History repeats itself -School Sword Attack Results in Multiple Casualties

Sword attack

This still photo taken from a school crisis video scenario for the First 30 Seconds series depicts a man initiating an attack with a sword at a school. Focusing too intently on mass casualty school shootings can leave staff woefully unprepared for other types of attack methodologies.

A violent school sword attack in Trollhattan, Sweden left a teacher and a student dead, another student wounded and many other staff, students and parents traumatized. This incident reminds us that no country is immune to horrific school violence and that prevention and preparedness measures should not be focused solely on attacks with firearms. Blades have long been a weapon of choice for school attacks in Japan, China, the United States and a number of other countries. While there have also been mass casualty shootings and fire attacks, edged weapons attacks at elementary schools in the People’s Republic of China in the past decade have resulted in hundreds of serious injuries and fatalities. In one attack, twenty-eight elementary children were stabbed with a butcher knife. Fourteen children were murdered with a butcher knife in another attack. Twenty-one students were also wounded with a butcher knife in a Chinese primary school on the same day as the terrible mass casualty school shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School.

Last summer, our video unit spent a day filming a wide variety of school crisis scenarios involving school weapons incidents. They filmed single victim shootings, hostage situations, several active shooter scenarios, and a scenario depicting a school sword attack in a classroom. We included this scenario because of actual incidents in the United States. For example, a school bus was high jacked by a student armed with a sword in Nevada and an attacker attempted to behead a Georgia high school principal with a machete in 1990.

I have gone to great pains to provide a rational perspective when it comes to mass casualty attacks in American schools. We have documented that more than twenty people die from other causes for every fatality from K12 active shooter events. I have also emphasized how rare these events are. At the same time, I have repeatedly cautioned that these types of attacks will continue. I also believe that we have likely not seen the most lethal weapons assaults nor the most gruesome attacks we could see. The most gruesome and the most lethal attacks on American schools thus far occurred in 1764 and 1958 respectively.   As we have seen many times with school attacks, history often does repeat itself.

With intensive media coverage, internet discussion of mass casualty attacks and other contributing factors, we are assured to see more of these tragic incidents at home and abroad. Considering the broad array of school attack methodologies we have repeatedly seen such as the use of guns, edged weapons, fire, vehicles and hazardous materials can help us better prevent, prepare for and recover from these tragic events that have been taking place in schools for more than two centuries.

The Danger of Simple Solutions in School Safety

Photograph taken during filming of the first 30 seconds, weapon scenarios.

Photograph taken during filming of the first 30 seconds, weapon scenarios.

The Search for Simple School Safety Solutions

Overhaul the nation’s mental health system. Arm all teachers.  Ban guns. Fight back against the attacker. Use ready-made school crisis plans. These and a host of other “simple solutions” dominate the discussion of school shootings. These types of “ABC” approaches attempt to boil our school safety efforts down to a simple formula when in reality we face complex and evolving risk. This is as much of an oversimplification as Lenin’s calls for “Land, Bread and Peace” to fix the problems of Russia were in 1917.

School Shootings Have Been a Significant Problem for More than a Century

After every mass casualty school shooting, we re-examine ways to “put an end” to these types of campus attacks. In fact, mass casualty shooting incidents have happened since the 1800s when five students where shot by a troubled man with a shotgun at a New York Catholic school. Other attacks with hatchets, firearms and even explosives date back to at least 1764. And the most deadly attack in the U.S. involved a 1958 arson fire that claimed more lives than every K12 active shooter incident in the history of our nation combined. While there is no doubt that more K12 active shooter events have taken place in the past twenty years than in any other comparable time period, the concept of a mass casualty school attack is far from a new phenomenon.

Why are Our Perceptions of School Safety so Out of Balance?

