Active Shooter Incident in South Africa


I just returned from a two week trip to South Africa. As with my previous trips there, I found it to be a fascinating journey. A beautiful country that I love to visit, South Africa also has its share of violence in and out of schools. A shooting rampage in Alexandria last Wednesday demonstrated that active shooter events can occur in any country. In this tragic case, a South African Police Services Constable attacked a police station and killed four people including his former partner. The officer also fired upon two other police officers but missed them.

Police Officer Becomes an Active Shooter

The officer had taken his girlfriend and a man hostage about a month earlier after he found them together. During the standoff, he threatened to shoot responding officers. Police seized his service pistol and he was not apparently able to purchase another one because of South Africa’s strict gun laws. Instead, the officer was able to convince an officer at the police station to give him another police service pistol which was then used in the attack. After the attack, the officer fled to a residence and killed himself with the weapon after firing upon responding police tactical team members.

Media Reporting on Active Shooter Events Distorts Reality

Like a number of active shooter events in other countries, this case received little if any national media coverage in the United States. In fact, I only learned of the incident when I read a South African newspaper on my flight home. The way media organizations cover active shooter events has considerable bearing on how we perceive the chances we will directly experience them. Active shooter events in many countries make it clear that any public or non-public school in the world could be the next school to experience and active shooter incident. No school official should ignore this possibility. At the same time, available data confirms that more than 99% of all deaths at American schools do not involve active shooter incidents. In fact, more than 90% of all homicides at school do not involve active shooter incidents.

Appropriate Responses to Active Shooter Events

Careful data evaluation reveals that it is exceedingly dangerous to focus most of our available time, energy, and fiscal resources on active shooter events. We urge our clients to thoroughly address the risk of active shooter incidents while devoting appropriate effort to address the array of hazards that claim far more lives each year than active shooter events. Taking the time to carefully review accurate school safety incident data can help to overcome the natural tendency to overemphasize active shooter risks for schools.

Suicide at School

Bibb_County_Bloomfield_MS_MG_8525Student Suicides at School Require Our Attention

According to Campus Safety Magazine, an 18-year-old student committed suicide with a firearm at Corona del Sol High School in Tempe, Arizona in May. Two of our clients have experienced multiple on-campus suicides. Suicides on school property rarely garner national media attention unless they follow an active shooter situation. The reality is that there have been far more deaths from suicides on K12 campuses than from active shooter incidents.

School Suicides Result in More Deaths than Active Shooter Events

Steve Satterly’s 2014 report Relative Risks of Death in U.S. Schools  indicates that individual schools are eight times more likely to experience an on-campus suicide than an active shooter incident. His report also reveals that twice as many deaths resulted from suicides on campus than from active shooter incidents during a recent fifteen year time period. Suicide prevention measures take on even greater importance when we also consider that many active shooter incidents have ended with suicide by the aggressor. These incidents are extremely painful. They leave a lasting and very negative impact on families and the school community.

School Suicides Demand Appropriate Resource Allocation

Our analysts have seen a number of instances where school staff have received extensive training on active shooter response while staff development on evidence-based suicide prevention concepts has not been provided. While the very real threat of active shooter incidents should not be ignored, failure to address a far more common type of event that has caused twice as many deaths is not advisable.

With many on-campus K12 suicide attempts being public in nature, these types of incidents may are beginning to receive more media coverage. A number of mental health experts feel this may in turn increase the risk of on-campus suicide by students and staff. Graphic and public suicide attempts such as those where students have lit themselves on fire in schools could easily result in a sudden shift in media exposure just as we have seen with K12 active shooter incidents. Active shooter incidents were largely ignored by the national media until the deadly shooting at Pearl High School received unprecedented media coverage. A number of school shootings have received similar intensive national media coverage since that time.

With evidence-based approaches to suicide prevention available today, it makes sense to devote time, energy and fiscal resources to prevention strategies that have been validated as effective before schools tie up precious resources on questionable and perhaps even dangerous measures for less common threats. Fortunately, a number of school districts and non-public schools have done excellent work in this area. We urge school officials to take a close look at their suicide prevention measures.

Best Practices in School Safety and Liability Exposure

School officials, vendors, associations and other organizations should use the term best practices carefully when referring to school safety efforts.  Inaccurate use of the term can create legal and public relations problems that can be avoided with more thoughtful and defensible terminology.

School officials, vendors, associations and other organizations should use the term “best practices” carefully when referring to school safety efforts. Inaccurate use of the term can create legal and public relations problems that can be avoided with more thoughtful and defensible terminology.

School Safety Best Practices and Litigation

The term “best practices” is used often in school safety field.   I think the term is sometimes used too loosely. I caution clients to be cautious about referring to any school safety measures they have implemented as a best practice. While there are several reasons for this, one of the most compelling is that school organizations may be required to prove in court that a particular approach was a best practice if they are litigated. Many of the approaches that are described as best practices will not survive this level of scrutiny. Using the term “best practice” to describe a strategy that does not really meet the definition for a best practice can open a literal Pandora’s Box. Used inappropriately, this term could turn a reasonably defensible position into an ordeal for the defendant organization.

Misuse of the term best practices in school safety is common

I have seen numerous vendors, state agencies, and non-profit organizations claim that planning approaches, training, products and services they provide are best practices without a valid basis for the use of this term. I have now seen at least two training programs that have failed badly under actual field conditions described as best practices. In both cases, there is no independent validation that the approaches are effective, reliable or safe let alone the best practice in the field. One of these training programs is about to be tested via a civil action by a school employee who alleges they were seriously injured as a result of the training program.

Sage advice from an old hand

School safety expert Bill Modzeleski first brought this concern to my attention many years ago when he served as the point man for the U.S. Department of Education’s safety efforts. He provided a rational and thoughtful explanation of why school and government officials should take great care in using the term “best practice” to describe school safety strategies. Bill made a good case and I think his sage advice is just as applicable today as it was then.

How to avoid creation of a best practice trap

I advise my clients to ask themselves how they would defend the use of the term “best practice” in front of a jury during a major civil action or in an interview with a major news organization. I tell them to imagine that a child had died in spite of the particular strategy when performing this mental exercise.   If you do not feel that you could easily provide evidence that the strategy meets this definition, it would be a good idea to find a more defensible yet positive way to describe the practice.