The horrific shooting of children and staff at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., is one of the latest examples of an “active shooter” tragedy. Active shooter is a term used by law enforcement to describe both the armed offender and the incident itself. The 2008 Department of Homeland Security document, “Active Shooter: How to Respond,” provides the following definition of an offender: “An Active Shooter is an individual actively engaged in killing or attempting to kill people in a confined and populated area; in most cases, active shooters use firearms(s), and there is no pattern or method to their selection of victims.”
How can we prevent these events? Although no single method is foolproof, several well-established security principles provide a strong foundation for mitigating active-shooter situations.
Security measures often are classified along the five steps of the security continuum: deter, detect, delay, respond and recover. With an active shooter, if schools wait until the response step (typically when law enforcement responds to a 911 call), loss of life is likely. Often, a first responder is a few minutes away when seconds count.
Greater focus needs to be placed on the first three steps: deter, detect and delay; the goal is preventing the incident in the first place and eliminating the need for a response.
Common Threat Elements
To understand how a school can carry out these steps, one should understand the nature of an active-shooter threat. The New York Police Department has chronicled 230 active-shooter cases over four decades. In a report on those cases, the department determined that 97 percent of the attackers were men or boys. The attackers’ ages range from 10 to 89, but with regard to schools, the vast majority fall into three age groups: 10 to 14; 15 to 19; and 20 to 24 years old.
Frequently, these attackers have mental or emotional issues, and they often have a grievance (real or imagined) toward the school or staff. Most shootings are planned days and weeks in advance and are not reactionary or the result of a “mental snap.” Attackers have objectives they want to achieve, although it is not always known what those are. Nevertheless, schools should recognize that attackers will go to great lengths to ensure their objectives are achieved.
Attackers almost always conduct pre-attack planning, which may include observing school operations and facilities, making inquiries about employees and events, and other information-gathering techniques. This planning frequently takes days and weeks to complete. Attacks often follow a pattern of these steps:
•Surveillance and information gathering.
•Test and evaluate security.
•Potential reconsideration and reconfirmation of the target and goals and objectives.
•Gain access and conduct attack.
•Plan an escape—in some cases this occurs, but frequently not.
Applying Effective Security Steps
Data and profiles can be used to help formulate effective “deter, detect and delay” security steps at schools. These three steps offer the best chance of averting a catastrophe.
•Step 1: Deterrence is a powerful step. Fundamental to successful deterrence is creating uncertainty in the mind of an attacker so he doubts his ability to succeed. Creating an aura of robust security may cause a potential attacker to doubt the success of an attack. For example, posting signage at each entrance to notify the public that uniformed and plain-clothed police conduct routine patrols inside and outside the school may help deter a potential attack. To be effective, police need to actually perform these patrols.
School administration and staff can be issued defensive devices, such as bear or pepper spray or a stun gun, and they should be trained in the proper use of these devices. Signage noting that the staff has been issued stun guns or similar devices should be placed in visible places. If properly trained and qualified staff members are allowed to carry concealed weapons, this fact should not be advertised so that the attacker has doubts about the strength of potential resistance.
Other deterrent features can enhance the perception that a space is secure. These include having multiple adults to observe every person as they enter the school and engaging them in conversation at the entry point. The objective of this step is to make it difficult for a person to enter with a firearm or other weapon, and to make a personal connection with each person. The vast majority of active shooter incidents involve handguns, which are easier to conceal than rifles or shotguns. Using a metal detector ,even if only randomly, can help create an obstacle in the mind of a would-be attacker.
•Step 2: Detection builds upon deterrence. Observant monitoring of building entrances helps detect anybody who is agitated, disturbed or out of place (a common attribute seen in attackers). Reliable access controls on a building perimeter helps detect unauthorized entry. In addition, expanding the secure space outside a school helps enhance the aura of security and provides early detection of people acting suspiciously. Closed-circuit television monitoring of parking areas and public access points combined with random walking patrols around building exteriors also are effective.
In addition to those physical and operational security measures, an efficient and effective security program also will use information available within the school—reports, observations and similar data sources about students (and staff) who are at risk of aggressive behavior and violent acts. Young male students who have been victims of physical, social or verbal bullying, or other social ostracizing often become perpetrators. Bullying-prevention programs may not succeed, and bullying can be insidious and undetected, resulting in deep and festering emotional damage.
