My wife, Alison, works in a building with 500 or so third, fourth and fifth graders in a suburb north of Chicago; she’s a Speech and Language Pathologist. We’ve been talking about responses to an active shooter in her building for several years now.
When she first shared the administrative mandate for sheltering in place in the classroom, or in her case office; locking the doors, turning off the lights, huddling in a corner and then sliding a red or green card under the door to signify your condition — I almost choked. Here’s her response: “Like I’m really going to show the bad guy that someone is in still my office by sliding a card under the door!”
Sometime after she shared that ridiculous revelation, Alison related a conversation she had with one of her fourth graders; “Mrs. Worth if there was a bad guy in our building why wouldn’t we just break this window and get out?” From the mouth of babes comes the common response to a deadly event. In fact, my wife’s office is five or six steps away from an exit; her plan was to exit the building with however many students she had in her office no matter what the administrative directives were. This is again a common sense response to a deadly event.
Let me put this in perspective for you. The massacre that occurred at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newton, Connecticut, should be an example for anyone who develops or recommends strategies for reacting to an active shooter situation. Bill Gage, a former United States Secret Service Agent and consultant for Countermeasure Consulting, accompanied President Obama to Sandy Hook to meet with the families and inspect the scene. What Mr. Gage encountered floored him — crime scene outlines of teachers and children, where they perished, mere feet away from exit doors. How could this happen? Here’s how: mandated lock down shelter in place directives kept the children and staff in their classrooms until their last moments. My response to the no alternative shelter in place procedure has garnered some heat from law enforcement and school administrators alike. Here it is: “So you’re telling your staff and students in the event of an active shooter event to shelter in place, hide in their classroom and HOPE that the bad guy doesn’t find and kill all of them?” Hoping is akin to believing the Titanic is unsinkable.
Hiding, locking down and sheltering in place is not an action plan; it is a lack of action. If you ask any five-year-old what to do if there is a bad guy in the building who wants to hurt him; he’ll respond — “get out of the building.” Why is this common sense approach so hard to comprehend? What is it about exiting the danger zone that confounds some of the brightest men and women in society? I’d like to be straightforward and blunt about why I think law enforcement and school administrators like to fall back on the shelter in place strategy, but I won’t here. I don’t believe it will promote anything positive.
The fact of the matter, the truth and the best action, for most active shooter situations, is to exit the building as quickly as possible. You CANNOT wait for the office to make an announcement. You CANNOT wait for the police to save you. The police will respond very quickly, but it still will take five to 15 minutes for them to arrive, gain entry to the building and find the shooter. Today’s law enforcement professionals are highly trained and effective. They will terminate the shooter, but you MUST realize that a shooter can fire hundreds of rounds of ammunition in those minutes before the police arrive. You and your student’s safety depend on what you do in that crucial time before law enforcement arrives. You must take action in order to survive.
If you believe you heard a gunshot or an explosion; assemble your students, stick your head out your door to make sure the path to your closest exit is clear and depart the building in great haste. Keep moving until everyone is outside and away from the building; hopefully you’ll have already selected a safe area prior to this emergency. Do not go to the parking lot or the bus loading area; get as far away from the building as possible. Once every one of your charges is safe; call 911. Tell the 911 operator what has occurred and where you are located; do not return to the building until directed to do so by the police. If the noise you heard turns out not to be an active shooter attack; no harm, no foul. However, if you ignore the first signs of danger and wait — you may lose the opportunity to escape.
If the shooter/bad guy is right outside of your classroom when you first react to the danger, you may not be able to evacuate. You’ll need to lock the door, move some furniture in front of it, turn off the lights, pull the blinds and keep quiet, BUT during this entire time you MUST be planning how you can escape. Can you open or break a window? Can you tell that the gunfire is moving away from you now? Keep evaluating the situation with the ultimate goal of escaping. You may not be able to get out right now but you must keep trying. Escape equals survival; hiding equals hoping.
Some of you may not agree with my assertions and plans for evacuation. That’s fine, but if you’re going to rely on sheltering in place — then you’d better fortify your classroom and office doors. Install locks that latch automatically when closed, add slide bolt mechanisms around the door, change wood doors to commercial steel, minimize any door glass and install shatter-proof films or material over existing glass. Evaluate the size and glass type in the windows of the first floor classrooms. Is it tempered glass that will shatter when broken? If so, do your teachers have a hammer to smash the windows to allow their students to escape? There are more options but you may need help to discover and evaluate them.
The after action reports and crime scene analysis support the fact that most fatalities, in an active shooter attack, occur in a confined space like a classroom. The tragedies at Sandy Hook, Virginia Tech and Umpqua Community College ALL support the assertion that the default decision to sheltering in place doesn’t work. The victims in each one of these attacks lost their lives because they were not prepared to escape. NO plan can insure complete protection but having NO PLAN, like defaulting to shelter in place, insures the opposite.