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Can We Protect From School School Shootings?

Here is an insightful (albeit long) thought experiment that explores the different strategies that might be enacted to protect children from shootings or other school massacres. It also includes some historical information that shows this problem has been around for much longer than most people might have realized. Reprinted in entirety with permission from the author Erik Wade:

A Brief History:

Since the country was founded guns have been a part of life over the years for securing food, protection, and even fun. In its early days, America was barely established and the threat most Americans faced was from Indian attack in the more desolate reaches of the country. The first recorded school shooting that ever happened on American soil took place before America declared its independence from British rule. On July 26 1764, Enoch Brown and nine school children were killed, 2 children who were injured survived, and four more children were taken prisoner by a members of a local indian tribe. The incident is referred to as the Enoch Brown School Massacre. This horrible crime marked the first act of terror at a school in American history.

Since that day, information regarding school related shootings seemed scarce till November 2, 1953 when a student brought a pistol to school and killed the school headmaster. While school related shootings either intentional or accidental occurred, the information recorded and kept of the incident is, in most cases, non-existent. There are periodic listings of school related shootings throughout the years that involved school kids accidentally shooting themselves or another student, or in some cases, targeting someone they hated. However, for the most part, the information only paints a partial picture of what was apparently routine during the early to late 1800's. One news article from the Los Angeles Herald on September 11, 1874 stated:

Boys and Pistols

Yesterday at noon a boy sixteen years of age shot himself, or was shot by his brother. It matters not who fired the fatal shot. No criminal act was intended or committed, and the boy is dead. He was a member of the High School of this city and was, we are told, something over the average good boy of Los Angeles. This boy lost his life through the too common habit among boys of carrying deadly weapons. We do not know that this habit can be broken up. We do not know that school teachers have the right, or would exercise it if they had, of searching the pockets of their pupils, but it seems almost a necessity that some such rule be enforced. The hills west of town are not safe for pedestrians after school hours. Nearly every school-boy carries a pistol, and the power of these pistols range from the harmless six-bit auction concern to the deadly Colt's six-shooter. A lady and gentleman walking along Bunker Hill Avenue a few evenings since were astonished by three pistol shots, and the whizzing of the balls over their heads. We are Informed that this sort of thing is very common in that locality, and we would call the attention of the city authorities to the importance of an early discontinuance of the hoodlum custom.

Clearly the issue was more wide spread than what records might suggest since there are only about 24 recorded incidents between 1800-1900 of gun related deaths involving a student or school. Often enough for a news article, but not important enough to record each incident. Since the early 1900's however, there has been a slight improvement in records regarding school related shootings, though most of the information is only available from those sources who have digitized the original copies. This seems true all the way up till after the 1950's where most recorded school related shootings happened in New York. Of the nineteen incidents found between 1950-59, the majority were all located in New York but in reality hundreds if not thousands of other incidents exist but information is not readily available online.

The reality is that most school related shootings involved jilted lovers, disgruntled students, accidents, or suicides and primarily involved only one or two people. An obvious exception is the Michigan Bath School Disaster where the killer used dynamite to blow up the school killing 38 people on May 18th, 1927. This was considered the first suicide bombing and deadliest mass murder at a school to date in history. While this incident shocked and left most speechless, it was most definitely abnormal. The first real mass murder at a school that involved a firearm arguably wasn't until August 1st, 1966 when Charles Whitman used a bolt action rifle atop a clock tower to kill 17 people, and wound another 31 at the University of Texas in Austin. The incident took 96 minutes and was ended when Austin police successfully shot and killed the gunman. Since that fateful day, there have several mass shootings involving schools throughout the country. Even as horrible as each school shooting or mass shooting was, none struck the country as severely as the Columbine High School shooting on April 20, 1999. Until that day, most school shootings were considered isolated or remote incidents. However, when the two students at Columbine High took 13 lives and wounded 21 others, they made the country stop and look. Less than a year after the Armstrong High School Massacre where 2 were killed and 25 wounded, Columbine made it clear that school related shootings are a real concern for everyone. Based on this event, schools began to make new emergency plans, law enforcement adopted new ways to handle such incidents, and the world stopped to ask "why".

