School Shootings, No Simple Answers

Mass casualty school shootings are neither a new phenomenon nor a type of violence unique to American schools.  Though American school shootings predate the Civil war, the first mass casualty school shooting in an American K12 school we have identified took place in a Newburgh, New York Parochial School on April 19, 1891.  A 70-year-old man shot five students with a shotgun in this attack.  Just more than a decade later, an elementary teacher shot and killed three trustees of a Mennonite School in Canada before going across the street and shooting their three children to death.  Tragically, mass casualty school shootings have also occurred in Argentina, Austria, Australia, Brazil, Canada, China, Finland, Germany, India, Israel, Mexico, Nigeria, Russia, and Scotland, just to name a few countries.  School and police officials have expressed concerns about school shootings in every one of the more than two dozen countries our analysts have worked in.

To dispel another common myth, attackers have used firearms, edged weapons, gasoline, swords, clubs, hatchets, explosives, a homemade flamethrower, and other weapons to carry out mass casualty school attacks in the United States and many other countries as far back as 1764.   In fact, there is no region of the world that has been left touched by the types of extreme violence in K12 schools.

While many pundits, special interest groups, vendors, elected officials and individuals with the very best of intention suggest an array of simple solutions, there are actually no examples of any singular approach that has been proven to eliminate mass casualty violence in schools.   While it is a healthy and natural part of our culture to discuss and debate potential strategies to further reduce the number of homicides in our schools, it is extremely important that schools do not overlook the measures that have been repeatedly used to successfully avert planned school shootings while seeking new protection measures.  While schools consider an array of new theoretical but as yet not validated approaches, it is imperative that student threat assessment and management, suicide prevention and other proven behavioral prevention measures be more widely utilized.   While there are no simple answers nor 100% effective approaches to prevent school shootings, there are approaches that have been used to successfully avert hundreds of planned and imminent school shootings.

While every school homicide is one too many, we cannot lose sight of the fact that multiple planned school shootings are successfully averted for every successfully carried out attack.  While we continually hear about the “good old days” when mass casualty school attacks were not a concern, history provides many examples of horrific attacks from colonial times to the present.   The 24/7 news cycle and the development of the internet make us painfully and almost instantly aware of horrific attacks that in the past did not receive national attention.  Keeping in mind that there are more K12 students in U.S. K12 schools each day than there are human beings in Canada and Australia combined can also provide a more accurate perspective.   As with child molestation by school employees and staggering numbers of fatalities from drunk driving prior to the efforts of Mothers Against Drunk Driving to educate us, we are far more aware of homicides in K12 schools than we were when a school board member carried out a deadly bombing of the Bath School in Michigan killing 43 students and staff in 1927.  It is also important to remember that our nation’s most lethal K12 attack occurred at the Our Lady of Angels Sacred Hearts school in Chicago in 1958 when a troubled elementary child killed 95 students and staff with a book of matches.

While we seek new ways to make our schools safer, it is at serious risk to our students and those who educate them for us to invest considerable time, energy and fiscal resources on theoretical measures while ignoring proven measures that have repeatedly prevented deadly school shootings and bombings over the past three decades.

Door Locking Devices and School Shootings: No Simple Answers

Mass casualty school shootings are neither a new phenomenon nor a problem unique to American schools.  We do need to improve safety, security and emergency preparedness. At the same time, we must remember to use evidence-based practices focused on addressing real risk. For example, over the past several years we have seen numerous lockdown, barricade, and door locking devices enter the market. Since the Parkland shooting last week we have seen a new device invented by a high school student – the “JustinKase” – go viral.

Student throws can of food

Over the past several years a number of dangerous tactics and equipment have been suggested, including one politician’s recommendation that students carry canned food to keep under their desk as a weapon against gunmen.

