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Responding to an Armed Intruder

Dennis Lewis
Date of Post
Sep 27, 2009

Training Staff and Students to Respond to the Armed Intruder 

Recently a school district in Texas hired a company to instruct teachers and students in how to fight back if a gunman invaded a classroom. As the first district in the country known to institute this type of training, media attention was inevitable. While some applauded the effort, others, including local law enforcement, were critical of the tactic. The idea was heatedly debated across the Internet and in the print media. In the end, the school district discontinued the program; however, the dilemma faced by school principals in public and private education related to how to instruct staff and students to respond when confronted by an armed intruder at school is still a question that needs to be answered.

Who are these armed intruders?

Armed intruders generally fit into two basic categories - individuals who are armed and make threatening statements indicating harm, and those actually shooting, referred to in law enforcement as "active shooters", and the line between the two is very fine and fragile.

Armed but Not Shooting

Staff should know that when faced with an armed intruder who is not yet an active shooter, there are few hard and fast rules. While easier said than done, maintaining one’s composure is the best first step. Under stress, rational decision making is difficult, so it will be critically important for staff to stay as calm as possible and look for ways to engage the intruder in conversation and find some area of commonality. If there is a face to face encounter with the intruder, building rapport may buy time for law enforcement to arrive. If students are present, a staff member’s calmness and stability will be reassuring. Speak in a normal but low tone of voice. Maintain eye contact but do not stare.

Staff should be instructed to make all decisions based on the premise that the armed intruder intends to use the weapon. However; attempting to disarm or attack the intruder should be a last resort relegated to when it appears failure to do so will result in someone being injured or killed.

Active Shooters

For the active shooter, staff should be instructed to take whatever action necessary for the protection of self and others in the immediate vicinity. Staff will inevitability ask if this means confronting or attacking the intruder and, if so, how? The answer should be that the decision to physically engage an active shooter is a personal one that must be made on all known facts at the time, and staff should use whatever means are available. While it is not advisable for districts to provide training related to physically engaging armed individuals, interested staff can be referred to groups offering such service.

Training Students

Discussing the same topic with students poses a completely different set of problems. Some parents will object to the training believing that directing a student to physically engage an armed intruder would increase the chances of not coming home from school safely. And, while school shootings do occur, they are still relatively rare and many in a community will believe training students in that manner of response is an over reaction.

Generally speaking, students should be told that during emergencies and crisis situations, they should follow the directions and actions of school personnel. If a teacher or other adult is not present when an armed intruder is nearby, students should either hide by concealment or, if possible, flee.

Parents and Law Enforcement

Parents should be informed related to what children are being told on this topic. In-place sheltering drills, which provide an opportunity for staff and students to practice procedures for when an intruder may be on the campus, will be an opportunity for teachers to have an age appropriate discussion with students on the topic.

District administrators should also have an open and frank discussion with local law enforcement on what staff and students are being told to do in the event of an armed intruder. Their input and expertise will be critically important.

In the end, most will agree on a set of parameters and, in some cases, parents will continue the dialogue at the dinner table.

Student Threats of Violence

Dennis Lewis
Date of Post
Sep 27, 2009

Assessing Students Threats of Violence - A School's Responsibility

Hardly a month passes without a student somewhere in the United States being arrested or detained for making a serious threat of violence against individuals at a school. So what is a principal to do when aware of a possible threat of violence made by a student or students?  

First, administrators should be aware that in 2002 the United States Secret Service and Department of Education published two critically important books related to assessing student threats of violence and a summary of those findings are included in this article. There were ten key findings related to student threats and each finding has implications for school personnel. 

  1. Incidents of targeted school violence at school are usually not sudden or impulsive. 
  2. In most incidents, the student made some type of verbal or written threat to others. 
  3. Most attackers did not directly threaten a target individual. 
  4. No accurate "profile" exists. 
  5. Most perpetrators exhibited some type of behavior prior to the incident that indicated a need for help. 
  6. Many attackers had considered or attempted suicide. 
  7. Many of these students believed they had been bullied. 
  8. Access to weapons was readily available.
  9. In most cases, other students were involved.
  10. Most shootings were stopped by someone other than law enforcement.  

If those are the key findings then what are the implications for school administrators? 

Fact:  The attacks were usually the end result of thinking and the development of a plan.  

Administrative Implication:  The time span between the decision to attack and the actual event may be short in duration, so school personnel should act quickly and decisively.  

Fact:  In most cases, other persons knew of the impending attack.

Administrative Implication:  Principals should encourage all students and staff to be a part of the prevention process. This can be done through conflict mediation, character education, and other programs with an anti violence theme.  

Fact:  Most attackers did not threaten their targets directly.

Administrative Implication:  Principals must help others understand the difference between making a threat and posing a threat. Principals should also remember there is a difference between a serious threat and a serious discipline violation.

Fact:  School personnel should not profile students.

Administrative Implication:  Rather than trying to decide whether or not a student is capable of violence, principals should focus on behaviors and communications to help determine if an attack is actually being planned.  

