Safety in the Workplace – Perpetrators of workplace shootings

Lost in the myriad of the news stories this weekend as we celebrated our independence was a spate
of unfortunate incidents of murder-suicide in the workplace. On Friday, in Belton, Missouri, a
Kansas City man shot and killed his estranged wife outside her place of employment then killed
himself a short time later. On Sunday, in Killeen, TX, a soldier killed his wife inside a Dollar
General store as customers looked on before killing himself. There were several other similar
unfortunate incidents over the weekend that occurred inside homes and apartment complexes. As
we see in the first two instances, there is little that can be done to control domestic problems from
following an employee to work. The question becomes how do we protect and notify our employees
and alert emergency services as quickly as possible? At SafeDefend Systems we think of this
everyday and have the answer.

The FBI recently released updated information (2014-2015) on active shooter incidents in the United
States. Unfortunately, instances of violence in schools and the workplace are steadily increasing.
Some of the startling information that needs to be pointed out applies specifically to the work
environment. We know from the Bureau of Labor Statistics that 86% of workplace homicides occur
in privately owned businesses. The media focuses on those stories that occur in a public entity
where a grievance against government function is expressed. The reality is that the violence starts
much closer to the people we know. From the FBI report we have learned that 95% of perpetrators
of violence in businesses closed to the public are current or former employees. The other 5% is
generally made up of those involved in a domestic relationship with an employee. These are
considered your manufacturing, technology driven, or processing businesses with no direct customer
interaction. Employees from these businesses have left behind information on a variety of reasons
for undertaking a rampage. Notions of unfair discipline, termination, ridicule from coworkers,
perceived mistreatment for promotion, failure to receive a raise, love triangles, and domestic discord
to name a few have all been cited by perpetrators. Unlike school shootings, the suspect does not
often drop clues to the plan and often act after some triggered event. There appears to be a growing
trend to resolve problems with violence that is unforeseen in our country. What steps have you
taken to thwart an intruder that knows your day to day business operations?

In response to the increase in violence, companies have undertaken steps to reinforce the workplace
against an intruder. Enhanced fencing, camera surveillance and controlled access doors are the norm
for such an approach. Most of the shootings we have seen recently already have these in place. The
Naval Shipyard shooting is a prime example of how all the money thrown toward security cannot
prevent a determined employee from committing an atrocity. What is missing in each of these
incidents is the ability to notify staff and building occupants of a threat. As we have seen in
workplace shootings such as Excel Industries or Atlantis Plastics, for example, is that the shooting
started outside and the perpetrator then entered the building to continue the rampage. Office staff
were able to start the calls to 911 but there was no ability to notify employees inside the building.
This lack of notification cost lives. We are able to go back and watch videos of employees going
about their normal routine with no idea that the threat was literally walking up behind them.
Employees deserve to feel safe and secure at work. Companies have an obligation to notify their
personnel to a threat inside the building and provide accurate information on how to seek shelter and
safety. If you don’t have a means to do this you aren’t protecting your staff.

Different Circumstances for Addressing Special Needs Students in a Crisis

Educators that have to deal with this specific problem often ask about circumstances involving those with special needs in schools.  One of the often understood but overlooked components is that some of these kids do not react well to loud sounds and can resist instruction from strangers.  Schools have adopted to this by having the kids leave the school before drills (fire alarms) where the sounds can be overwhelming.  While agreement with this idea is common, it ignores the reality that in the event of a real incident the alarms and responding emergency services are loud and visually overwhelming to kids.  Schools need to prepare for the unknown reaction to a real event if these students are in the classroom when the alarm sounds or outside as vehicles respond.

Some considerations for staff working with kids that have mental challenges:

