reasonable idea, but is highly limited in effectiveness if effectiveness is to be measured in terms of deterrence and saving lives when an attack occurs. On paper, it’s hell on wheels. Notice as you read Matthews’ suggestions, gentle readers, that they all have to do with measures to be taken before a killer is actually at large in a school. Notice too that none of them have any deterrent effect, nor can any of them stop a killer.
Surely, schools should coordinate with the law enforcement agencies that would be responding to a school shooting. One of the primary problems is that few, if any police officers have been in local schools, and if they have, even fewer have a passing familiarity with them. Modern schools are like mazes. Computerized maps of school floor plans with exits and entrances clearly marked are essential, but even so, will tend to slow down a response as officers have to take the time to view, orient and assimilate the information on the fly before entering a school.
2. Drills need to be realistic. Most schools conduct what is known as ‘Tuesday morning’ drills, or drills under perfect and very unrealistic conditions, where everyone is in his room, close to a phone or radio and able to secure himself at a moment’s notice. Such drills almost always go flawlessly, because they are practiced under ideal conditions and not everyday situations.
These drills almost never take into consideration normal occurrences such as substitute teachers in the building with little or no crisis response training; students in the bathrooms, walking in the hallways or outside on athletic practice fields; and teachers in common areas without access to communications. School safety drills such as lockdowns, evacuations and shelter-in-place should be conducted using realistic, everyday scenarios.
Research shows that at any given hour during the school day about one third of the teachers are not in their classrooms, so drills should be conducted when students are in the cafeteria, gym class or involved in activities where locking the door and closing the blinds is not an option.
This too sounds inherently reasonable until one realizes what such drills actually accomplish and how. The state of the art is summed up in three concepts: run, hide and as an absolutely last resort, rush at an armed killer, throwing things at him and try to overpower him. Most “experts” omit the third concept. If there is no immediate response to an armed attacker, if there is no way to stop him, running and hiding ultimately bunch students and teachers in small, contained areas, making them easier targets.
Am I suggesting that when attacked, no one run and take cover? Of course not. But it that’s the totality of a school’s response plan…
Most such drills call for teachers to lock their students in classrooms and turn out the lights on the theory that when an attacker sees darkened classrooms, he’ll think no one is there and move on—until he figures out, after about the second or third dark classroom, what’s happening. Most classrooms have large windows adjacent their doors, doors with windows, or both, and few are resistant to any use of force. A prepared, determined attacker can kick, pry or shoot his way through such flimsy obstacles within seconds, and once inside a room with huddled children, it’s like shooting fish in a barrel. Single bullets can easily wound or kill two or more kids.
“But students and teachers can implement the third concept!” They can try, and if they aren’t too far away from the attacker, if there are enough of them to allow at least a few of them to actually reach the attacker, if they’re old enough—high school age—and if they are willing to keep attacking no matter how much of the blood and flesh of their fellow students covers them, they might have some effect. This method also assumes that an attacker will simply stand still and allow him self to be overwhelmed rather than moving or simply retreating and attacking elsewhere. Imagine the chance for success of such a mass attack carried out by a class of 3rd graders. Again, under some circumstances, it would be preferable to attack, but what kind of adult, what kind of educator knowingly plans to make that necessary?
Matthews seems to realize the futility and danger of this, yet argues for it anyway:
In one portion of a report that detailed the mass murders of 20 first-graders and six educators at Sandy Hook Elementary School, it noted “that more than a dozen bodies, mostly children, were ‘packed like sardines’ in a bathroom.” So many people had tried to cram inside the bathroom that the door couldn’t be closed, and the shooter gunned them all down, a police lieutenant surmised. If this was the case, it reaffirms the need to have both planning and practice under realistic, everyday situations.
Would it have been better for them to be bunched in a classroom rather than a bathroom? Which “run and hide” practice would be preferable when after running and hiding, the only option was to wait as long as it took for a killer to find them? One might argue that being more spread out in a classroom might force a killer to take a few seconds longer to kill an equal number of children and teachers, but surely no one would call this an effective policy or plan?
