Active Shooter Prevention: Let’s Match Student Courage with Real Change
By focusing as much on prevention as we do on response, students, teachers, and parents can better recognize active shooters before they attack.
Student Heroism and Sacrifice
Recent active shooter attacks at the University of North Carolina — Charlotte and a high school near Denver, Colorado have involved students fighting back.
At UNC‐ Charlotte, 21‐year‐old Riley Howell ran towards the shooter and disrupted him long enough for students in his classroom to escape. While Riley’s actions saved many lives, his decision to charge the gunman cost him his own life.
At the high school just outside Denver, Kendrick Castillo lunged at the shooter who entered his classroom. His actions prompted three additional students to charge the shooter and allow their classmates to escape, running out the door. Like Riley, Kendrick’s heroic actions meant sacrificing his own life to save others.
Prevention and Response – Our Schools Need Both
Our firm trains schools, corporations, houses of worship, and various enterprises in active shooter prevention and response. We encourage everyone to be an active participant in their own survival. Increasing one’s chances of survival requires any or all of the following actions:
- Identifying the potential shooter as early as possible
- Evacuating away from the shooter
- Notifying 911 and bystanders about the shooter
- Confronting the shooter (when necessary)
Riley and Kendrick identified the shooter and then confronted the shooter. Most of the other students evacuated away from the shooter and notified others.
While we commend all these students for responding to the attacks (and not freezing or hiding under their desks), increasing one’s safety and survival from an active shooter demands both prevention and response.
Although more students are learning to respond (through training and media reports), the prevention component of safety and survival continues to lag behind. Especially lagging is the early identification of potential active shooters during the days, weeks, or months preceding violence.
When there is healthy prevention, the response requirement is often less necessary. This is because prevention makes it harder for an actual attack to occur.
Too many schools, however, are lacking the necessary prevention measures. For the great majority of schools who have not experienced an active shooter attack, speaking up and taking action requires a strong commitment from lawmakers and school administrators. After all, if every courthouse across America has proactive security measures, then every single school should too.
This is not an across the board accusation, as many schools are taking great action here and here. Unfortunately, as the Washington Post reports, many of these measures are creating a “false sense of security” – as the attacks keep coming and increasing at an alarming rate.
Early identification of a potential active shooter before they strike is critical for the reduction of school violence. Most active shooters are rarely creative or surreptitious, and they never just “snap.” Instead, in the months, weeks, days, hours, minutes, and seconds before their attack, they exhibit Pre‐Incident Indicators (PINs)* and behaviors that forecast the violence to come.
Instead of just “lock down” drills and other responsive training exercises, we urge schools to include more preventative training curriculums, including Early Identification of disturbing behaviors, for all students, teachers, and parents. The aim of preventative training is to stop a would‐be attacker before they strike. As Peter Langman writes in Ten Lessons Learned from School Shootings and Foiled Attacks, “the best defense is early detection.”
By implementing mandatory and quarterly training for early identification and notification, lawmakers and school administrators can help increase school safety and student survival.
* For more on PINs, the FBI provides a roadmap in their 2018 report entitled, A Study of Pre‐Attack Behaviors of Active Shooters in the United States Between 2000 and 2013.
Here are some simple preventative actions we hope school administrators and legislatures can implement to ensure a future where less courageous acts like Riley and Kendrick’s are required of our students and children.
School Resource Officer for Every School.
These officers’ role is not just to prevent an attack — as they often arrive on scene after the killing begins. Their main role is to train students and teachers to report concerning behaviors they see or hear about. When it comes to identifying PINs, a thousand set of eyes and ears is certainly better than one.
Additionally, we encourage qualified school and law enforcement Threat Assessment teams to use evidence‐based and objective assessment tools like MOSAIC when evaluating the PINs of concerning students.
Quarterly Early Identification Training
“An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure” as the old saying goes. Teaching about the Pathway to Violence and how to better recognize PINs will not only help identify potential active shooters, it will help identify students who are suffering and need help.
Moreover, improving each student’s ability to identify PINs will enhance their situational awareness — a safety and survival skill students can use for the rest of their lives.
Designated and Monitored Entry Points and Monitor Them by School Resource Officer and Trained Staff
An FBI Study indicates that on the day of the attack, 74% of Active Shooters walk right through the front door. Thus, like every courthouse in America, designating specific entry points – monitored by the school resource officer and trained staff — is necessary for the early identification of an active shooter.
As Gavin de Becker writes here, the purpose of school is not to distinguish rich students from poor students through fashion. School is a place for learning. By mandating a uniformed student body, schools can communicate their mission and purpose and increase safety.
See‐through book bags, no baggy clothes, and no large jackets worn indoors, for example, are policies that limit a student’s ability to conceal a weapon. This is not full‐proof, of course. Yet, by implementing a school uniform policy, schools create a safer environment that fosters student creative expression where it matters most: in their schoolwork and not in their fashion sense.
Without school administrators and politicians – at the behest of parents and voters — implementing preventative measures like Early Identification, students are often left to fend for themselves against an active shooter. In the case of Riley and Kendrick, they paid for this shameful reality with their lives.
James Hamilton is a Senior Vice President at Gavin de Becker & Associates. James served 17 years as a Supervisory Special Agent in the FBI, where he was handpicked to create the Bureau’s close protection course. His courses are currently taught at the NSA, NYPD, and many other agencies.
Ed Hinman is the Director of Security Strategies and Communication at Gavin de Becker & Associates. His articles on security matters have appeared in Military.com, Task & Purpose, the Chicago Tribune, and the Washington Post. Prior to GDBA, Ed served 8 years in the United States Marine Corps.
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