  1. Have emergency responders (SROs/deputies/paramedics) come to the classroom regularly (weekly or bi-weekly) so the children develop a modicum of comfort with people in uniform.
    1. The idea is that if they are only confronted with emergency responders in a negative environment the association of the presence of someone in uniform is detrimental.  Having more positive experiences compared to negative encounters is beneficial.
    2. Most agencies are happy to have officers/firefighters/paramedics swing by and say hello.  The visit doesn’t have to be more than a few minutes but is social in nature.  It should be treated as ordinary and not some special event so the kids continue to function in the presence of uniformed strangers.  Salutations and conversations are important but not required.
    3. This is a long term life lesson to develop as well since statistically these children will have a greater number of encounters with responders than the average citizen over their lifetime.
    4. If possible, different responders should come so emergency services personnel are introduced to a vulnerable member of the community.  Don’t just invite the same SRO every week or two.
  2. Have high visibility (orange or yellow) vests/sash for the kids to wear during all drills and in real life emergencies.
    1. Non compliant kids can quickly be identified by responders
    2. Failure to obey directions from responders will be met with understanding not force
    3. If the student wanders off or flees others in the community will recognize the sash and understand assistance might be needed.
    4. Responding vehicles make a lot of noise and the reaction is often unpredictable.  Other school support staff will be able to identify where this group has evacuated and come to assist.
  3. In the event of a hostile intruder, staff with students in this category may realize that the best way to keep everyone as safe as possible is to not evacuate and go straight to locking the classroom.
    1. In a hostile intruder situation the recommendation is to evacuate, barricade and protect yourself.  This is not a hard and fast rule as circumstances such as age, weather, mental faculty, obstacles and proximity to violence can alter the choices to stay safe.
    2. The ability to understand the situation and protect yourself is generally understood with kids over 4th Younger students make poor decisions and tend to scatter or not follow instructions.  Given these circumstances it can be better to secure in a classroom with only 1 teacher assisting several students.  The frequent visits by responders means emergency responders are already familiar with the location of the classroom and they understand the need for immediate assistance.

As a former law enforcement member with a family member that lives with extras challenges I understand the unique nature of working with this group.  I worked to bring the Crisis Intervention Training to our agency, worked at the state level to develop funding for programs that address these needs and acquired certifications as a trainer for mental health programs.

The hardest part for staff in these situations is to understand that personal safety is paramount.  You cannot risk becoming injured for the sake of one non-cooperative person if that means that others are put in jeopardy.  Attempting to keep a child from leaving a room or staying out of sight is important but not if it compromises your ability to protect others in the same room.

There are Good and Bad Ways to Conduct Active Shooter Drills

There have been numerous stories about the harm active shooter drills have caused.  A recent article from the Associated Press cited statements from the American Federation of Teachers and National Education Association that disavow unannounced drills or simulated gunfire.  Most of the time these drills are not thought out well enough to apply to the civilian population.  Teachers have been injured diving under desks, tripping in hallways, or attempting to protect themselves.  Property damage has occurred to doors, windows, and furniture without proper oversight by training safety officers.  In some cases, students have been traumatized by the site of simulated assailants pointing practice weapons at adults.  While these types of drills are essential for officers in training, they don’t translate well to school staff and students.

Administrators across the country defer to local law enforcement for active shooter training.  That training is designed to actively address the threat of an armed intruder.  This type of training doesn’t translate well into the school district.  We must train for the possibility but understand the probability is extremely low.  Of the 133,000 schools in the U.S. less than 100 per year deal with an armed attacker with a gun.  We don’t set the school on fire in order to practice fire drills and we don’t need to have a simulated attacker in order to practice lock down/secure in place drills.  Simply announcing there will be a drill, letting the teachers review the individual classroom protocols with those students and then initiating the drill is an effective means to accomplish the safety drill.  Drills should be designed to practice procedures; Door locked, lights out, safer corner, silence electronics, and prepare to protect.

Teachers need to know how to talk with their students about the drills.  Talking openly with students about active shooter situations in schools is an important component of the safety posture of the schools.  Almost every school has some portion of the emergency action plan that addresses steps to take in the event of a hostile intruder.  Administrators should make sure to discuss with staff what the expectations are for each roll.  Support staff should be told to look for straggling students in hallways or open areas and move them to safety,  if safe to do so, staff unattached to students should get outside and make sure any fleeing students are directed to safety, and teachers should know their primary responsibility for safety are the students under their charge so independent action must take the safety of those students into account.

Safety drills have always been a part of student life.  We come from an age where most adults had to practice ‘Stop, Drop & Roll’.  Generations of elementary students regularly went to the gym and rolled the length of the floor on a mat.  There wasn’t an epidemic of children bursting into flames but there were injuries from those with a lack of experience on what to do if they found themselves in such a situation.  It was not uncommon to practice ‘Duck and Cover’ drills in which students climbed under their desk with a book over their head to survive a bombing or nuclear attack.  Trauma comes from the type of drills performed not the existence of the drill itself.  We all came out okay from these drills, mostly.

