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.

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Are you Prepared for an Acid Attack on Campus?

Caustic acids have been a weapon of choice for attackers in parts of Africa, in Vietnam, India and other developing countries for more than four decades. The acid attack – where a person simply throws the substance on the victim – has have been traditionally used as a convenient weapon to settle interpersonal disputes. Where firearms have often been used in acts of interpersonal violence in the United States, strict gun control laws, and the fact that battery acid is cheap and readily available has often led people to use this alternative and devastating means of harming others in many developing countries.

An acid attack is easy to carry out, exceedingly painful, and can leave brutal injuries including blindness, horrific disfigurement as well as severe physical and emotional scarring. As with attacks with knives and firearms, an acid attack is sometimes fatal. Acid attacks are difficult to prevent using physical security measures because acid can be carried in a wide variety of containers and cannot easily be detected by metal detectors and security X-ray equipment.

While many Americans had not heard of the use of acid as a weapon until four American tourists were attacked with acid in France recently, it is likely that acid attacks will become well-known in the U.S. in the future. One reason for this is the increased media attention of acid attacks by American media. The use of acid attacks as a weapon of choice by terrorists also increases the risk that terrorists will opt to use acid for attacks. Al Qaeda has used acid to attack school girls and has successfully used the threat of acid attacks to intimidate girls who wish to attend school in Afghanistan.

The Acid Attack as a Rising International Trend

Perhaps the greatest indicator that acid attacks could become problematic in the U.S. is the rapid spread of this attack method in Europe. For example, the use of acid as a weapon has increased dramatically in with an estimated 1,800 acid attacks in London in recent years. Gang members, dangerously mentally ill attackers, people involved in bar fights and school children have increasingly turned to acid to carry out terrifying attacks. While I pray that I am wrong, in my experience, we are but one heavily publicized acid attack away from seeing the types of attacks that have become increasingly common in both developing and developed nations. Should this occur, we can anticipate a sudden frenzy similar to what we have seen with anthrax attacks and active shooter events with similarly ineffective solutions.

A solid approach to school violence prevention includes a variety of prevention measures that can be effective in reducing the risk of acid attacks. This is because an effective approach can reduce the risk of violence regardless of the type of weapon used. For example, efforts to reduce fights, control gang activity and student threat, evaluation and management efforts can all reduce the risk of violence regardless of weapon type. To a lesser extent, proper emergency planning provides a broad enough array of emergency protocols to help school staff respond to such an attack. As with firearm and knife attacks, having room clear and reverse evacuation protocols are two important examples of protocols that can help staff address an acid attack in an inside setting or an attack outside of the building.

Staying Alive: Abe and Erin's Story

As we describe in our book Staying Alive, there are many other types of dangerous attacks besides firearms.

Other alternative attack methods, such as mass casualty edged weapons assaults, the use of fire as a weapon, and attacks where vehicles are used to run over victims, also demand our attention. In this same vein, the use of commonly available acids as a weapon is also of increasing concern. Fortunately, holistic prevention and preparedness approaches can help to address these frightening events.

Any prevention and preparedness measures that are heavily focused on a single attack method such as active shooter events are subject to becoming obsolete in the wake of a single frightening and well-publicized attack. A proper array of prevention and preparedness approaches will offer a reasonable degree of protection regardless of the type of weapon used. Our research for the upcoming Cognella textbook Extreme Violence – Preventing and Preparing for Active Shooter, Active Killer, Hate Crimes, and Acts of Terrorism indicates that acid attacks are worthy of our attention as part of the all-hazards
approach to school security and emergency preparedness efforts.

Warning: The following video is graphic

This video was taken during the Station Nightclub fire in Rhode Island in 2003. It shows just how quickly a small fire can spread and cause panic. The effects of people being stuck in the doorway are similar to accounts from other major fire disasters that we are aware of, as well as many other incidents involving mass panic. This video is from a cameraman who was at the concert to do a news story on nightclub safety after an incident just 3 days before where 21 were killed and 50 were injured in a stampede caused by pepper spray.

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School Safety Fidelity: April 2017 Issue of School Safety Monthly Now Available

School Safety Fidelity

This month’s issue of school safety monthly is an interesting topic that spans all that we do in keeping our schools safe. While the concept is as fundamental as the all-hazards approach to emergency management, it is sometimes easy to forget the basics. School safety fidelity is as simple as making sure we do what we say we are going to do. This can manifest itself in different ways, from a failure to follow proscribed student supervision policies to the use of active shooter programs that breed inconsistency by design. Having practices, policies and training that are mismatched is one of the easiest ways to create liability and increase actual risk.

Room for improvement in school safety practices and procedures to enhance fidelity can be found in many areas. From basics like student supervision to more complex issues like active shooter response and mandatory reporting for child sexual abuse, mismatched policies and practices can cause injury and death when not addressed. In actuality, we should be taking a closer look at everything we do during the periodic review and updating of our plans.

The good news is that like most obstacles, this one can be overcome. There are a number of ways to identify gaps in school safety fidelity. There are also several ways to close these gaps and enhance school safety with sometimes very little actual effort. In many cases the answer is a simple adjustment of practice or training update. Read this month’s issue of School Safety Monthly: School Safety Fidelity to find out how.

Click the image below to download the April 2017 issue of School Safety Monthly:

School Safety Fidelity: April 2017

For past issues of School Safety Monthly as well as archived issues of our electronic journal The Safety Net, visit our newsletter archives page here:

The Safety Net Volume 3 Issue 2

Newsletter & eJournal Archives Page

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