Ed.: 022018d- Words: 2646 – Audio: N/A
Post Introduction –
After Columbine I was asked (as a local business owner and a parent) to be included in a district advisory committee on school security. In response to Columbine the District Superintendent assembled an advisory committee made up of some local business leaders and parents to engage in brainstorming ways to improve the security in the schools. We met for a day at a local hotel meeting room and the district had provided a person to act as facilitator in the brainstorming process. At certain stages our brainstormed elements were reviewed. But the important factor in this exercise that we had to consider… these are supposed to be here-and-now –immediate implementation- applications… and… fit the existing budget. It was natural during the brainstorming process to get all the obvious security needs.. like security cameras, buzzer locks on the doors, magnetometers at the entrances, hire security people…. remodel the classrooms for special doors and safe rooms, etc. While those suggestions made sense, none of them fell into the criteria of being implemented here-and-now, nor did any of those suggestions fall within any feasible budget. In other words… it was a pretty weak exercise and essentially resulted in the janitors making sure all the exterior doors were locked except the main doors leading to the office for visitors and parents. You’d have thought locking even those doors and installing a simple doorbell to the office would make some sense. But no. Our suggestions pretty much failed to suggest anything but our good intentions, the school district not that committed apparently. I should give the district administration the benefit of the doubt and suggest that while they might have been empathetic in our frustration that so little could be done, in the end it was really all about the school budget; the bucks simply weren’t there to do anything and the state and federal funding sources simply didn’t include security items… and that was a bureaucracy in itself. The paying of a janitor with the keys to simply lock a few more doors was already in the budget, hence actually all we could do… and that was the only here-and-now result from all the time and expense and moral effort from our “advisory” committee to meet the Columbine tragedy.
Here are some traditional ideas (some misguided folks consider “solutions”), still being suggested to this day in various school districts around the country, for school security. Some have been implemented with some effect, some continue to look good on paper but are doubtful in actual practice.
Heavier doors, electronic locks, more fencing in the schoolyard, safe rooms, more cameras…. Changing the structure of the physical school building or modifying the interior structure is generally too huge an expense for a school district budget without funding from the state or federal government. This isn’t to suggest that these ideas should not be considered at all, but it will depend on how deep the pockets are for the state residents who will bear the burden of these changes through increases in the public funding sources, generally through real estate taxes. Another addition to this list is indoor automatic sprinklers… typically for fire suppression. Why schools don’t have them is a mystery to me in general. Likely because of the risk of students pulling pranks and false alarms being expensive to clean up and damage caused by water. But.. one of the active shooter strategies I pass on to office staffs is simply trip the water sprinkler system. The sudden cascading water from above throws everyone off balance and initiates a very nice chaos situation that any active shooter will get caught up in as well. With moving targets everywhere and water inhibiting the shooter’s aim… the whole process uses up shooter time until the police arrive. But again.. retro-fitting a school with a sprinkler system for fire and security purposes would be very pricey to any school district.
[NOTE: A personal reflection referring to the above point of school build-outs… when I was in 6th grade.. about 1961/1962.. my folks, and sis and myself, went on a road trip to Florida. As fate would have it, my father suffered a heart attack, so at the suggestion of the local doc we decided to stay down there for dad to recover. My uncle allowed us to stay at his home in Deerfield Beach (ironically, just a couple miles from Parkland, the location of the recent school shooting) for a few months as he had a home elsewhere for himself. In those days nearby towns like Boca Raton, Parkland, and Pompano Beach were unknown dots on the road maps of the day and no one outside Broward County knew they even existed. My folks felt it necessary to enroll my sis and I in the local elementary school so we’d not miss much class time… so upon our return to Chicago we could continue in the same grade with minimal adjustment. Since it was my first time in Florida, and during the winter months to boot, I was in “weather lag”.. lavishing in the amazingly different weather than I experienced in Chicago at this time of year. Just as contrasting was the local architecture that included leaving doors and windows wide open… outside walkways galore. Well, being a kid who only knew the urban school setting of multi-storied school buildings insulated from the weather, our Deerfield Beach Elementary school included some classrooms connected only by outside walkways! Well, this brings me to my point to reliving this recollection. Many school districts in the southern states where weather is more moderate than northern schools do have exposed walkways between classrooms. Certainly a somewhat idyllic setting.. but it lends itself to really problematic security issues this day and age. My point also being trying to secure these schools with physical build-outs would be very expensive. In the fifty years since I’ve attended Deerfield School they’ve likely had a number of building changes and adaptations over the years so I am not pointing anything of this their way. Rather I am suggesting that many schools were built in “safer” times and didn’t have active shooters in mind.]
Arm the teachers? This has been authorized on a voluntary basis in some school districts and it is a kind of “hail Mary” play to do something rather than sit around and let shootings happen again. This is certainly NOT a long term or permanent solution. First of all, teachers as a group are not of the stamina to want to carry a gun in the classroom; teaching young minds knowing you are armed is a rather discouraging environment. It’s also one thing being placed in the moral position of keeping your students safe by telling them to lock the doors, hide under their desks, and fearing the worst… having to try to shield them with your own body when the bullets fly knowing your own life is about to end. But it’s an entirely different responsibility carrying a gun.. then having the fortitude of aiming it at someone with the intent to kill them. You can’t teach that on a firing range an hour after work. It’s one thing when you want to get a conceal & carry permit simply to feel good walking around in public in the event your own life is threatened by an event that may or may not occur around you. But in a school situation, an armed teacher is in fact armed in order to kill or be killed to save the students. There was a time in America where all a teacher did was teach. Now to be a teacher you have to be willing to assume the moral responsibility that you cannot simply make a break for it and escape a school shooter in order to get home and hug YOUR family; people expect the teacher to protect their children in her care so their children can get home and hug their family. The one other apprehension about arming the teachers… the more guns in any environment, the more chance of accidental (or even intentional) shooting incidents of a more common nature will occur. Even one occurrence of this kind of thing also adds to the school district liability.