Let’s be brutally honest. Coordination between the police and schools amounts to little more than familiarizing the police with the layout of schools, and hoping that the police can get there as quickly as possible and can find and stop a shooter as quickly as possible. In the intervening time, Matthews’ model and the models of most such “school safety experts,” do virtually nothing to save lives.
The officers did what they could, but the two most important factors in police response to school attacks thwarted them: time and distance. The first 911 call wasn’t received until five minutes and 39 seconds after Lanza began his attack, and the first radio call to officers wasn’t sent for another 27 seconds, six minutes and six seconds after the attack began. By then, Lanza had killed many. And despite arriving within three minutes and 21 seconds–nine minutes after the attack began–officers didn’t enter the building until eight minutes and 41 seconds after receiving the first radio call, some 14 minutes and forty seven seconds after the attack began. By then, all of the children and adults shot (with two exceptions) were dead or dying and Lanza shot himself four minutes and 44 seconds earlier.
Despite arriving within nine minutes after the attack started, officers couldn’t enter the building for about another five minutes, and even then, had to find the killer to have any effect on the outcome. By the time they entered the building, the killer was already dead, which was unknown to them. This has been the pattern in every significant school shooting since Columbine. School attackers can plan to have no less than five uninterrupted minutes, and likely at least ten minutes before the first officer can so much as enter the school building. In most American schools, there is almost nothing—apart from colorful gun-free school zone signs–to deter or stop them.
3. Increased training for staff and students. Since the first spate of school shootings in the late 1990s, schools have had an opportunity to prepare for these attacks. But beyond practicing lockdown drills, what have they really taught our teachers and students about surviving a mass shooting or active shooter incident?
Unfortunately, the answer is very little in primary and secondary schools, and even less in colleges and universities. Even though there are over 4,000 colleges and universities in the United States, the training provided to educators at this level is minuscule. Even after the bloodshed at Virginia Tech many professors are at a loss to explain even the most fundamental concepts of school safety.
Although significant progress has been made in primary and secondary school preparedness, the cold hard fact is that the majority of teachers still receive only a minimal amount of safety and security instruction with little attention paid to how to actually survive an incident. Many educators across the country receive only about an hour of annual in-service crisis response training – and most of that revolves around how to lock their doors and wait for the police.
Well—yes, but what more does Matthews suggest be taught? When an armed attacker is walking down a school hallway toward an unarmed teacher’s classroom, randomly shooting, what to do?
A lockdown procedure is a valuable and proven tool to deter offenders – but what if their door is breached, as happened in Newtown, or if they are exposed in an open gym or cafeteria like at Columbine?
“…a valuable and proven tool to deter offenders”? Utter, dangerous nonsense. What school attacker doesn’t expect teachers to try to lock doors and hide students? This is what passes for deterrence? It certainly hasn’t deterred any school attack since Columbine. What happens when doors are breached is easily understood by studying the experiences of those at Newtown, Virginia Tech, even Columbine: students and teachers die. Matthews continues:
If tragedies like Columbine, Virginia Tech and Newtown are to have any value to us as a society, we must learn from them and adapt our law enforcement and school safety practices to meet these contemporary threats.
Proper planning by police and school administrators, practice by first responders and school occupants and training for all school safety stakeholders can and will save lives.
Unfortunately, what Matthews suggests will do nothing to deter attacks or save lives, but it will contribute to filling the coffers of companies like his, serving up “safety” that will look grand in a school’s “School Safety and Emergency Incident Response” portfolio. If we are truly to learn from the tragedies Matthews serves up, we must learn a very different, and far more aggressive and effective lesson.
To be fair, I’m sure Matthews is selling what his potential customers are willing to buy. For far too many of those customers–educators and risk-averse school boards and politicians–appearance and feel-good gestures take precedence over substance. It is not they that will taking the risks but children and teachers.
Don’t misunderstand: hardening schools with more effective doors, locks and security procedures, though very expensive, isn’t entirely wasted. Seconds matter, and such measures can buy seconds. Armed intruder drills are likewise not a waste, if—IF—they are combined with armed response.
