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School Shootings, A Look Back, A Look Ahead

Written by Russ Schanlaub

The horrible concept of violence in our schools is unfortunately not a new one. The 1927 Bath School disaster in Michigan reigns as the deadliest act of violence at an American school. A disgruntled school board member killed 45 people, mostly children and injured at least 58 more. He used dynamite charges placed throughout the building, which led to the collapses of the structure.

The suspect drove onto the scene parking near the responders and set off a secondary explosion, killing himself and several others in the process. The suspect was upset that his property taxes were increased due to the school.

The campus-based violence acts of today, however, are different, as is the way that we see that violence. Modern communications and around-the-clock news stations broadcasting via satellite from coast to coast thrust fame onto schools that are the unfortunate victims of a campus shooting.

Along with the detailed news reports the mainstream media brings us is the ability to personalize with the tragedy. Video footage of students running and taking cover and medical personnel removing bodies from the scene help bring a personal connection to most viewers.

The words “Virginia Tech” still resound in the ears of most Americans following the shooting incident that took place on April 16, 2007, a shooting that went down as the worst campus shooting event ever. In the high school arena, “Columbine” is synonymous with high school shooting incidents, and many of us can still recall the playing of telephone conversations from those inside the school to the police department.

It is hard to believe that it has been 10 years since the 1999 incident occurred. Many of us had never heard of Columbine before that day, but entering that one word in a Google® search box produces over 4.5 million results, including memorial sites, video footage and information about a highly publicized documentary-style film made following the shooting incident.

Graphic video clips and up-to-the-minute coverage aren’t the only differences about recent campus-based shootings. In a large percentage of the modern shooting incidents, the suspects are children themselves, adding to the tragedy.

Along with the students as shooters, evidence at the scenes generally indicates that the suspects are attempting to simply kill as many as they can kill before they are stopped, as opposed to looking for revenge or vindication against one particular target.

However, when other breaking stories pull the attention of the media away and the national spotlight begins to fade, the memories of just how real the incident was begins to fade as well.

Terms such as “active shooter response” and “school-based exercises” begin to take a backseat to other pertinent issues within the police community. It is easy to assume that if the major news sources don’t report a school shooting, they must not be occurring.

With the economy and politics absorbing so many headlines, it is hard to keep track of incidents that are still going on in this arena but perhaps not considered as newsworthy. College- and high school-based shooting incidents continue across the country though they aren’t making the evening news.

In 2008, there were 16 shooting deaths and 24 injuries from shootings on high school and college campuses across the country. In most of these cases, the suspects were students at the respective schools though one incident in 2008 involved a 62-year-old librarian as the suspect. All other 2008 shooting incidents involved shooters that were between 14 and 23 years old. Perhaps breaking the stereotype, two of the shooters were female students.

These figures do not represent fights where other weapons were involved or incidents where guns were located before a shooting occurring, nor do they represent shootings that were close to the school, some within a block. With the exception of regional news, many of the shootings did not make it to the headlines.

Knowing then that campus-based shootings are still very real, the question that administrators, training officers, and tactical officers should ask is, “Are we as prepared today as we were six months after Columbine or Virginia Tech?”

Preventing the shootings would be ideal; unfortunately, law enforcement typically provides the response to what was not or could not be prevented. The Safe School Initiative (SSI) was formed in 1999 in response to school shootings. The SSI is a collaborative endeavor between the U.S. Secret Service and the U.S. Department of Education conducting investigations and studies regarding school-based violence issues.

The SSI released two in-depth reports regarding school campus-based shooting incidents. In May 2002, a document titled “Threat Assessment in Schools” was released, detailing information compiled from school shootings in recent history. The goal of this partnership is to try to better understand and eventually learn how to prevent school shootings in America.

In May 2008, the SSI released another document, “Prior Knowledge of Potential School Based Violence,” which was aimed more specifically at the fact that in most school shooting instances at least one other person was aware of the intention of the shooter. This report sought to answer why the bystanders did not come forward and investigate ways to encourage such bystanders in the future to share their information with authorities.

In respect to creating a profile of a juvenile who may be a potential shooter the SSI revealed that, “there was no useful or accurate ‘profile’ of students who engaged in targeted school violence.” Both of these documents, as well as copies of other studies released by the SSI, are available for downloading at the websites of the respective agencies, www.ustreas.gov and www.ed.gov.