Active shooter drills are better left in the realm of a mental exercise.  The drills should be announced.  Teachers should discuss with students what exit would be utilized if escape is the best option.  They should predetermine where the safer corner is within the classroom and have students practice heading to that corner.  Teachers should demonstrate how the room will be arranged to offer the most protection, and what to do in the event they are confronted by an intruder.  Parents have given their children advice that might conflict with the teacher’s plan.  If a student is trying to get out the door while the teacher is setting up a barricade this can be catastrophic.  The most important aspect is that the students understand that there is a plan in place, working together offers the greatest likelihood of not being injured and that help is on the way.  Students will look for leadership in a crisis.  It is best that this comes from the teacher.  Planning ahead so that everyone knows what to do is what will reduce casualties.

Time is a Factor in a Hostile Crisis

The shooting at Saugus High School in Santa Clarita, CA highlights a continued problem that schools face during an active shooter event.  After all the external security has been compromised and a perpetrator starts an attack, how do we quickly initiate a lockdown and get police notified.  Time and again we have seen that there is a long delay in getting accurate information to those that need to respond.  Whether it is the staff that should barricade/exit, police that need to respond or getting other schools that need to start the lockdown we see the continued inability of those in crisis to effectively communicate.

According to law enforcement officials the timeline highlights areas that can be improved.  Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department Capt. Kent Wegener told reporters that “video footage caught the gunman firing the weapon in Saugus High School’s quad shortly after 7:30 a.m.” The first reported 911 call came in at 7:38 a.m. with officers arriving 2 minutes later at 7:40 a.m.  While the response time is impressive the delay in notification is concerning.  Previous incidents have shown that a quick response saves lives in both stopping the attack and administering trauma aid to the victims.  It cannot be presumed that officers would have been able to stop an attack that lasted less only 16 seconds, but it is obvious that victim’s have a better chance of survival if they receive life saving trauma immediately.

Relying on 911 calls to inform emergency responders of accurate information in a timely manner has continued to fail time and again.  Thinking that those immediately impacted by the crisis have the ability and wherewithal to quickly call 911, notify building occupants to seek shelter while also pursuing safety for themselves and their students is too much to ask.  The answer is a single stage notification system similar to a fire alarm.  While addressing school threats is a multilayered approach involving deterrence, detection, and prevention the aspect of immediate response is often overlooked. The SAFEDEFEND™   System was specifically designed to address this missing component for schools in a crisis

How well do you communicate a hostile crisis in your building?

In order to mitigate casualties in a mass casualty event it is important to look at past incidents.  This doesn’t have to be a direct comparison

but rather should examine solutions that work and why they are effective.  Simply put the importance of mass notification is essential to alert people of a threat to their safety so they can take appropriate steps to protect themselves.

We see the need for notification clearly in a fire emergency.  When someone has an indication of a fire from sight or smell they only need to pull a fire alarm.  By doing this we know that emergency services are alerted and responding, building occupants are aware they need to protect themselves by exiting the building and the person activating the system is now free to attempt to put the fire out with available resources or head for safety.

In the Midwest the weather services sound alarms on phones, community sirens and media sources that inform us to head to shelter areas.  The mass notification system has shown to work.  For some reason we haven’t applied this step to hostile intruders and it is costing us lives.

In reviewing the recent reports from the federal commission, Broward County, and the Marjory Stoneman report there is a strong analysis of where the breakdown occurs in a crisis.  Typically, the notification protocols don’t work and this has resulted in unnecessary casualties.  These problems aren’t exclusive to any particular school shooting.  911 calls are delayed as students and staff secure their own safety.  Public address systems aren’t utilized as staff would have to expose themselves to danger w

hile on the phone or using the call button.  Speakers aren’t heard or accessible outside the classroom.  Information relayed to dispatch is confusing, limited or incorrect.  All of these issues can be eliminated with a single stage activation mass notification system.  Alarms work in a crisis to get staff to act and students to seek shelter.

Law enforcement needs to know where in the building to respond and staff need information to protect students.  In a fire emergency the alarms are zoned so responders know where in the building to go.  Police are all too often just told to respond to the school for a shooting.  Running in the front door and expecting the staff to direct them to the crisis is unreasonable.  Most staff should already be on lockdown and unavailable.  This has slowed their response and caused confusion of where to respond.  An interoperable alert system connected to dispatch and those officers can reduce response time.