Intensive, emotive and sensational media coverage has dramatically changed our awareness of and reaction to horrific acts of school violence and driven an increased focus on school safety. This heightened awareness has resulted in tremendous progress in our K12 schools. Contrary to popular perception, increased efforts have been at least partially responsible for an overall reduction in K12 school homicides from the 1970s and 1980s when more students and staff were murdered annually than are today. In fact, the per capita homicide rate has dropped since this decrease is in the face of a continual population increase. While we were tragically complacent about school violence in the 1970s and 1980s when more victims were being killed in schools, we have now gone too far in the other direction, often virtually ignoring the most common forms of death on campus while we focus intently on the horrible yet statistically less likely mass casualty incidents.

The Dangers of Desperate Attempts to Oversimplify School Safety

Available data indicates that about one school-related death in twenty is from an active shooter event. This means that it is extremely dangerous to focus intently on active shooter events while reducing our available time, energy and limited fiscal resources on the types of incidents that are the cause of more than 95% of all school-related deaths. These quiet and often preventable types of tragedies may not garner national headlines, but they do cause incalculable anguish since they represent thousands of deaths over the past four decades. In addition, many simplistic and popular approaches to the prevention of and preparedness for active shooter events lack supportive evidence that they are actually effective.

I believe there will be more active shooter incidents in our schools and it would not surprise me to see one or more events involving even far greater loss of life than we have previously seen. There are also indications that we may see a rise in the more typical types of homicides that take place in K12 schools as well. We can and should continue to find more effective ways to address the problems of school shootings.   We also have a responsibility to implement the many proven strategies that we know work while we explore in a logical fashion other approaches that may work to prevent death in our schools.

When School Safety Software is Slower

Touch Screen Directory

While designed to make it easier for travelers to find information, this airport electronic information board slows down the process and inconveniences people who need to use it. Some school safety software solutions also slow people down. This can be dangerous in emergency situations.

Software can be Slower than the Human Brain

While flying out of the Atlanta Airport last week, I was reminded of the need to write this column.  A while back, I went to a concourse information board to find a restaurant.  I quickly realized that they had installed a very sophisticated and interactive information board to help travelers.  As I stood in line watching people try to figure out how to use the new device, it became quickly apparent that though the new board was more robust, had much better graphics and looked really cool, it was dramatically slower to use.

Unexpected Outcomes

The new board has touch screen capability which allows the user to navigate to a wide variety of different screens.   Unfortunately, this means that only one person at a time can look at the board for information.  With the old single display map four or five people could look at the board and find what they are looking for at one time.  When I used the board last week, I found that people are still standing in line trying to figure out how to use the innovative but slow device.  While this information board probably results in millions of wasted minutes for travelers each month, it does not endanger anyone’s life.  When similar delays result from technology that is designed for school crisis situations, inconvenience can become life-threatening.

New School Safety Software

We are contacted by school safety product vendors with new school safety solutions every week.  We have found some new products to be impressive and practical while others cause us concern.  For example, a number of vendors now offer solutions which allow school crisis plans to be viewed on portable devices.  We considered making our school crisis planning templates available in this format about five years ago.  Our planning team decided that this was not a wise approach after looking at the research of Dr. Gary Klein and considering feedback from school and public safety officials who had experienced significant problems with software-based crisis plans during actual emergency situations.

Unrealistic School Safety Software Can Kill

In one case, a client who had paid more than one million dollars for a computerized school crisis plan was successfully sued after the death of a student.  Our client could not understand how an administrator who had received several days of emergency preparedness training could perform so poorly, forgetting even the most basic action steps.  When we performed one-on-one controlled simulations with a variety of school administrators in the district, we learned that they could not make reasonable and prompt decisions fast enough because they had been inadvertently conditioned to think that they would be able to pull up the action steps if faced with a crisis.  As this was a large urban school district that has experienced a large number of fatal school crisis events, it was troubling to see how ill-prepared administrators were to make life and death decisions.

Test Your School Safety Software Solutions

We have seen numerous instances of technology solutions that like the airport information station, appear to be very helpful at first glance, but can actually make matters worse because of false assumptions about how effective they will be under fast-breaking and stressful conditions.  As we have advised many times, new approaches should be thoroughly tested using scenario-based prompting which requires individuals to react in very short time frames.  If it does not work in simulations, things will most likely get worse when young lives are actually at risk.