Sadly, our country is dealing with yet another school shooting. The lives of too many students have been taken and the lives of countless others have been altered forever.
It would be wonderful if we could find a single solution that would prevent such needless and wasteful tragedy. However, such a solution is nearly impossible when human behavior is in play.
While we may not have an absolute solution, we are not powerless to respond. There is a three-tiered approach that can provide the best assurance. Two of the tiers are already fairly common in schools. The third, while still not a guarantee, can reduce the possibility of a violent act even further.
The first and most common tier of prevention is making schools less accessible to people who do not have business there. This step includes closing secondary access to the school during school hours. It involves locking back entrances and access where visibility is low and someone might enter unobserved. Meanwhile, primary entrances are monitored and, often, reconfigured. A typical modification is to create an “air lock” where people accessing the building during school hours first enter a secure space, such as a vestibule, where they are credentialed and issued identification before being allowed entry to the school. Typically, identification issued to visitors is different than identification staff and students may display.
The second tier involves occupants of the school having a plan for how they will respond if there is a present danger, such as an active shooter. Experience with such tragedies has led to a common set of strategies including hide, run, and fight. Students and staff discuss and practice the conditions under which sheltering in place or hiding until help arrives is the best response. For example, hiding is typically the best option when an intruder is in the area, but there is time and opportunity to gather out of sight and create a barrier to make it difficult to be found and approached. The choice to run typically is in response to an immediate threat where there is neither time nor opportunity to hide. The goal is to place distance between one’s self and the intruder. A third option is to turn and fight. This typically is a last option, to be engaged only when there is no choice to avoid a confrontation.
The third tier involves everyone in the school community being alert to others who may be sending signals or showing signs that they may become a danger to themselves or others. Experts advise us to look for four common symptoms:
- They have a grievance, have experienced some type of hurt, or are feeling isolated or rejected and cannot let the situation go.
- They seem to constantly think and talk about the grievance and their reaction to it. They may utilize social media as a means to express themselves and even make indirect or direct threats. They seem to be obsessing about the problem but not trying to productively resolve it.
- They show emotional signs of being overwhelmed, increasingly desperate, and agitated about their situation. They may even say things like they cannot see a way out, or that they need to “fix” the situation.
- They begin to plan or prepare to act. They may purchase and practice with a weapon, or buy ammunition. They also may research past acts of violence and study the plans and approaches other violent actors have employed.
Of course, while studies of past violent actors have shown that they often shared these characteristics, not everyone who exhibits one or more of them will commit a violent act. There is a possibility that someone who has no intention of acting out will be identified. However, they still might benefit from being noticed and offered help.
The bottom line is that we may never be able to prevent the next act of violence in a school, but by taking common sense steps and employing what has been learned from past incidents, we can be assured that we are doing all that we can to keep our school community safe.