20 Years After Columbine, Challenges Remain

We have learned a lot since Columbine, but Sandy Hook and Stoneman Douglas show us we can still improve.

Over the past year, Safe Havens has been relatively silent on social media and our website. As our regular readers know, we are typically very active in print and online media. This is a primary function of our mission to provide free resources. The unprecedented interest in school safety over the past year has forced us to reallocate resources. The demand for school safety services is unlike anything our analysts have seen over the past two decades. While we love what we do, we truly wish the demand had not been so urgent. Around this same time we also stopped running our monthly newsletter as our intern moved on. We are currently exploring new formats and looking for a few dedicated and qualified interns to resume these activities.

Our center was already engaged with a number of projects when the terrible tragedy occurred at Marjorie-Stoneman Douglas High School.  Safe Havens received a call or email request every five minutes for about two weeks. By the first of March, we declined about 50% of all requests for school security assessments. We also had to limit our emergency plan development projects, consulting work and conference keynotes.  I decided to decline almost every request to review cases as an expert witness. We also declined to submit proposals for two projects with estimated budgets approaching $2,000,000. These adjustments allowed us to focus our efforts on conducting assessment projects.  Though we have more than 60 highly capable analysts, our leadership team is relatively small and our capacity to provide proper oversight and quality control has limits.

There has been an unprecedented demand for school safety after the Parkland shooting.

Since the attack at Stoneman Douglas High School, our team completed reports for for more than 900 public, faith-based and independent schools. This included school safety, security, climate, culture and emergency preparedness assessments for two of the nation’s largest public school systems. One of these was an assessment of more than 250 schools and support facilities for the Broward County School System. Our analysts conducted more than 1,000 site visits, interviewed thousands of personnel and ran more than 2,000 controlled one-on-one crisis simulations with district staff. We also participated in public forums and conducted surveys and focus groups of more than 80,000 students. The end result was more than 15,000 pages of reports.

This is the first time we know of  a school system opting to have a comprehensive external assessment in the wake of a mass casualty school shooting. Typically, legal counsel and/or insurance carriers dissuade school officials from doing this level of assessment. In some cases, there are concerns relating to mental health recovery, in other cases, school officials opt not to do this because this process will identify gaps.

The Broward County School Board recently asked us to extend our contract by an additional twelve months. The long term goal is the creation of an Enterprise Risk Management System – a first for a “top 70” largest public school system in the nation. The ERM provides oversight, coordination and accountability. A modern and highly robust 24/7/365 communications and monitoring center will support these efforts. We are also currently scheduling assessments for more than 360 public, faith-based and independent schools as part of upcoming projects. Other upcoming projects include a five-year state-wide school emergency preparedness program and several other large multi-year projects.

Continuing to focus on our mission of creating safer schools for all

During this time, our analysts also completed a number of other projects. We assisted 6 school districts with updating their emergency operations plans. This included developing hundreds of new pages of content for one district to meet stringent state requirements. We also developed an active shooter prevention program for the South Carolina Department of Education. We delivered dozens of conference keynotes and worked on many other significant projects. Several of these are very complex, including a multi-year project to assess all Jewish schools in the Boston area.

Our requests for assistance from other countries has also increased during this time period. We have expended hundreds of hours of staff time providing assistance to school and public safety officials abroad, where schools are often far less safe than in the U.S. In our home state of Georgia we were asked to provide oversight and generate a report for a school safety commission for Fulton County Public Schools and have been asked to assist the state with development of new standards for school safety assessments.

Meanwhile, we are still working to finish the manuscript for our 600-page textbook Extreme Violence – Understanding and Protecting People from Active Assailant, Hate Crimes and Terrorism. In the wake of this unprecedented demand, our publisher was kind enough to agree to an extension to allow us to devote additional time to serve our clients.

How far have we come since the Columbine shooting?

We deeply regret the understandable levels of anxiety and fear that mass casualty school attacks have caused. The Sandy Hook shooting and Parkland Florida attack remind us that we still have much further to go. Our experience and judgment tells us otherwise, but we hope that the  upcoming school years are some of the safest on record. It may still seem like we have a long way to go, but it is important not to lose hope. One must only look back over the twenty years since the Columbine school shooting to see how far we have come since then. Countless lives have been saved by the efforts of hard working school safety professionals over the past two decades.

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.