Any notification needs to alert all building occupants; staff, students, and visitors.  Addressing security is a layered approach.  Each component adds to the overall safety posture, but no single improvement addresses every threat.  Deterrence, detection and prevention of violence are important.  Response is the component that is relegated to law enforcement in our schools.  We need to get them there as quickly as possible.

Thinking Training for the New School Year

As we head back to school most districts have already filled their schedule for returning teacher training.  You probably are even instructing your staff on the changes to Kansas Senate Bill 128 which changed the number of drills for schools.  The Kansas Department of Education Safe and Secure Schools Unit has valuable resources on their site. (https://www.ksde.org/Kansas-Safe-Schools)  The important thing to remember when conducting these drills is that we empower teachers, staff and students.  Too often the drills are conducted with little preparation or planning.  In order to reduce the anxiety and stress of these drills they should be discussed prior to being implemented.

One of the most critical components for a successful drill is for the students to understand their role in safety and security.  This can only be done if the teachers are speaking with their students long before a drill ever occurs.  They should regularly take time (every two months) to review the particulars of what safety actions should be taken in that particular room.  This is a quick refresher that can be done in less than a minute as a sort of question and answer session.

In a fire drill we exit the building in a tornado drill we go to the shelter.  Crisis drills are fluid and unpredictable, so the response isn’t easily defined.  Classrooms vary and thus the response varies.  Closets, exterior exits, large windows, open classrooms, etc. can all change the way students will be expected to respond in an emergency.  Teachers should point out where the ‘safer corner’ is located.   Students should be told where they should go if they are in an open area such as a cafeteria, gymnasium or playground.  If exiting the building is part of the security plan students need to be told where to go once outside.  We can’t expect our students to listen to, comprehend, and initiate instructions in a crisis if they are hearing them for the first time when they are frightened.

We tend to conduct drills at a time when we know the students are properly supervised.  If it can be done practically there should be a crisis drill that is done during a transition, lunch or morning arrival.  This type of drill is a great experience for the students to recognize that sometimes you need to get in the nearest room with a secured door.  It will help your staff learn to corral kids that are in hallways and open areas.  These are skills where we expect our staff to act without ever asking them to perform these tasks.

Finally, the crisis drills shouldn’t always be catastrophic.  Classroom hold drills or school lockouts should be conducted as well.  If you have real life medical emergency, we don’t want students gawking and interfering with responders.  If an unruly parent is in the front office students should remain in their classrooms.  When the police are responding to a call near the school it would behoove us to secure the building until they are finished.  Scrambling to the safer corner and waiting for the all clear is not the only way to practice a crisis.

Do Armed Guards Make Kids Feel Safer in Schools?

In response to several school shootings there has been a large push to allow armed personnel or to add school resource officers on campus.  This is a popular approach that has gained traction over the last few years.  There can be a financial cost for additional personnel, training and potential liability.  Outside of these factors there are several important pieces of information that have been revealed within recent studies that should also be understood.

While the perception of safety from staff and parents to having more guns in school is generally higher the students don’t normally feel safer.  Students tend to see uniformed personnel as policing them not protecting them.  In schools that have implemented SRO programs the likelihood of police involvement in non-violent incidents has gone up.  An officer in the school is more likely to intervene in an event that would previously be handled by the administrative staff alone.  There has also been an increase in other uses of force from empty hand control techniques, deployment of intermediate weapons and arrests.  Finally, as the number of guns has increased our students are more likely to be involved in an accidental weapons incident than a real shooting.

It is also often stated that an armed personnel are a deterrent to school shootings.  There have been several recent instances of intruders attacking schools with armed guards.  Marshall County, KY, Parkland, FL & Sante Fe, TX all had armed campus officers at the time of the shooting.  Officers are usually not in the right place at the time of the shooting because the perpetrator plans around them.  Unfortunately, the hardest part for schools is getting the armed responders to the right place in the building.  This has been an obstacle that schools overlook when implementing policy changes.  Notification systems are a simple solution to resolve this breakdown in communication.

The perception of safety does not always correlate into a more secure campus environment.  School administrators should be cautious about measures that can severely impact the profile of security in school without adding a substantial benefit.  The best course of action in a crisis is getting the trained professionals to the exact location of the crisis and notifying staff to initiate the emergency action plan.  Until this can be accomplished the other issues ought to be considered secondary solutions.