The Columbine massacre was used as a talking point for every school, law enforcement agency, student, and parent as a basis for concern. Other shootings happened before and after this incident but Columbine was known throughout the world because of its tragedy and impact it had. Even in 2005 with the Red Lake Massacre where nine were killed and five wounded, the country still referred to Columbine as the worst in known history. That would all change on April 16, 2007 in Blacksburg, Virginia where the country would face yet another tragedy at Virginia Tech. On that fateful day, 32 people would die and another 17 wounded when a college student using two handguns he purchased, systematically shot students and teachers attending class by entering classrooms and opening fire. The incident created international attention and criticism to both the United States and all gun laws. The shooter had been diagnosed with severe anxiety disorder and yet some how was able to purchase two handguns which he later used to commit the killings. Sadly, this new incident joined Columbine in infamy. Both incidents are commonly used to justify improving or instilling new procedures at schools, in police departments, and communities. Other shootings have taken place since but none drew as much attention as either of these, until sadly Dec 14th 2012 when Adam Lanza killed his mother in their home, took multiple firearms from her collection, drove to Sandy Hook Elementary School, and killed 26 people, and injuring 2 before taking his own life. The majority of the victims were children and each was shot multiple times. The difference in the Sandy Hook incident was that the school did have measures in place to protect their students but none prevented the tragedy that ensued on that day.

The Challenge:

The United States has certainly seen its share of horrific events on schools and college campuses. Often, each tragedy brings a renewed sense of urgency to enforce stricter gun control laws, physical security measures, or new policies and procedures. To many, the question is, "What are reasonable measures to help ensure the safety of our students and faculty?" However, the better question to ask is, "Can you ensure the safety of students and faculty?" and the short answer is no. The reality is that there's no way to truly protect everyone completely, the only hope is to reduce the number of casualties the next time. Sadly, it isn't about "if" there will be another mass shooting, its a matter of when and where it takes place. Schools around the country are known to be "soft targets" because they have little to no defenses and while the emotional impact any attack might have is immense.

School officials, industry experts, law enforcement, politicians, and even special interest groups have all weighed in on best practices to protect our schools but there is no set rule or code regarding what the right solution is since every school and campus is different. Groups like Security on Campus have helped shape best practices and laws governing reporting crime statistics but are unable to answer definitively since there is no school or campus alike. Even the factors each school has to answer differ since elementary schools are less likely to allow visitors or be open then a high school where students might be allowed to leave during lunch. Yet, both are completely different from a college campus where people come and go throughout the day. The harsh reality is that to effectively handle a school's individual needs, the school has to determine all factors they face and decide independently what measures they should take to effectively "protect" their students and staff. There are some general methods that can be used to help, but overall, its up to each school to choose which methods, technologies, solutions, and procedures they wish to adopt to handle emergencies on their school grounds. Some of the available technologies available to schools are:

Access Control - from regular key locks to proximity cards allowing access through exterior/interior doors. Access control includes any types of door lock employed to prevent anyone from gaining access to something.

Video Surveillance - Cameras, Cameras, and more cameras. Our society has more cameras than one could have thought possible 20 years ago. With cameras we can identify potential problems before they become a problem. Even 10 years ago technology was barely available to allow camera video to stream over wires to provide a poor resolution image, now, cameras are available that can capture an entire area with such resolution it rivals what you see in Hollywood.

Mass Notification - SMS/TXT messaging, phones, radios, public address, scrolling marquees or signs, billboards, web notifications, email, social media, etc. If it can potentially help to spread the word, it falls under mass notification.

Intrusion - Burgler alarms, window breaks, motion detectors, door contacts. If it can help tell authorities that someone is where they shouldn't be, it falls under Intrusion.

Emergency Phones - Blue phones, call boxes, Panic phones, intercom. Any phone or intercom that allows someone to call for help.

Of course, these technologies are useless without the proper procedures in place and being used effectively. The real challenge for any school from elementary to university is to chose what technologies they wish to employ and how they will effectively enforce and implement a policy and procedure to make it effective. Two real world scenarios to provide examples are:

Option A. School employed access control on all exterior doors into school, has fences preventing access onto school grounds. Installed cameras throughout the school, has multiple methods to notify students and staff of any emergency. Effectively they have deployed hundreds of thousands of dollars to install the best technology they could. However, they leave their fences open and unlocked because it was annoying to unlock and lock it daily. They prop most of the exterior doors and classroom doors open during nice days to enjoy the breeze, and the only person who had access to watch the cameras or send alerts via the mass notification system can only do so from their office and they rarely stay in their office. When visitors come to the school, they are not stopped by the fences, prevented entry from the access control doors, walk right into the buildings and have direct access to the classrooms and people inside.

Option B. School employed access control on all exterior doors into school, has fences preventing access onto school grounds. Installed cameras throughout the school, has multiple methods to notify students and staff of any emergency. School hired a security officer to monitor cameras and respond to any suspicious activity or unlock gates remotely to authorized persons. At first sight of any suspicious activity, security officer notifies key people, locks all doors and access points in that area and has person ready to contact first responders if signaled. Security officer then makes their way to the suspicious person to identify whether they are a threat or not. If the person is a parent or guardian, the guard checks ID and verifies with office via radio before escorting directly to the office. If the person is a threat, the security guard requests they leave and notifies person at the ready to call police while other key members initiate emergency procedures and ensure no staff or students are near the threat.

