The Anniversaries of Columbine and Virginia Tech: Rethinking the Response to Campus Active Shooters

Recycling the Past:
This week marks the anniversaries of the Virginia Tech and Columbine school shootings. It is a good time to look at what was learned in the aftermath of these atrocities as it applies to campus safety and school security. We know that Columbine was the catalyst for law enforcement agencies to change response tactics and enter the building immediately when an active shooter event occurs. After Virginia Tech campuses across the country looked to improve notification to students in compliance with the Clery Act. Notification to students became a much higher priority. Both changes have been beneficial. The public awareness and greater attention to the problem of school violence has prompted administrators to enhance security for staff and students. Without understanding the threat the actions taken might not address the problem.

Are We Making the Correct Improvements?
As is often the case, the improvements were implemented with little attention to effectiveness. For the past quarter century, we have avoided a classroom level approach to security. There have been some measures to install phones or hand out radios to improve communications. These have shown to take minutes not seconds to initiate the lockdown. Enhanced door systems have been developed, but a historical look at the actions of active shooters in schools demonstrates that a locked door is sufficient to thwart entry into the classroom. Camera systems have been installed throughout schools. These systems were in place at Columbine and have never successfully thwarted an attack. Cameras work for crimes and fights but only in the aftermath. All of these systems address the sense that something is being done. However, the number of violent attacks and active shooters on campus continues to rise. If we keep repeating the actions of the past and expect different results then we are gaining nothing.

Who is the Threat?
It is critical to recognize the true nature of the threat. Students are the most likely culprits when it comes to school violence. The FBI numbers show that the classroom is the most likely starting place for an attack with hallways and common areas as the other locations for the shooter to attack. The exterior security does little in this instance and more than likely only slows down the response by emergency units. A much smaller fraction of attackers come from employees and domestic partners of staff. The unfortunate incident in San Bernardino last week showed how a person with a modicum of knowledge can bypass our current security. The attacks will start in the building so securing the outside doesn’t create an impediment to the attacker.

Timely Lockdowns
While most schools have protocols in place for notification to building occupants when a hostile event starts, the timeliness of these systems has not been realistic. Just a few months ago the nation saw a Reno school officer shoot a student armed with a knife. The video, captured by a student, shows several students throughout the commons area watching the events unfold. The school notification to start the lockdown after this incident was given about 4 minutes after the perpetrator was subdued. The lockdown is a necessary step to confirm this isn’t a coordinated event, but alarms should have sounded within seconds. If there is a fire in the building we can pull a handle to sound the alarm for responders and occupants, but if there is a shooting we expect the witnesses to call 911 and use a public address system to sound the alarm while being attacked. We need to adjust this thinking and combine all notifications into one simple action.

The SafeDefend Solution
The SafeDefend system was born out of the need to address the security areas that can be improved on campus. The biometric access box is designed to allow teachers to sound the alarm with the simple swipe of a finger while in the classroom. The notification alerts building occupants with a second to evacuate or lockdown. The alert is sent out to all emergency responders instantaneously. The contents of the safe have been vetted by experts for protection until police arrive. Finally, the life extending trauma options are instrumental in saving lives when seconds count. Until we recognize that a comprehensive based classroom approach is the solution, we can expect that the perpetrators to bypass current security measures.