Response to extreme acts of school violence — finding the balance

03/30/2013  |  JUDY BRUNNER and DENNIS LEWIS
school security

School safety has once again been elevated to the top of the agenda for many schools across the country. In the aftermath of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, parents and other community members are demanding a comprehensive review of practices and procedures, and on the extreme, that school staff be armed and facilities become impregnable fortresses.

It is noteworthy to look at the historical perspective as we chart our course to the future. After the Columbine High School tragedy on April 20, 1999, schools underwent a transformation that included the development of comprehensive crisis plans, technology driven access control and surveillance measures, and for some, the use of armed police officers on the campus.

At both Columbine and Sandy Hook Elementary School, calls to 9-1-1 were made almost immediately as the perpetrator entered the school. Police response times were less than six minutes at both locations. For many of the school shootings in the time period between these two tragedies, the same is true. What is also a fact is that for many of the school shootings over the past 13 plus years the loss of life occurred in that short time period between the shooter entering the school and the arrival of police. And, in a number of events, the perpetrator(s) committed suicide having either run out of ammunition, targets or time.

School officials are now left wondering what else can and should they do to further minimize the chance they will become the next site of a mass school shooting.

The answer lies in an understanding of how rampage shootings occur and also involves both short and long term initiatives specifically tailored to the common denominators of these types of events. The balance is that in school communities we must maintain a level of reasonableness that includes the need to protect as well as the need for an educational climate conducive to student learning.

In the short term, we must continue to do what we can do to minimize the chance of a school shooting and the potential loss of life and injury.

  • Revisit the Emergency Management Plan and do so with the assistance of local emergency responders. It is critical that plans stay current with the best information and knowledge available related to response during an emergency event. Local law enforcement and other responders should review the school’s response plans as an integral part of planning.
  • Specific to active shooter procedures, instill in staff the understanding that they may very well have to make life and death decisions with little, if any, guidance from others, given the sudden and violent nature of these types of events. Staff should be prepared to take life saving measures that may include an attempt to neutralize the shooter using any means necessary if other measures appear to be ineffective.
  • Commit to diligence in training all staff. Under extreme stress staff will most likely respond to the level of training they have experienced. In addition to participating in drills, the use of tabletop exercises is still one of the most effective methods of allowing staff to problem-solve the most serious of emergency events.
  • Continue to stress the need for staff to be participatory in access control and visitor screening practices. In the aftermath of a tragedy like that experienced at Newtown, school staff around the country should be sensitive to unknown faces in and around the campus and to controlling access to both the school and classroom. The challenge for schools will be to keep that sensitivity at a heightened level in the following months and years. Rampage shootings at schools, while extremely tragic, are also rare, and it is easy over time to begin to become lax in the awareness of one’s surroundings.

For some schools, the placement of an armed officer on campus is not practical or feasible; regardless, all schools should create barriers, utilize delaying tactics, and create buffers and visual awareness opportunities that decrease the opportunity for a shooter to inflict injury and take life prior to police arrival. While short-term strategies involve practices and procedures, in the long term, schools should re-evaluate and implement design and environmental changes to the campus. With the limitations school face and the knowledge we have of rampage shooters, schools should give consideration to the following.


  • When possible, ground level classrooms and offices should have a secondary means of exterior egress. Depending on the degree of intent and ability to force entry into a classroom by the perpetrator, the need to evacuate the room’s occupants could become a viable option through an exterior door or the use of a window.
  • Glass inserts in interior doors should be small and opposite any locking devices and door handles. This is an example of a delaying tactic that potentially can buy staff critical seconds.
  • A staff member should be able to easily activate interior locking devices for hallway doors. Where keys are used to secure the door, the adult assigned to the room should have the capability to do so regardless of whether they are the assigned or substitute classroom teacher.
  • Doors used to interconnect between classrooms and offices should be able to be secured by a person on either side with a key. Like hallway doors, glass panes should not allow easy access to locking devices.
  • Furniture in classrooms should be located in such a manner that if barricading becomes necessary the staff member can do so in a timely and effective manner, remembering if doors open outward into the hall, this strategy is less effective.
  • The number of glass entry doors to the school should be limited. If possible, consideration should be given to installing a secondary set of solid doors with a foyer for a more secure design.
  • Some schools either have or are planning to convert to electronic exterior door locking systems requiring card or code access. An additional feature should be considered that allows school office personnel to monitor and control all exterior door locks from one location should the need arise to do so.
  • School office staff should have increased opportunities to monitor individuals as they approach the school and entry access point. Some of this can be accomplished by designing offices that have a clear view of approaching walkways and placement of office furniture that furthers that ability. Cameras can assist in observing pedestrian and vehicle traffic in and around the school, but the critical determiner in the success of this strategy is in the placement of monitors where viewing is most likely to occur.
  • While target hardening of the entry points is important, at least one prior school shooting involved the perpetrator using a car to drive through the main entry; therefore, schools should use decorative or aesthetically pleasing barriers to protect entry points at the school from motor vehicle assault.

The strategies listed above should be the beginnings of a discussion for educators around the country in how to target harden the school without significantly and adversely impacting the overall climate. No one strategy can prevent a school shooting or totally eliminate the possibility of injuries or even fatalities. Every school will have to decide exactly where the right balance exists and then develop both a short and long plan for making school as safe as reasonably possible.

Judy Brunner and Dennis Lewis are the founders of Edu-Safe LLC, a school safety staff development organization providing consultation, training, and safety assessments and can be contacted at [email protected].
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