Door Locking Devices and Barricade Tools

Like programs that teach students to throw books and other objects at a gunman with a semi-automatic rifle, many of these door locking devices are well intended. One major drawback is that many of these devices are also very costly. Education budgets are already stretched too thin to waste tens of thousands of dollars if it is not justified. In many cases, lockdown devices are not needed if building equipment is used properly. While many schools do have older door hardware, most schools built within the last 10 to 20 years that are still in good condition would not need a lockdown device or door barricade device to rapidly protect classroom occupants from a threat in the hallway or outside the school.

Like many devices we see, it appears that the JustinKase device would likely violate fire codes because it cannot be easily manipulated with one hand to exit and because it would delay egress. It also appears that the JustinKase could even be used as a bludgeon.

We are more concerned that the device does not appear to have a way for school officials or first responders to bypass it. This would make it easy for a student or visitor to trap a staff member, or other students, in a room and attack or sexually assault them while preventing rescuers from entering the room (these types of events are far more common than active shooters).  A similar concern is that other types of assaults have occurred when attackers locked out help.  In one case we worked, a school registrar was beaten into a coma by a 67-year-old woman who first locked the office door from the inside.

Some barricade lockdown devices do allow entry to the room with a proprietary key. However, from our experience working Active Shooter cases, rapid response teams may not be able to wait for these during a fast-breaking incident. They may, in turn, need to resort to extreme measures to breach the room. In the Arapahoe High School shooting in 2013, some doors had to be cut open using a blowtorch because there were not enough master keys readily available.  If you use a barricade device, you should have a very reliable system for staff and law enforcement to obtain rescue keys rapidly.

Any lockdown device should be reviewed by your Fire Marshall first to make sure it will not violate fire code. Some devices delay egress or might make escape impossible for some building occupants. One device that is particularly concerning when used in schools is a metal device that goes over the door closer arm, preventing it from opening. This would be difficult or impossible for first responders to breach and many students (and some staff) would be too short to remove it from the door arm, thus preventing egress. Additionally, a person in a wheelchair or with other physical limitations would not be able to operate or remove the device. For more on avoiding lockdown device letdowns, read our October 2016 newsletter: “Improving School Lockdowns”.

Unless your school already has leading-practice student threat evaluation and management and suicide prevention teams, you are more likely to have an attack and to be successfully sued for failure to meet the standard of care. This is even more true if funding was used on these types of devices.

School Violence is Not New and U.S. Schools are Actually Safer Now Than in Decades Past

We continually hear about the days when mass casualty school attacks did not happen. On the contrary, U.S. history provides many examples of horrific attacks from colonial times to the present.  School shootings predate the Civil war.  The first mass casualty American school shooting was in 1891 when five students were shot in a Newburgh, New York parochial school.  The 24/7 news cycle and the internet make us painfully and almost instantly aware of incidents that previously would not receive national attention.

As with child molestation and drunk driving, today we are far more aware of homicides in K12 schools than we were in decades past. In fact, the homicide rate has continually decreased. For example, the two most deadly attacks in American schools both occurred more than 50 years ago:

1958:  A troubled elementary child kills 95 students and staff with a book of matches at the Our Lady of Angels Sacred Hearts school in Chicago.

1927: A school board member carries out a deadly shooting and bombing of the Bath School in Michigan, killing more than 40 students, staff and town officials.

There is no region of the world that has not been touched by school violence.  Attackers have used firearms, knives, gasoline, swords, clubs, hatchets, explosives, a homemade flamethrower and other weapons to carry out mass casualty school attacks around the globe as far back as 1764.   China has had attacks where dozens have been killed by a single attacker with a knife.

Focus on Proven Solutions Rather Than Knee-Jerk Responses

Though pundits, special interest groups, vendors, elected officials and individuals with the very best of intention suggest an array of simple solutions, there are actually no examples of the elimination of mass casualty weapons violence.  At the same time, we cannot lose sight of the fact that many planned school shootings are successfully averted for every successfully carried out attack.  Just a day before the Parkland attack, an even more terrifying attack plan was thwarted in Washington State along with many other potential acts of K12 violence across the country.

