Blog: The Educated Reporter

Heroic Teachers Lauded in Lafayette Movie Theater Shooting

(Twitter/@Newsweek)

When discussing the movie theater shooting Thursday in Lafayette, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal recounted his conversation with one of two teachers who was in the audience when the gunfire broke out:

“Her friend literally jumped over her,” Jindal said from the scene. “If her friend hadn’t done that, she believed the bullet would have hit her in the head.”

Instead, the bullet struck the second teacher in the leg. But despite that injury she was able to reach a fire alarm in the theater and pull it. Two people died in the shooting, and the gunman then reportedly killed himself. Nine other people were injured, including one person in critical condition, according to news reports. 

“When you think about it — two friends together — one jumps in the way of a bullet to save her friend’s life,” Jindal told reporters. “The other, even though she was shot in the leg, she had the presence of mind to pull the fire alarm and in the process saved other people’s lives.”

It would be tough to find a group of professionals — outside of law enforcement –more keenly aware of the potential threat of an active shooter. In the wake of tragedies like Sandy Hook, learning to respond to such scenarios is now a regular part of staff training at all levels, from the bus drivers to the classroom teachers and administrators.

Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, offered this statement about the Lafayette shooting, when I reached out to the union this morning with a request for comment:

Teachers are everyday heroes who are well-trained to make a difference in the lives of their students. Teachers naturally have the instinct deep down in their souls to help others. We saw that in the Newtown, Conn., massacre and again last night in Lafayette. Our thoughts and prayers go out to the families of those who were killed and to those injured. But more than thoughts and prayers, let us take action to curb gun violence and end these mass shootings for once and for all.

There are a few things to keep in mind about how schools are preparing for worst-case scenarios. First off, the decades-old approach of “shelter in place” – in which people were told to hide, stay quiet, and wait for help – is no longer the default response.

Indeed, the change has been building for at least several years. In a 2013 interview, Victor Herbert, a veteran educator and the director of the Academy for Critical Incident Analysis at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City told me that “What I’m hearing is people being told to be prepared to fight rather than simply hide – that represents a real change in the advice. … People in schools had been told to put the lights out, lock the door, and hope for the best.”

Some school districts are adopting a protocol known as ALICE – Alert, Lockdown, Inform, Confront, Evacuate – in which staff are trained to take more decisive action to defend against an intruder. ALICE training “does not believe that actively confronting a violent intruder is the best method for ensuring the safety of all involved, whether in a school, a hospital, a business, or a church,” according to the organization’s website. Rather, those are “last-ditch efforts” that should follow steps to hide or escape.

In one Alabama school using the ALICE model, a letter from the principal asking parents to donate canned goods that could be thrown at a classroom intruder, was deemed so preposterous it earned an entry on the popular Snopes.com website, which debunks Internet myths. (Snopes reported the letter was, in fact, true.)

It’s worth noting that the FBI’s recommendations for the public response to an “active shooter” scenario are not inconsistent with the ALICE approach: Run, hide, and, as a last resort, fight. Of course, developing more effective means of responding to an active shooter, whether it’s in a school, a movie theater or a church, doesn’t address some of the preventative measures being recommended.

The untreated mental illness of the Sandy Hook shooter was a significant factor in the massacre, according to a report by the Connecticut Attorney General investigating the December 2012 tragedy, which left 26 people dead, including 20 first-graders.

Taking a more preventative approach is something that has strong public support: In a 2013 Gallup Poll, Americans favored increasing mental health services over hiring more security guards as a means of improving school safety, and rejected the idea of arming educators. In the meantime, the reported bravery of the teacher in the Lafayette movie theater builds a strong case for the merits of being prepared for what were once considered unimaginable scenarios.

As the Lafayette investigation proceeds, there will likely be plenty of attention paid to the two teachers who survived. Questions for education reporters to consider: What role, if any, did the teachers’ in-school training play in how they responded inside the movie theater? What protocol does your local school district advocate for its staff?  Are those policies changing in response to recent events?

The Education Writers Association took a look at the issue of student mental health at our 2014 National Seminar. You can read more about that conversation here. And for reporters writing about incidents such as mass shootings, the Dart Center on Journalism and Trauma at Columbia University is an invaluable resource. EWA also has a Reporter’s Guide to Interviewing Children, particularly in the wake of a tragedy or trauma. 



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