Fact:  School personnel should determine whether or not these students have posed a threat prior to the current incident.

Administrative Implication:  The principal should compile a comprehensive listing of the student’s previous behavioral patterns.  

Fact:  More that ¾ of the school shooters had suicidal thoughts.

Administrative Implication:  The principal should determine whether or not the student has had a recent loss or perceived failure.  

Fact:  Bullying and perceived victimization is often a problem for perpetrators of school violence.

Administrative Implication:  Principals should work with teachers and counselors to develop bullying prevention programs at all grade levels.  

Fact:  Almost 2/3 of the perpetrators had access to weapons.

Administrative Implication:  The principal should communicate to parents that the access to weapons is a critical part of the investigation.  

Fact:  In over ½ of the incidents of school violence other students were involved.

Administrative Implication:  The principal should speak with friends and acquaintances to determine the perpetrator’s thinking and possible preparations for the attack.  

Fact:  Most attacks were stopped by someone other than law enforcement.

Administrative Implication:  Principals should help to develop preventive measures and written protocols for responding to threats of violence. 

For further information on this important topic we would direct you to the Secret Service and Department of Education publications entitled, The Final Report for the Prevention of School Attacks in the United States and Threat Assessment in Schools: A Guide to Managing Threatening Situations and to Creating Safe School Climates. Both of these documents can be ordered from the Secret Service at no charge to the school. Both books are well written and easily read – all the while providing invaluable information that all administrators should know.

Bringing New Staff 'Up to Speed' on

Dennis Lewis
Date of Post
Sep 27, 2009

Bringing New Staff Up To Speed On Safety

With the beginning of each school year administrators all across the country provide orientations, professional development opportunities, and assistance to new employees as to the way "we do things around here". These procedures include, but are not limited to student attendance, computerized record keeping, school improvement plans, master schedules, lunchroom procedures, etc.

Granted, all of these are critical functions in the secondary schools of today, but administrators should reserve ample time on their orientation agendas to discuss specific matters related to student and staff safety. And, it is equally as important to involve support staff, as they will have roles and responsibilities during an emergency. Among topics that should be reviewed and discussed with all staff should be relocation sites and evacuation procedures, in place sheltering procedures, access control, supervision, and crisis management plans.

In addition to the aforementioned, individual schools or districts may have other information considered "critical" to new employee orientation. If so, this information needs to be included, as well. But as all good teachers and principals know, "Teaching is not as simple as just telling". Consequently, it will be necessary for this group of new employees to reassemble mid year to discuss and review these same topics. And just as importantly as the orientation itself, principals should retain a copy of the agenda for the purpose of documentation.

  • The teacher handbook will contain pertinent safety information. While it is the expectation that teachers will read it, principals should not assume such. Rather the first faculty meeting should be used in part to thoroughly discuss the critical parts of this document, which will effectively outline an administrator’s expectation for staff behavior. Teachers should be expected to put into writing that the handbook was thoroughly read.
  • Certificated staff need to understand the administrator’s expectation for planning for substitute teachers. These instructions should include seating charts, adequate lesson plans, attendance procedures, a listing of potentially difficult students, a listing of students that can normally be depended upon for appropriate behavior, emergency flip charts, and procedures for building evacuation, classroom first aid supplies, severe weather, and sheltering in-place.
  • Administrators should provide to the teaching staff a safety checklist for teachers to use as they prepare individual substitute teacher folders. While most schools currently limit access within the school during the day, staff need to be informed of their responsibilities related to this practice. All staff can help in this endeavor by informing visitors and guests that they are to enter using specific entry points, as well as to check into the office immediately upon arrival to the campus. Additionally, all new employees need to receive instructions in how to approach individuals safely and effectively when it appears that they are on campus without following building procedures.
  • All staff should understand the procedures followed in the event that the school has a need to in-place shelter students. These procedures can be nerve rattling during an actual emergency even to the seasoned veterans. Principals should emphasize that staff may have to take initiative under certain conditions with little or no communication from the office. Most Crisis Management Plans include provisions for at least one relocation site in the event that the school becomes uninhabitable during the school day. New employees need to be knowledgeable of these sites, as well as have the opportunity to review the procedures used should relocation actually become necessary. Evacuation procedures should be explained, including procedures for when students are at lunch or assemblies, as opposed to when they need to be evacuated from the classroom setting.
  • All new employees should receive a copy of the Crisis Management Plan. Depending upon the specific position of a support staff member, he/she may not need a complete copy of the plan, but should still receive general information. Additionally, if the school uses a "flip chart" in addition to the more comprehensive plan, the components of the chart should be reviewed and discussed. Remember, for first year teachers coming out of the university this will be a new experience.

Administrators know the importance of adequate supervision. Staff should be made to realize that it takes everyone working together to monitor students and their activities while on campus. The supervision of students is especially critical between classes, lunch hours, and before and after school. In addition, it is always a good idea to discuss staff supervisory expectations for chaperoning dances or when students are at school activities away from the campus. Don’t forget that support staff is a part of the school’s valuable group supervision plan and expectations and limitations should be made clear to them, as well.

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