Two schools with the same technologies but different policies and procedures to make use of their technologies. Its all too common place for schools to be option "A" as opposed to option "B" because option "B" takes planning, work, and buy in from all members of the staff and faculty. Sadly most teachers, staff members and faculty prefer their old bad habits over adopting new annoying policies that they feel are a waste of time. Option "B" really takes hard work, dedication, and a strong leader to force out the bad habits to make room for the new rules. Even with all things done right, tragedies like Sandy Hook show us that someone with a desire to create havoc will find a way in and lay waste any plan or procedure. However, if Sandy Hook proves anything, its that their policies and procedures were sound. Adam gained access, but teachers were trained to evacuate their students if they could otherwise get them to cover and shelter in place. If not for such procedures, Adam could have found many more victims to inflict his terror on.

So the real challenge is to figure out what steps a school should take to give them every chance to minimize the number of casualties if they are ever faced with a similar situation. It may involve picking the right technologies to give their people as much warning as possible, it will definitely include improving the policies and procedures, it might include hiring security personnel to assist in monitoring the school or assigning key people to the task. Whatever the steps are, the goal is to offer a reduction in the number of casualties if someone comes to their school looking to take lives. The ideal situation would be something like:

School has deployed access control on all exterior doors, some interior doors and key areas. Security cameras monitor all common areas corridors and stairwells including outside areas and parking areas. Mass Notification measures include public address, speaker arrays throughout the campus, blue phones in parking areas equipped with speakers, SMS/TXT, email, network notifications, and local radio. School employs a small security guard force to monitor cameras, and patrol the grounds surrounding the school. Identification is required for any vehicles to gain access to the parking areas or access the school grounds. Any visitor requesting entry is directed to visitor area and Admin is notified while guard watches vehicle pull up to visitor parking area. If the person gets out and is carrying a weapon, security guard monitoring camera can initiate emergency procedures immediately. This could include capturing a picture of the suspect via a security camera and automatically sending it to local law enforcement as they are notified of the emergency, receive a picture of the suspect, the location they are currently at, and the entrance first responders need to enter to reduce the time to reaching the suspect. Meanwhile, mass notification alerts are being sent out to all students, faculty, and staff while the surveillance guard keeps a visual on the suspect and keeps doors near the suspect locked down. Offices or classrooms near where the visitors parking area is were automatically evacuated so even if the suspect broke his way in, they would find no victims to hurt. Guard continues to keep a visual on the suspect and relays information and first responder status to other security personnel who have made their way to the area where the suspect is. Security personnel notify the suspect they are armed, police are already arriving outside and to give up before this goes any further. Suspect was unable to freely make their way to the interior because the school forced visitors to a bottleneck they created so that if the person became a threat, multiple access control doors could be locked down to prevent the suspect from easily gaining access to the school's interior.

Does everyone wish it went this smooth and easily, sure, is it possible, yes. The example given above is an actual location and of an actual event where a very upset ex-boyfriend came looking for his heart breaking ex. This wasn't at a school, it was a business, but it has the exact same chance of happening at a school, and the same chance of success none the less. All that is required is the right systems in place, the right procedures practiced and enforced to effectively use those systems, and working closely with local law enforcement to help the flow of information in the event of an emergency. When a person shows up with a loaded weapon, every second counts. Coordinating with first responders where the emergency is helps them to get to the right area fast and effectively reduce the damage and number of casualties.


It was already mentioned that every school is different and while some schools might be built like world war 2 bomb shelters with doors that would take explosives to open if locked, others might be glass buildings where a rock could bring the whole place down. While it might be effective to shelter in place in the bomb shelter type school, sheltering in place with only glass protecting you is definitely not the best course of action in a shooter scenario. So again, each school needs to identify an effective way to handle keeping their people safe. While every school is unique, there are some general guidelines often recommended to help.

Hire a local security force. whether 1 person or more, having a dedicated security person at the very least helps deter some and helps to delay others. Even in the case of Columbine, the Sheriff who was on school grounds at the time engaged one of the gunmen for an extended period of time until the shooter's gun jammed and he discarded it. Without that Sheriff on site, the death toll would most definitely been much higher and the gunmen would have been more focused on their task at hand as opposed to dealing with the sheriff on site.

Implement access control on all exterior doors and ensure doors aren't propped open. Whether lock and key on a majority and card access on specific doors, the point is to prevent access or restrict movement. A gunman can break any glass door or window, but it takes time and allows first responders precious time to arrive.

Have some method to secure doors from the inside if people need it. If Virginia Tech taught us anything its that when students and teachers couldn't escape through the door, they had to keep the door shut to prevent the shooter from entering. Sadly, the only way the door was held shut, was by a brave teacher who lost his life in the process while students jumped from the windows to safety. Give people a way to keep the doors closed if they need it. Yes this could create issues for teachers getting locked out of their rooms but there are good solutions that can be implemented to prevent this and still keep the doors closed.

