Like the film Ground Hog Day, every time an act of mass violence captures the public’s attention we witness Democrats pitted against Republicans in attempts to sell the school security “magic solutions.” This time, the tragedy at Stoneman Douglas High School reignited furor over assault weapons laws on a scale not seen since Sandy Hook in 2012. Countering this approach, President Trump is promoting arming teachers in the classroom. Unfortunately, both ideas promise little other than political gridlock and distraction from more practical school security matters.
As a security consultant, most of my career has been focused on protecting organizations against targeted violence (e.g., school attacks, workplace violence, etc.). When designing protective strategies, I always adopt an approach that weighs the practicality and cost of countermeasures against their anticipated benefit.
Let me first address the assault weapons issue. Speaking from the perspective of risk management, we’re deluding ourselves if we believe a new assault weapons ban is going to achieve the type of risk reduction as promoted by advocates. According to our analysis of 401 incidents of actual and attempted school attacks, only 4% of incidents involved firearms classified as assault weapons.[i] Although there’s no doubt assault weapons are efficient at killing, handguns are far more common and have been equally deadly in previous events. Let’s not forget, the deadliest school shooting to date was the 2007 Virginia Tech attack perpetrated with a handgun.[ii] Whether we like it or not, the American gun genie has been out of the bottle since the birth of our nation. With millions of assault weapons already in private possession, no new prohibition is going to prevent accessibility without sweeping the nation door-by-door.
Likewise, belief that waiting periods will have an impactful benefit on school safety is also flawed. Almost all acts of mass homicide in schools are examples of targeted violence precipitated by months or even years of ideation, planning, and preparation. There is a considerable body of research on this matter. Contrary to common belief, most mass killers acquire their weapons well in advance of attacks as part of the preparation process.
Similarly, President Trump’s proposal to arm teachers is equally futile. Purdue University’s 2014 Mitigating Active Shooter Impact study analyzed this option as part its assessment of alternative response models for school shootings. Contrary to the claims of gun advocates at the time of the report’s publication, the Purdue team’s results demonstrated little benefit from the presence of armed teachers over classic response by off-site police. [iii] Besides, encouraging teachers to carry weapons in the classroom is culturally akin to adding Sean Hannity to the MSNBC nightly lineup.
Bear in mind, my cynicism on these matters has no relation to Second Amendment rights or dismay over our President’s ideas. On a personal level, I couldn’t care less if we pass a new assault weapons law or authorize concealed carry for teachers. My concern is the distraction from overlooked issues in school security and the public’s belief in a “magic solution.”
While our President tweets and the gun control circus rages on, significant vulnerabilities in schools remain quietly ignored. One simple example is use of locks classified by ANSI as “classroom function” in most American schools. These are perhaps the worst choice of locks possible for lockdown purposes. Classroom function locks are only lockable by a key from the outer side of the door. As witnessed in a number of shooting events, doors equipped with classroom-function locks often remain unlocked due to difficulty locating or manipulating keys under stress. Some examples of incidents where this situation clearly contributed to unnecessary casualties include the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary shooting and 2007 Virginia Tech attack. [iv] [v] In those two events alone, 26 students and faculty were killed and 24 wounded specifically because their doors could not be secured.
Another unaddressed vulnerability in American schools is use of tempered glass in door vision panels and wall glazing. Tempered glass provides only seconds of delay against forced entry by a gunman.[vi] This vulnerability was exploited by Adam Lanza when entering Sandy Hook Elementary.[vii]
Of greatest concern is the absence of professional on-site responders in most K-8 schools. There is a direct correlation between the magnitude of tragedy during shooting events and the intervention time of armed responders. When teaching seminars, I address this matter using the principles of physical security mathematics. This was also spotlighted by the Purdue team. All studies, analytical and anecdotal, reveal the same conclusion—the best way to mitigate the effects of an active shooter attack is rapid intervention by armed responders reliably located on campus.
Regarding emergency preparedness, most American schools still have deficient emergency plans, minimal training for faculty and students, poor communications infrastructure, and similar problems. Many schools also employ dangerous response procedures such as vague, coded announcements during active shooter attacks (e.g., “Mr. Jones is in the building”) perfectly crafted to generate confusion and ambiguity.
On February 23rd, Governor Scott of Florida introduced a new strategy for addressing many of these more practical matters of school safety. I realize “No ANSI classroom-function locks” and “No tempered glass windows” make lousy slogans for protest signs. But truthfully, these are some of the many vulnerabilities affecting our schools that can be addressed through new best practices and funding. Governor Scott’s proposed plan seems to address these issues. But like all great plans, the devil’s always in the details.
Copyright © 2018 by Craig S. Gundry, PSP, cATO, CHS-III
[ii] Mass Shootings at Virginia Tech. April 16, 2007. Report of the Review Panel. Virginia Tech Review Panel. August 2007.
[iii] Anklam, Charles , Adam Kirby, Filipo Sharevski, and J. Eric Dietz. “Mitigating active shooter impact: Analysis for policy options based on agent/computer-based modeling.” Journal of Emergency Management 13.3 (2015): 201-16. Web. 6 Mar. 2017
[iv] Report of the State’s Attorney for the Judicial District of Danbury on the Shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School and 36 Yogananda Street, Newtown, Connecticut on December 14, 2012. Office Of The State’s Attorney Judicial District Of Danbury, Stephen J. Sedensky III, State’s Attorney, N.p., 25 November 2013. pp.18
[v] Mass Shootings at Virginia Tech. April 16, 2007. Report of the Review Panel. Virginia Tech Review Panel. August 2007. pp.13.
[vi] Critical Intervention Services assisted window film manufacturer Solar Gard Saint-Gobain in 2015 in conducting a series of timed penetration tests of unprotected tempered glass windows and glazing reinforced with anti-shatter film. The author personally supervised and witnessed these tests. Video is available online.
[vii] Report of the State’s Attorney for the Judicial District of Danbury on the Shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School and 36 Yogananda Street, Newtown, Connecticut on December 14, 2012. Office Of The State’s Attorney Judicial District Of Danbury, Stephen J. Sedensky III, State’s Attorney, N.p., 25 November 2013. pp.18