The early days of national shock following the Valentine’s Day school shooting in Parkland, Florida have passed. For some, the pain and sorrow inflicted by this tragedy will never go away. For others, the shooting has been a rallying cry for those demanding change in national gun laws, boycotting of the National Rifle Association, and creating a dramatic rise in political rhetoric.
Less than a week after the shooting, and, shockingly, before the last victim had been laid to rest, CNN held a nationally televised ‘town meeting’ at which teenage survivors were invited to express their opinions in front of the entire nation. With hardly any time to grieve or adjust to the trauma they had just been through, they were swarmed by the media, which descended upon them like vultures, and gave them a national stage from which to vent their unprocessed emotions. The students were encouraged to rage against the gun laws and the NRA, providing rich material for the liberal media. What should have been a time of mourning and recovery became a media circus. Thrust to center stage were survivors who had had too little time to process their trauma and grief.
It is far too soon for those who experienced the attack to have processed their experience. For some, it may take months or years. For the rest of us, it is time for serious reflection on the issues that led to the shooting, and the steps that must be taken to keep our children and the schools they attend safe.
A School Shooter is a Terrorist.
When a student attacks fellow students in school with a gun or other weapon – that is a terrorist attack. Regardless of the motive, there is very little difference when it comes to the required response. The attack is sudden and often instantly lethal. The response must be immediate and overwhelming.
In the days following the Florida attack, conventional wisdom held that the average school shooting attack lasts only about three minutes. In reality, the duration of the attack may be minutes, or hours, or even days.
On September 1, 2004, for example, in Beslan, North Ossetia, there was a terrorist attack on an elementary school, where 1,200 children and teachers were held hostage. The response was brutal and inept and, in the end, 330 people were killed, including 186 children. The standoff lasted for three days.
In Columbine, Colorado, on April 20, 1999, where two students at Columbine High School went on a shooting spree against their fellow students, 12 students and a teacher were murdered and more than 20 were wounded. The attack last 39 minutes, before the shooters turned their guns on themselves. The SWAT teams did not even enter the school until 47 minutes after the shootings started. And five hours passed before law enforcement declared the school under control. At least one person, the teacher, bled to death before lifesaving help was finally allowed to come to him.
In school shootings, as in all terrorist attacks, time is of the essence and the response needs to be instant, powerful, and final.
A common approach in law enforcement, negotiation, will, more often than not, be useless in a terrorist act. When the attacker is ready to die, negotiations are not an option. But until the event is over, and often long afterwards, the motivations and the shooter’s will to live are unknown. So the only response likely to work must be immediate and must neutralize the attacker or attackers as quickly as possible. The best response is a good offense. In most cases, it is the rapid and focused response that will save lives.
As a consequence of the Sandy Hook school shooting in December 2012, in which 20 children and six adults were murdered by a 20-year old shooter, the Federal Government has developed yet another one-size-fits-all program called “ALICE”, which stands for – Alert, Lockdown, Inform, Counter, Evacuate — against what they call “violent intruder events”. The feds claim that this program can be applied effectively to Law Enforcement, K-12 schools, healthcare facilities, colleges and universities, businesses, government, and houses of worship. As they describe it, “ALICE is the #1 Active Shooter Civilian Response Training for all Organizations”. Rubbish!
Here is the problem: every organization, every facility has its own population, its own unique characteristics, its own physical layout, and an array of different possible solutions. So the response plan in each case has to suit each facility. Young children in elementary schools are largely limited in their ability to protect themselves. High school students are likely to have a greater capability but only limited, if any, self-defense training. The people living in senior facilities no doubt have significant mobility issues. And all types of facilities have unique layouts, with multiple entrances and access points that are easy to breach and difficult to defend. And that is why a one-size-fits-all program will not work.
In the case of the Parkland shooting, one teacher, initially called a ‘hero’ because he followed the recommended plan and put his classroom in lockdown, was later called a ‘coward’, because he had inadvertently locked some of his students out, leaving them in greater danger. Lockdown may not have been an appropriate solution in this case, and it is possibly the worst solution in some environments.
Is There a Solution?
The answer is an unequivocal ‘yes’! But the solution must be accompanied by an understanding that in such a situation, we do not want our children to be victims, willing to line up like sheep and be shot. Since 9/11, we have learned that terrorism is a part of this new world we live in and terrorists are living among us. We must treat all terrorists, including school shooters, with the ferocity and resolve that they deserve.
In 1974, there was a terrorist attack on a school in Ma’alot, Israel, in which over 100 people were held hostage. In the end, 22 students and teachers were murdered and 68 were gravely wounded in a 12 hour stand-off between the terrorists and the Israeli military. Following that attack, it became Israeli policy to put armed guards at the entrance of every school. At first, not all schools could afford such protection and parents, who were trained in weapons, would stand and protect their children’s school. More recently, a budget has been created to ensure that every school has a professional armed guard at its entrance. Israel learned quickly from the loss of its children, and have saved countless lives since then. The plan is not foolproof, of course, but the visible deterrent that this policy created has dramatically decreased the number of terrorist attacks on Israeli schools.
We can no longer take for granted that we can send our children to school, secure in the knowledge that they will return home safely at the end of each day. We want them to be brave and to do what is necessary to keep themselves safe in a dangerous and potentially deadly situation. For that, we need to recognize that we live in dangerous new times, and our approach to safety and security must change. A gun-free zone is an invitation for a terrorist or, in this case, a school shooter. He knows there will be no one there to stop him. But a visible, armed security presence serves as a first line of defense and keeps the school from being a soft target.
The simple truth is that there are bad people in today’s world, as there have always been. But technology has made it easier for them to hurt the ones we love. Our children are our responsibility and it is up to us to protect them. The ways in which we do this must be practical and based on common sense. Although we must also accept that no solution, however comprehensive and sound, will be foolproof, our resolve must be tied to reality and reason.
There are many approaches that have been proven to aid in preparedness and security, including: regular tabletop exercises and hands-on drills (just like fire drills) for teachers and students to prepare them for possible scenarios; armed guards at the main entrances (with other entrances having only limited or no access); threat assessments of individual schools to help create preparedness and response protocols that are realistic and appropriate to that facility; and a host of other practical and affordable programs to train our children and their teachers how to react in such a crisis.
Most of all, a significant part of the solution must be one that empowers both students and teachers to be proactive survivors and not cowering victims. This is just common sense.