By this, I don’t mean armed security guards or even armed school resource officers (commissioned police officers or deputies assigned to individual schools). There is simply not enough money available to fund these positions for every school, and I speak not of enough personnel to cover every hour a school is open and every school activity, but a single guard or officer at each school. For schools that have them, they are certainly better than nothing, except they become the first target for canny killers, and their effectiveness is limited at best, particularly if they don’t happen to be in the school when an attack happens, which is far more common than most understand.
The first step is simple: allow teachers and other staff to carry concealed weapons, and don’t over-regulate it. When government gets involved, everyone ends up with the same gun, the same holsters, and overly restrictive rules that defeat the purpose and advantages of concealed weapons in schools. Simply allow anyone that qualifies for a concealed carry license to carry, and let them decide what to carry–what actually works for them–and how to carry it as long as it is actually concealed and reliable.
Certainly, it might be wise to have upper and lower ammunition size limits–.380 to .45, for example–and to require true concealment of any handgun carried, but these are details that matter little until the reality that only good guys with guns can stop bad guys with guns, and we want plenty of good guys in place when and wherever kids are, is accepted and implemented. Buy the car first and argue over tire inflation and which radio channel is best later.
Those that demand such people be trained to the same standard as police officers misunderstand the issues. Police officers are exhaustively trained because their duties are varied and complex. Shooting well is only a small portion of their skill set. Teachers carrying concealed weapons would not function as law enforcers and would draw their weapons just as any citizen carrying a concealed weapon would: in response to an imminent threat of serious bodily injury or death to themselves or others. Their skills need encompass only basic tactics and shooting straight.
Is it really preferable that they be unable to stop such threats when and where they occur, or that their options be limited to running, hiding or begging for their lives? How does one defend knowingly denying teachers the ability to defend their lives and the lives of their students when there is no doubt that seconds matter and the first police officer won’t enter the building for around 15 minutes from the first gunshot?
Schools should arrange for competent live fire training that concentrates on the kinds of tactics, environment and shooting that staff might encounter in their school, but this should not be mandatory lest it bar otherwise capable people from being armed, which is the point.
The second step is closely related and should occur simultaneously with the first step: notify the public, repeatedly, that the Smithville School District is no longer a gun free school district and that school staff are not only allowed, but encouraged to carry concealed weapons. Publicize their training and the results. Keep it in the public eye. However, be firm in refusing to tell anyone how many people on each campus are armed, except to say that “many” or “a substantial number” of teachers are armed. Go so far as to say that the program is “very successful and effective.” Even if no one on a given campus is armed, this will provide a very real—as opposed to theoretical/paper—deterrent effect for every campus.
This is the value of concealed carry outside of school. No criminal can know who is carrying a handgun and must act as though every potential victim is. There is no doubt that mass killers carefully choose their targets, preferring gun free zones. Why would they do otherwise? What murderer planning a school attack would choose an armed Smithville school when the nearby Jonestown District remains “gun-free?”
But this means that gun-free districts near armed districts would actually be funneling killers toward their schools! Why, to protect their students, they’d all have to allow the arming of staff. Imagine that. This, gentle readers, is one reason why many educators want to remain “gun-free” forever. Once a sufficient number of districts in any state are armed, and once it is clear that all of the horrors hoplophobes invariably predict have not come to pass, how can they demand their students unnecessarily remain in danger? Why would anyone resist the only truly effective means of protecting students and staff if an attack occurs?
Even in armed districts, deterrence can never be absolute. And when it fails, what better response than having several armed teachers in each and every hallway of a school, ready and able to stop an attacker then and there? As students and unarmed faculty run and hide, there are armed, capable people ready to keep a killer from hunting their colleagues and students down and killing them. This is the element of school safety missing in every so-called school safety plan, and what an absence it is: the only sure means of saving lives.
This is the “proper planning” that will save lives. Anything less unquestionably accepts an unknowable number of wounded and dead, numbers to be determined by homicidal madmen.