Dr. Dewey G. Cornell, Ph.D., University of Virginia, reports that violent juveniles typically fall into three categories. One group consists of those who are psychotic or delusional; a second group has a long history of disruptive or delinquent behavior; and a third group has never expressed any need for concern and surprises everyone who knows them with their seemingly sudden violent acts. Clearly, prediction in the case of juvenile violent offenders will not offer much assistance in the short term.

Though there is much to be learned about active shooter situations, there is also much that is well established. Statistics from campus shootings in recent history indicate that the shooters act alone in almost every incident but that at least one other person knew about the pending act. The witnesses reported various reasons for not coming forward such as fear of retaliation or not believing that the suspect would actually do what they threatened to do.

Researchers have learned also that in most cases, the shooter begins the rampage with the intent to kill at least one person directly and then as many others as he can collaterally. Shooters seldom enter with an escape plan, and 90% of the shooters kill themselves when they feel that they’ve reached the end of their opportunity to kill.

The shooters generally have experience with and access to firearms but are very inaccurate with their shot placement (less than 50% accuracy). The shooters take precautions to avoid police (as opposed to confronting or ambushing them), and they generally do not take hostages, make demands, or negotiate.

In essence, these shootings when compared to other acts of violence are goal driven, short lived and planned, even though they may appear impulsive. Despite prompt law enforcement responses, most shooting incidents were stopped by means other than law enforcement interventions, according to the report compiled by the Safe School Initiative.

As the active shooter concept and response plans are relatively new to both the police and school organizations, there has been a lot of information developed and promoted in a relatively short amount of time. Some of the more recent information conflicts with earlier versions, which adds to the confusion of students and educational staff reading brochures and pamphlets on how to react during an incident.

Experts warn to not confuse awareness with readiness as plans are established. Public information offering statistics and agency contact information is important but will not prepare potential victims for a proper reaction.

Police department active shooter response training programs that are in place should be evaluated and updated as necessary. Coordinating efforts with school administration officials is beneficial to the program, and as each new school year begins, it is possible that the key administrative personnel have changed positions. New theories in the type of response may change the way that police administrators want to respond to active shooter incidents.

In most areas, it has been well established that an immediate response to active shooter situations is the proper way to react, as opposed to the historical “set up a perimeter and call for SWAT” response. The SWAT response is still a very viable response to hostage scenarios and barricade situations, but not often seen as practical in the flurry of a very short-lived active shooter situation.

The correct way to respond to the active shooter varies dramatically depending on the instructor or developer of a certain type of program. The concept of three-, four- and five-officer teams are popular through many programs.

Ron Borsch, an Ohio trainer, has developed a program wherein he insists that one officer entering the building and acting immediately is more important than a three-man team that may take several minutes to organize. There is no doubt that time is not a friend of law enforcement in active shooter scenarios.

Though the types of responses and theories will vary by department and by region, there are some training mainstays that most will recognize as solid principles. The following principles should be applied to any active shooter training.

First, the training should be realistic. If it is probable that two or three officers will be the best response in a reasonable time, then the training should focus on those variables.

Second, the training should be frequent. Beginning at the academy level, officers learn that in order to be fluid in movements and respond under stress, training needs to be repetitive.

Third, the training should be varied, from close-quarter combat practice to shoot / no-shoot variables, low-light shooting and training. This helps them become familiar with the buildings that the officers will likely be entering should they respond to an active shooter call.

In school-based responses, the training should be cooperative as well. Other agencies should be involved if it is possible that they will respond to a call. A solid working relationship with the school administration can provide access to the buildings for training purposes, detailed floor plans, and shared information such as little known entrances and exits into specific rooms or the building in general and locations of cameras within the buildings.

There may be as many training theories in active shooter responses as there are police departments. Given the manpower and geographical differences between so many agencies, it would be impossible to create one training program or theory that efficiently fits every department.

There are principles, however, that most department administrators will agree with. For example, training in this area is essential, communication between all potentially involved parties is a necessity, and the goal of any response from any police agency is to stop the violent behavior as soon as possible and keep to a minimum the injuries and fatalities associated. The best way to accomplish this goal is through a constant and consistent training program.

Russ Schanlaub is a police officer with the Purdue University Calumet Police Department in Hammond, IN. He can be reached at rlschanl@calumet.purdue.edu.

Published in Law and Order, Jun 2009

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