Camera surveillance is a must. Cover common areas, corridors, stairwells, elevators, etc. Enabling your people the ability to track a suspect is the best way to reduce the time it takes for first responders to get to the right place and deal with the person. Even if there aren't cameras covering every angle, you can see people fleeing in a direction on the cameras that are there and identify the general area the shooter is in to help narrow the search.

Implement mass notification with backup. One school said it best, "It's an expensive precaution we hope never to use, but we better have it and not need it then need it and not have it." Don't go all out and overboard with hundreds of different types of pre-recorded messages, make it simple and ensure the staff and faculty know what to do in each scenario. The easier the better and make sure to have more than just one type of notification. If a shooter shows up on campus, its a good bet every cell phone carrying person will flood the cell towers with calls rendering the cell service unusable. So there better be other ways to get the message out like speakers, public address, network messages, email, radio, TV, or even blow horns. Many schools think to use only a SMS/TXT solution and then find out the hard way, they can't access their system when the network is down, cell phones are off in class, or cell towers are jammed.

Coordinate with local First Responders and run drills. Schools have been running fire drills forever to help staff and students know what they have to do in the case of a fire. Same thing applies for any security scenario in that staff and faculty can work out the kinks and identify the shortcomings of their procedures and plans with local law enforcement before something happens and everyone is running around trying to figure it out on the fly.

To Arm Or Not To Arm, that is the real question. Some schools have an armed security force, others have armed teachers or faculty. Some campuses have actual local law enforcement officers on their campus. The question as to whether to allow certain members to arm themselves or not has to be left up to the school in question. While it's pretty obvious that having some members of the staff or faculty armed will help to delay the shooter's rampage so that first responders can arrive, its also not something many schools want to see. The bottom line is every school needs to determine if they want to have an armed guard, armed teacher or armed staff member or members at their school and be ready to live with that decision. Sandy Hook had no armed guards and apparently dismissed the idea. The only thing between Adam Lanza and his next victim were pleas and crying. After the horrific incident, Sandy Hook has hired armed guards. If the teacher who was murdered had a pistol or another faculty member had a pistol, would there have been as many lives lost? Armed guards may not be fitting to the image your school wants to appear as, but it will help to delay any shooter enough to reduce the number of casualties from what it could be, to what it will be.

PRACTICE, PRACTICE, PRACTICE!!! A school can have the best systems, procedures, guards, and plan in place but if they don't practice and change it up, it will be forgotten and useless when its needed. What happens if a shooter arrives during lunch when some of the key members are out getting food? What happens if someone is out sick, on vacation, maternity leave, who is their backup? Practice the plan and have backups in case someone isn't in their place or incapacitated and can't do their job.

These are the basic guidelines that most schools consider and implement. Where the access control is, the cameras are, how many guards, whether they have firearms or not, how far first responders are away, calculating response times, and other factors will change from school to school. The best any school can hope for is to delay a suspect long enough for first responders to arrive, the worst is to reduce the number of lives that will be taken before the madman can be stopped. Its not necessary to implement card access on every door any more than its necessary to have hundreds of cameras overlapping each other. A standard key lock and keeping the flow of traffic going through certain doors is sometimes better than a free for all access of every door. Camera coverage if done right can provide a valuable tool. Camera coverage when done wrong can be a confusing rats nest of obscure camera numbers, locations, and indecipherable views from one another. With regards to arming key members or guards, the best practice would be to have two locations on any campus with a gun safe housing a firearm or arms. This way if the shooter is next to your only gun safe, you have another option. As for whether to consider having a firearm on school grounds or not, ask yourself, would you rather stand between a gunman and innocent children armed with harsh words or a loaded firearm? Adam Lanza, Seung-Hui Cho, Steven Kazmierczak, Eric Harris, Dylan Klebold, and so many more committed suicide when they had police closing in on them. Jacob Tyler Roberts, the shooter in the Oregon Mall shooting stopped his shooting rampage when faced with a civilian armed with a pistol and Roberts fled down a hallway where he committed suicide. James Eagan Holmes, the Aurora shooter gave up immediately when confronted by armed police. The bottom line is in nearly every circumstance, the shooters are all focused and intent to kill until faced with someone aiming a firearm back at them. Whether or not you choose to arm members in your school is a choice, knowing that armed members will help buy precious time for first responders to arrive is fact.

About the Author:
Michael is a career programmer who started easy bake gun club with his friends when they couldn't go shooting because of the great ammo shortage of 2012. When he isn't writing code or shooting guns, he can be found playing video games or recording sissy new wave nerd rock.