Blog: The Educated Reporter

After Sandy Hook: A New Approach to Campus Safety?

In the aftermath of Columbine in 1999, law enforcement began to rethink its response to mass shootings. Instead of presuming a quick entry into the scene by the first responders might do more harm than good, a new line of thought emerged: Stopping the “active shooter” had to be the top priority.

It’s too soon to know whether the shooting deaths of 20 children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School a year ago will prompt long-term changes in the best practices of emergency response, but experts and educators believe another such tipping point may be upon us.

“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,” Victor Herbert, a veteran educator and director of the Academy for Critical Incident Analysis at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, part of the City University of New York. “People in schools had been told to put the lights out, lock the door, and hope for the best.”

While it’s a far cry from districts recommending outright school personnel respond with force to an intruder –something unlikely to happen given the liability issues involved — there is evidence that alternatives to the traditional “shelter in place” directive are finding their way to local campuses. And the experts want students, as well as school staff, to listen, too.

At a school safety conference last month in Lakewood, Wash., Jesus Villahermosa, a sergeant with the Pierce County Sheriff’s Department, told educators their students must be more empowered to protect themselves, the News Tribune reported. Students as young as elementary school can be taught to flee when possible, hide in silence when escape isn’t an option, and use other tactics that have helped others survive school shootings, Villahermosa said.

“Ninety percent of school shootings happen during passing periods,” said Villahermosa, a crisis response consultant, in the News Tribune’s reporting. “We have to start training our kids, because you are not going to be there 100 percent of the time.”

Chris Grollnek, an expert on active-shooter scenarios who has consulted with numerous entities in the public and private sectors, said the focus should be on preparing people – whether they’re average civilians, office managers or teachers in a classroom – to do more than wait for help to arrive.

“The kids at Columbine were sheltered in place, and they were hunted down,” Grollnek told me. “You need to be ready to move – that’s how you survive.”

In June, Countermeasure Consulting Group in Frisco, Texas – where Grollnek is managing partner – put out a free 28-minute public service video about how to respond to active shooters. Inquiries poured in from more than 100 school districts, Grollnek said. The company is currently working about 20 of them, ranging from rural to suburban to large urban districts, as well as some institutions of higher education, he said.

Kevin Quinn, president of the National Association of School Resource Officers, told me that even before Sandy Hook he noticed districts were holding safety workshops that included discussion of last-resort responses to intruders, and the pace of that picked up over the past year.

The effectiveness of that approach depends on the quality of the training and the person being trained, Quinn said. Some people might not have the physical capability to challenge an attack. And then there’s the psychological capability – which Quinn said is what troubles him the most about the push to arm educators.

“It’s one thing to teach someone to take out a gun and pull the trigger,” Quinn said. “But can you look another human being in the eye and then actually pull that trigger? That’s a kind of psychological training law enforcement officers have to go through. I don’t know that a kindergarten teacher is going to have that same mindset.”

Certainly one of the big debates post-Sandy Hook continues to be whether educators should have guns on campus, and a handful of states have passed legislation to allow it. Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, told me the rush to arm teachers in wake of the Newtown tragedy was one of “the most craven ideas” she’s seen this year. Putting guns in the hands of school personnel who have received only a minimum of training creates a false sense of security, Weingarten said. A better way to spend those resources, Weingarten said, would be on programs that address bullying and help students who might be experiencing a mental health crisis – both critical elements to a safe school climate for students and staff.

In a 2013 Gallup Poll, Americans rejected the idea of arming educators and favored increasing mental health services over hiring more security guards as a means of improving school safety. (For more on the push for more mental health resources at the state and national level, check out Stephanie Simon’s work for Politico.)

“Schools should be safe sanctuaries, not armed fortresses,” Weingarten said. “We need to address the fact that every 30 minutes a child is a victim of gun violence. That’s a safety and moral issue for all of us – not just educators.”

So are schools safer after Sandy Hook? That can be difficult to quantify. And with 26 additional school shootings since then, most of which haven’t garnered the same level of media attention or public scrutiny, it can also be a tough case to make.

Education Week has both an in-depth overview and thoughtful analysis of the lack of substantive new policy this year in response to the horrific events that unfolded in Newtown, but there’s little question that at the local level schools from Maine to Tennessee to California have added more alarms, more guards and more surveillance cameras.

Those kinds of physical features can make a comforting visual for students and staff, but what make the biggest difference in campus safety is “more mental detectors, not metal detectors,” said Dan Domenech, executive director of the AASA- The School Superintendents Association.

The “mental detectors” Domenech has in mind would be training staff to be more aware, and better prepared for multiple scenarios. That could mean a mix of tabletop exercises and evacuation drills for both students and staff, Domenech said – something AASA already urges its 13,000 individual members and school districts to factor into their crisis-management plans.

Domenech pointed to the incident at a Georgia school earlier this year in which an office clerk convinced a gunman to put down his weapon and surrender, using nothing more than her words.

“Sadly, what we know from the past few years is that a shooter armed with an assault rifle can probably blast his way into a school,” Domenech said. “What it comes down to is ‘how do people respond to save themselves and their students?’”

Have a question, comment or concern for the Educated Reporter? Email EWA public editor Emily Richmond at Follow her on Twitter: @EWAEmily.