The NRA has suggested armed guards as the best way to protect America’s schoolchildren.
Others say metal detectors, video cameras and sophisticated alarm devices would help defend and protect against mass shootings like the one at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown.
School safety experts Gregory Thomas and Michael Dorn think differently.
They think student supervision and emergency management are the most important parts of school security, not firepower at the door or technology lining the building.
“If you focus on technology, you will lose,” said Dorn, executive director of Safe Havens International, a nonprofit organization dedicated to school safety.
Friday, a series of Connecticut architects and security experts will likely have a similar message for a state advisory commission charged with recommending security enhancements for schools throughout the state.
According to Dorn, it is a change in school culture — to one that encourages heightened awareness, knowledge of students and proper training of staff — that can make all the difference during the “window of life,” the first 30 seconds after a dangerous situation is identified.
Schools can of course be built to be more secure, and even old buildings can be enhanced with useful technology, the experts said.
But whether it is a tornado bearing down on the building or an angry assailant wielding a gun, how the people in a school react in that first half-minute can make the difference between safety for students or mass casualties.
“That’s our chance to prevent serious death or injury,” Dorn said.
He and Thomas, former chief of the New York Police Department’s School Safety Agent division, have done consulting work for the U.S. Department of Education, Homeland Security and the Justice Department. They have advised school systems all over the world, including a number of American schools where mass shootings took place.
They have been studying and analyzing the issues these incidents raised years before Adam Lanza’s murderous rampage at Sandy Hook dragged the school safety issue once again into the national spotlight.
Mitigate damage, reduce chances
“The real concern for me is that schools don’t panic and don’t think that this event that happened in Newtown is the kind of thing you should be worried about on a regular basis,” Thomas said.
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The Safe Havens philosophy focuses on anticipating trouble, reducing the chances of a dangerous incident taking place and mitigating its damage if it does.
That means being prepared.
Every school should have a safety plan in place and practice it, Thomas said.
The Safe Havens team suggests that schools plan and practice for a variety of dangerous situations and for different people to learn to take command during the “window of life.”
Preparing for only one type of situation may cause bad habits, Dorn said. For example, when a school becomes used to only the principal announcing a lockdown, faculty members may become conditioned to wait for orders instead of acting to make the correct announcement on their own.
“What we suggest is that we train, practice and plan for a wider array of situations and then the human brain will be prepared to adapt to whatever comes your way,” Dorn said.
Philosophy based on experience
During his work here and abroad, Dorn has seen a wide spectrum of security approaches. Some have had more advanced technology than others and many had armed guards, he said.
“People often rush to technology without the support of training their staff,” he said. “The technology’s out there. A lot of it’s expensive. But what we also see is [schools] buy the technology and the people don’t know how to use it, and it becomes ineffectual.”
Acting as if he were a perpetrator, Dorn has beaten the technology every time, he said, never failing to get a gun into a school building — even when it had metal detectors. For example, he places a gun on a bathroom outdoor window ledge, then retrieves the weapon after he’s gotten inside.
As part of his service, Dorn runs simulated danger situation tests with faculty and students. In one instance, for example, he set up a scenario in which a student posed as an imminent danger to himself and possibly others by placing a gun to his head, threatening suicide.
The responses to these tests have been “pretty disturbing,” Dorn said; and since the massacre in Newtown, the failure rate has actually increased.
“People are getting into the mode where they believe they should attack the gunman. It’s a disturbing trend for educators to think they are protecting the children, when they are really failing to protect themselves and their building. The first duty of any educator is to protect themselves, so they can in turn protect others.”
The only time Dorn sees attacking the gunman to be a viable option is when a person is literally backed into a corner with no other way out and no other way to ensure safety.
Dorn has personally worked seven school shooting cases and has seen how bad things can get when the wrong decisions are made in the critical first moments.
The 2005 massacre in Red Lake, Minn., was one of those cases.
In that incident, 16-year-old Jeffrey Weise, who suffered from depression and bullying, terrorized Red Lake Senior High School after killing his grandfather, a Red Lake police sergeant.
Armed with two handguns and a shotgun, Weise walked into the building, fatally shooting an unarmed security guard staffing a metal detector at the front entrance. The teen then fired his weapon into a classroom, killing three students and their teacher. A student who tried to stop the assault was severely wounded.
Weise killed four more people before police arrived. After exchanging gunfire with the officers, he committed suicide in a vacant classroom with his shotgun.
No one knows why, Dorn said, but there was no lockdown ordered when Weise’s attack began. The lockdown is the most effective tool for protection against a gunman, the security expert said. That failing left all faculty and students to make their own emergency decisions, compounding the damage.
The Safe Havens experts concede that little could have been done to anticipate Adam Lanza’s attack on Sandy Hook Elementary School or any similar attack from an outsider.
But recognizing the warning signs of a potentially violent person within a school is an important element of their program.
The psychology of safety
Following the mass shooting at Columbine in Colorado, the Secret Service and the U.S. Department of Education teamed up to address the questions that always arise from school violence: “Could we have known these attacks were being planned?” and “What can be done to prevent future attacks from occurring?”
The agencies examined 37 different school-targeted attacks, committed by 41 individuals over the span of 25 years, from 1974 to 2000. The final result of the study was the Safe School Initiative. (More detail here.)
The report compiled warning signs on the potential student attacker, showing there is no accurate profile of a killer, just common behavior.
“It’s never a profile, it’s always warning signs, some keys that you would look at before these things happen,” Thomas said. “Once you know that there’s a possibility, you want to develop a threat assessment team, look at every student to see whether or not they’re a concern to you in this area of targeted school violence.”
Notable findings about the attackers include: they rarely acted impulsively; many felt bullied; most were never subject to a mental health evaluation; most had a history of suicidal attempts and depression; and most had easy access to weapons.
Dorn was the school district police chief in Macon, Ga., for 10 years. During his time there, he said, six planned school shootings, all involving gang members, were stopped.
District employees trained to spot people carrying weapons prevented three of the incidents, he said. Another incident — a planned bombing of a middle school — was stopped because the school was sensitive to subtle warning signs.
This was recently the case in Suffolk County, N.Y., when a student from Islip High School tweeted he was going to blow up the gymnasium at rival Kings Park High School during the night of a big basketball game. The student was arrested and student spectators were barred from attending the game.
Thomas and Dorn acknowledge that armed security guards increase safety, but may not be affordable in many districts. Realistic techniques of student supervision and training in spotting concealed weapons may be better long-term options, they said.
Thomas, who is fully opposed to the “fortress approach,” said armed security guards are a big expense and difficult to sustain financially. A typical school would need at least three guards, he said — two for daily operations and a third in case one of the other two cannot attend work.
“No police chief in the country right now is singing the tune of the NRA saying, ‘Thank you for saying that,’” he said. “They’re really saying, ‘Damn you for saying that.’”