School Lockdown – Application Failure in Contrast to Concept Failure

Claims have been made that school lockdown is a failed concept; but there is considerable evidence to the contrary.  For an effective analysis of this discussion, it is critical to understand the difference between application failure and concept failure.  Concept failure involves failure because the concept itself is flawed.  This is what has been claimed. For example, medical research proved that the practice of routinely bloodletting patients was unsound.  This would be an example of concept failure.  In contrast, application failure involves problems that are encountered because the concept has not been properly implemented.  For example, if a school purchases a metal detector but does not properly staff the machine, train personnel how to use it, protect the checkpoint with an armed officer, or fails to secure all potential entry points to the facility, the screening approach may be easily defeated.  

While some may deduce that the concept of school lockdown has failed simply because victims are killed, the reality is that this conclusion is only accurate if deaths occurred when:

  1.  The school had properly developed school lockdown protocols. 

  2. Staff and students had been properly trained in the school lockdown protocols.

  3. Staff had the physical ability to implement the school lockdown protocols.

  4. Staff had been properly trained to implement the school lockdown protocols using independent judgment.

  5. Staff had physically practiced implementing a school lockdown in a real-time fashion.

As one example, if a substitute teacher has not been issued a key, cannot lock the door to their room, and a gunman enters the room, this would be a case of application failure rather than concept failure. While a number of people have concluded that school lockdown is a failed concept because people have died in school shootings, no one has been able to identify for us a single person who has been killed in a school shooting where the above five criteria have been met.  One of the main goals of a school lockdown is not to provide absolute protection, but to deter and delay the attacker until law enforcement arrives to neutralize the attacker.

Concept failure occurs when the concept itself fails even though it has been properly implemented. Thus far, the examples cited as “proof” that school lockdown is a failed concept have all involved schools where there were significant gaps including:

  • Classroom doors did not have a lock

  • Employees had not been issued a key

  • No written school lockdown protocol existed

  • Poor quality school lockdown protocols were utilized

  • Staff had never been trained in school lockdown protocols

  • School lockdown drills had not been conducted

  • Staff had not been timed to see that they could lockdown rapidly

  • Staff did not have their keys readily available

  • School lockdown drills had been conducted in a “top down” fashion and did not require staff to practice making the decision themselves to lockdown.

  • Appropriate alternatives such as evacuation should a breach occur have not been provided to staff and students.

In some of the cases that are frequently cited as examples that school lockdown is a failed approach, two or more of these gaps were present.  In addition, statistics based solely on individual spaces in schools rather than survival rates for the schools as a whole have often been used to provide “proof” that lockdown does not work.  For example, while statistics purporting that school lockdown resulted in a 92% fatality rate at Sandy Hook Elementary School, the reality is that 96% of the school’s occupants survived the terrible attack.  The 92% figure refers only to specific rooms and does not reflect the actual building occupant survival rate. 

Instead of abandoning an approach that has repeatedly saved lives as far back as the attempted attack at a school house in Danbury, Connecticut in 1900, a more productive approach would be to focus on improving the implementation of the school lockdown concept.

Replacing a concept that has worked repeatedly in the past with concepts that are theoretical does not make sense.  If schools have faced challenges implementing a comparatively simple concept, how reliable will it be to ask them to implement a dramatically more complex approach such as running from or attacking an armed aggressor?  As a number of students and educators have been killed and wounded confronting armed subjects in U.S. schools, citing the few incidents where school shootings have been stopped by students and staff does not support the notion that this is the most reliable approach for most school weapons incidents.  While I agree that there are some situations where some people may find it to the best course of action to attack an active shooter as a last resort, there are tangible indications that people may misapply this type of training with deadly results.  We have seen numerous instances where people who have been trained in these concepts have misapplied them in controlled simulations as well as in the field.  We continue to urge that these concepts be thoughtfully tested and validated before they are implemented. 

As I have maintained many times, while we can and must seek ways to improve the survivability of students and staff in school violence incidents, we should focus on what we know works before we adopt measures that we hope will work.  Properly implemented school lockdowns have been successfully protecting students and staff for more than a century.  Does it really make sense to abandon rather than improve a strategy that has saved many lives?

About Michael Dorn

Michael Dorn serves as the Executive Director of Safe Havens International, a non-profit school safety center. The author of 27 books on school safety, Michael’s campus safety work has taken him to 11 countries over the past 34 years.