A keenly aware and astute staff should recognize that a victim of bullying may become an active shooter in the future. This knowledge may help staff and administrators take steps to assist bullying victims.
•Step 3: Delay involves the use of physical and virtual characteristics to harden the facility with a goal of frustrating or impeding an attacker in the planning and execution of an attack. Control of who enters and exits a building, and where and how that occurs can significantly affect the ability of an attacker to move unimpeded through a building.
At Sandy Hook Elementary School, the attacker reportedly could not open a locked door, so he shot the lock to gain entry. To thwart similar action, physical hardening is a useful technique. Substituting electromagnetic locks for common mechanical-type key locks is one method to delay entry. “Mag locks” typically require a force of 1,000 pounds or more to overcome the lock. By adding some small sections of steel plate around the mag locks, they frequently can be modified or installed to withstand ballistic impact from a number of weapons.
Glass (glazing) at entry doors and emergency exits and in accessible ground floor areas can be enhanced with ballistic film or replaced with bulletproof glass. Although it often is not practical to provide these exterior hardening measures for all potential entry points and windows, a vulnerability assessment to determine the most probable points of entry can help a school prioritize where to add hardening measures as well as access controls. Keeping a would-be attacker out of a school, or delaying his attempt at entry, is important to interrupt the attack cycle as well as to enable students and staff to shelter in place (lockdown) or evacuate to a safe location.
Another delay tactic is to deny access to information that would assist in planning and attack. Sharing information about students, teachers, schools and activities needs to be balanced between the need to know for parents, staff and students and the security need to protect the facility and its occupants. For example, if a potential attacker learns that police will attend an after-school event and search all backpacks, this may prompt him to place a weapon inside the school prior to the event, enabling him to pass through the screening area unarmed. Posting get-well wishes on a school website for a receptionist may signal to a potential attacker that there will be a substitute person in the office whose inexperience may be exploited.
Another security concept that is relevant to active-shooter situations: protection-in-depth, sometimes called layered security. This concept is based upon a security approach that requires an aggressor to employ different skills and tools to penetrate multiple layers of different types of security measures.
When this principle is used at a school to protect the students and staff from an active shooter, an intruder would have to get past the following “layers” of security to conduct an attack:
•Avoid being noticed by teachers looking for visitors or odd behavior (this level may be enhanced when teachers have received training to look for an estranged student with violent intent).
•Avoid random patrols (either by law enforcement, staff or security personnel) through the parking lot and grounds.
•Defeat controlled-access entry door(s) and hardened entry area(s).
•Bypass or defeat a person assigned to perform screening at the entry area(s).
•Overcome or avoid staff armed with defensive device (bear spray, stun gun or firearm).
•Avoid armed law enforcement personnel in the school.
•Enter locked and barricaded classroom.
•Counter teachers or students who have been trained in storming and immobilizing an aggressor.
Each of these layers requires different skills or tools to be applied by the attacker. The more layers in place, the more difficult it becomes for attackers to succeed or for them to have confidence in the outcome of their attacks.
If an attacker is not confident or feels that he is less likely to achieve his goals, then the application of the protection-in-depth approach has succeeded in deterring an attack. Or, if the attack still takes place and the protection-in-depth approach has been used, the attacker may be delayed or denied full access to the school.
Other security principles such as crime prevention through environmental design (CPTED), drills and exercises, and threat and vulnerability assessments also can help address and mitigate active-shooter situations.
Bullying-prevention programs, behavior modification and crisis-team interventions all play a role in reducing potential threats. Having an armed-response capability within the school has significant tactical advantages, but this must be weighed with political, economic and social concerns as well.
In an ideal world, all of the steps in the security continuum would be enacted to the fullest extent possible. However, schools typically struggle to maintain adequate funding.
To help determine the priority of security, those seeking increased security measures must provide the rationale and cost for the upgrades. Locks, bulletproof glass, stun guns and security patrols all have initial and long-term price tags.
Completing a full assessment and cost analysis will help school systems understand what they can afford. Some grant funding sources are available, but these are competitive and require a well-developed approach and rationale for security.
Putting the three steps of deter, detect and delay in place also may help prevent child abductions, enforce restraining orders against estranged parents or family members, and minimize general theft.
A professional security consultant may help a school determine its needs. Choose an expert who is a certified protection professional—one who has earned the ASIS International designation that certifies the abilities of security professionals.