There are no simple answers or 100% effective approaches to prevent school shootings. There are approaches that have been used to successfully avert hundreds of planned school shootings. Working in this field for decades, it is frustrating to see a school ignore proven measures that have prevented deadly school shootings and bombings for decades.  While door locking devices may be useful or even necessary in some schools, other types of threats are more common. As we look at our active shooter response measures, we stay vigilant on student threat assessment and management, behavioral training approaches and suicide prevention. When schools engage in theoretical approaches that are not validated, it creates a serious risk to our students and those who educate them.

Fatal Shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland Florida

Today’s tragic news of a fatal shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Broward County Public Schools in Parkland, Florida hit home. Some years back, I served as an expert witness for another fatal shooting in this same school district.  Like many other school districts of its size, Broward County Public Schools serves a number of communities with significant violent crime issues.

While it is far too soon to accurately know what transpired in this attack, it is a good time for school officials to review their prevention, preparedness, response and recovery procedures.  We urge our clients to focus on those concepts that have proven to be effective over the years.  While no school violence prevention or preparedness measures are 100% effective or foolproof, there are numerous approaches that have helped to avert multiple planned school attacks.

Effective prevention measures for school shootings involves a comprehensive approach.  There are many different factors that can lead to a school shooting.  Reliance on just a few prevention strategies can quickly prove to be ineffective.  While it is always difficult to say what could have prevented an incident like the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas high school, here are a few comprehensive measures:

  • Measures to reduce the number of fights. Fights are one of the most common precursors to fatal school violence. In general, the more fights and other triggering factors a school has, the more likely they are to have a weapons incident.
  • Multi-disciplinary threat assessment and management approaches. This is one of the most effective measures to prevent planned school shootings, bombings and mass casualty knife attacks.
  • Training to support threat assessment. Behavioral training can help staff spot at-risk youth and potentially dangerous individuals. These students can be given extra attention and referred to a threat assessment team as appropriate.
  • Suicide prevention strategies. Suicidal ideation, suicide attempts and other behaviors that demonstrate an increased risk for suicide are always a concern. In particular, these traits have been a factor in a number of planned school shooting incidents.  Suicide prevention training for students and staff is critical. Effective suicide risk screening measures can also be an effective prevention tool.
  • Police or armed security personnel. Armed security and police personnel who have been properly screened, trained and deployed have averted or mitigated a number of planned school weapons assaults.
  • Weapons Search Dogs. Firearms detection K9s can detect firearms in student vehicles, lockers, public areas. There are now canines that can be used to detect firearms in large crowds.
  • Thoughtful and effective student supervision. Proper student supervision can not only help to reduce the types of interpersonal conflict that precede most school shootings but can reduce casualties if an attack occurs.  This is because properly supervised students can be sheltered more rapidly.
  • Effective access control. Securing unsupervised exterior entrances and reducing the number of unlocked doors can be an effective layer of prevention for outside threats. This can even be a mitigating factor for a student attacker who attempts to enter the school surreptitiously.  A building design where visitors are routed through a single point of entry where they can be visually and verbally screened by school staff. Florida has had legislation setting Safe School Design Guidelines since the 1990s.
  • Random surprise metal detection and for some situations, entry point metal detection. Though not appropriate for all situations, these approaches have been effective for a number of school districts.

While these are only a few examples of proven prevention measures, I have found them to be among the more effective approaches in use by many school systems.  While there are no guarantees, there are distinct probabilities and possibilities to reduce the risks of violence on our school campuses. Finally, I would like to remind you that schools are still safe places. You are less likely to be a victim of violence on a school campus than anywhere else. And even though school buses are the safest form of transportation there is, students are more likely to die of a transportation related cause at school than a shooting. The shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School should serve as a reminder and a stark warning to update our plans but we must also remember to keep our focus.

Violence is not a leading cause of death in schools.

Violence is not a leading cause of death in schools.