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Ten Things the Chief Needs to Know About School Shootings

The majority of information on school shootings has concerned itself with those involving one or more deaths. For the sake of clarity, this article will rely on pertinent findings regarding lethal violence. However, the chief of police must recognize the devastating impact a school shooting (non-lethal) will have on his community. Please also note the following is not ranked in order of importance.

First, the local police chief is the resident expert on school shootings. The chief will be called upon to share his expertise in the arena of school shootings when it happens. You must remain current on information pertaining to these acts of violence. You must have instant access to as much reportable information as possible on the shooter. Be ready to site all of the prevention efforts put forth by your department. You must speak to extensive collaboration with the school district administration in attempting to prevent such an incident.

Second, school shooters have shared their plans with someone. Be prepared for a number of students to report that the perpetrator indeed announced that he was going to do something. If the students knew about it, why didn’t they tell the adults? YouTube, MySpace and FaceBook are just three of the numerous Internet vehicles where young adults communicate with each other and the entire outside world. The chief must be aware of these sites and be able to speak knowledgably about them, if not monitor them.

Third, there is no shooter profile. Up until recent times, the “look” of a school shooter was a male, Caucasian, age 16, from a suburban or rural area. The chief must know this and definitively emphasize that to develop a profile could lead to ignoring certain signs of a potential shooter. It is critical that all school personnel, including school resource officers, be trained in looking for disturbing writings, comments and postings on Web sites. The Secret Service has completed very extensive and impressive information on school shooters. The chief must have this information at the ready if and when such an incident occurs.

Fourth, proactive measures will come under immediate scrutiny. Were there metal detectors? Was there an officer on duty in the school? Did the school practice lockdowns? Were students taught the best way to avoid a lethal attack?

Fifth, the actions of the SRO, as well as responding officers, will be scrutinized. Columbine High School changed police response to school shootings dramatically. The media will constantly compare school shootings today to that event. Included in this will be the recent Virginia Tech shootings. Officers responding to an active shooter must be adequately trained to engage the shooter and neutralize the threat as soon as possible. Training CANNOT be limited to the active shooter training where three, four or more officers respond and form a team. Good, solid training must be given to the officer inside the school so an adequate response can be successfully completed without waiting for more officers.

Sixth, the shooter may not have been a drug abuser, according to a study of past school shooters. Drug use was not found to be something a shooter engaged in or that contributed in any way to his embarking on the shootings.

Seventh, the shooter may not have had an extensive juvenile record. In fact, most of the shooters had little serious involvement with law enforcement and the courts. This most likely will be of interest to the media.

Eighth, the shooter may know a lot about firearms, may use high-quality weapons and may train frequently. Without question, the firearms issue will rear its head. How did the shooter obtain his weapon or weapons? What are the local and state regulations about purchasing a firearm, especially a handgun? Years ago, guns in schools usually turned out to be what was referred to as a “Saturday Night Special,” namely a very cheap, unreliable firearm. That has changed. Many shooters are using recognized firearms made by very well respected gun manufacturers. It has been discussed that many students are learning shooting skills from video games that perfect shooting techniques by the student playing the game over and over thus gaining much proficiency without spending time on a firing range.

Ninth, the shooter has full intent to kill and injure as many as possible, as fast as possible. When police respond to an armed robbery or any call that may include gunfire, the perpetrator usually has a different mind set. The armed robber is using his gun to obtain the money and get out. His primary intent is not to shoot his victim, and if he uses his gun against police, it is primarily to escape successfully. This is not true of the school shooter. His sole intent is to kill and injure as many people as he can or to have a targeted victim(s) but will shoot any person in his way. These are two different mind sets.

Tenth, following a shooting, putting the school and the community back together will take a very long time. One of your biggest fears is a repeat or “look alike” incident. Napoleon said your most vulnerable time is the moment immediately after victory. Your agency must aggressively make sure there is not a repeat of this horrific act. After the school has been released as a crime scene, your job as “top cop” will be consumed with post shooting activities. They will look to you and the superintendent of schools for positive and reassuring steps that you are taking actions to greatly minimize the threat of this happening again. This is your opportunity to exhibit great leadership and evidence of close collaboration with the superintendent and your school district.

Dr. Richard J. Caster is the executive director of the National Association of School Resource Officers. He can be reached via

Published in Law and Order, Apr 2008

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