The other caveat… when the SWAT team enters the building they are looking for anyone with a gun. There’s no way for them to distinguish a shooter from a teacher with a gun drawn. That places the teacher in jeopardy.
Armed Guards? Similar to the above fear of more-guns, more-chance-of-accidents incidents. Columbine and Virginia Tech each had an armed guard.. but their attentions were elsewhere on the property. Besides, shooters will know in advance that a school has a guard, or guards, and compensate accordingly. School shootings are generally planned.. and not a sudden urge to break up the afternoon boredom. But the other consideration is the ongoing expense with armed guards… as well as issues concerning how far to establish guard authority (police powers?) and the specialized training required for protecting a school environment, and learning to work within a student environment and understanding the risks inherent with interfacing with underage students. All that comes with a price tag as well… because I am sure no one really wants to hire an “observe-and-report-only” mall guard with a flashlight at minimum wage… even an armed mall guard. You definitely get what you pay for with security guards.
Walk-through metal detectors at the school entrance? They are in use in many school districts and they seem effective in detecting firearms and knives, mostly in urban gang areas. Not that those detections aren’t important (even in rural settings), but it likely doesn’t deter a school shooter who starts firing before going through such devices.
Familiar with those pennants the elderly wear that has a button to press when they’ve “fallen and can’t get up”? Adapt that simple technology to a school.. or any building setting, for that matter. Each adult employed by the school carries one, perhaps on the same lanyard as their school ID card. When pressing the button on the pennant every adult is empowered to set off a shooter alarm throughout the school and to local law enforcement. The location of the button-pusher registers in the school office on a computer though a simple alarm network interface, which then travels over the internet to the local police department. Easy. Simple. Extraordinarily effective in sounding a universal alarm quickly… and providing location. Cost of office alarm electronics and computer interface, battery backup, and possibly receiver antennas installed in the ceiling at select locations for universal reception of all pennant activations (that’s something most offices have anyway for local WiFi) It doesn’t shoot dead the active shooter but it sure initiates an active shooter defense plan inside the school that would enhance student survivability.
Also.. no need for arming teachers or having armed security guards. BUT.. inform the students of what the pennants do.. in the event an adult is down a student can activate the adult’s pennant.
You might be asking yourself.. what about false alarms, intentional or otherwise? Much of that can be deterred by the pennant button design itself so that leaning up against something, or a student clowning around can’t just grab it easily and set it off. But.. each activation, real or false, should be treated as a real at all times.
System should be tested with a real exercise once a week.
A suggestion for personal defense for adults inside schools… consider a good industrial strength pepper spray, preferably one that shoots a solid stream about 10 feet. Get yourself a couple cans.. one for use and one for testing. Test it in your garage or an enclosed area away from your house so you understand its capability. Just a small spray in an enclosed area will affect everyone inside it; you don’t need to spray the target in the face to disable or disorient the shooter. In an active shooter situation, as you are ducking into a room turn around and spray down the hallway in a circular pattern. If the shooter enters that hallway he will become immobilized and unstable just breathing the stuff. Also… if a shooter enters your classroom, spray in his general direction and almost immediately he will be disabled.. and anyone else in the room as well. In many cases the person shooting the pepper spray will be overcome as well. Better to be temporarily incapacitated yourself and be alive. If he’s wearing a gas mask spray on his skin anywhere that’s exposed.. hands, neck, etc. Pepper spray is also a skin irritant… and remember… a shooter will be unable to aim any kind of weapon with uncontrollable watery eyes… and a severe coughing impulse.
The effects of pepper spray are disabling, but only temporary, with no permanent after affects. Pepper spray is legal to carry and use in all fifty states; no licence is required. I personally recommend any female carry this stuff in their purse at all times. I carry a can as my own “conceal & carry” weapon. (great to use on unruly or threatening animals as well when you are jogging)
My kids were attending school during the Columbine shooting and that of course sent a shudder to me and my wife, and across the country as to the vulnerability of our schools to these kinds of threats. I perceive two areas for parental action at the local level regarding kids being victims.
- Be ever aware of the mental health of your kids and your kid’s friends as you casually have contact with them. While I could go into great detail on signs and identifiers, it’s not the scope of this posting. But suffice that this is a major area for parental contribution to help spot potential mental health issues within your children’s school environment.
- Contribute to your school’s PTA, PTO, or whatever they call it these days… and at the district level. If you can, get active more than just on parent’s day. I know, it’s tough when you are a single parent; only you can determine your own balance.
Not so much a solution.. but when added to the overall effort to control mental health threats this can become a tool.
Keep pressure on your elected officials to act. Whether you believe that the Second Amendment means everything in your life or you just plain are fed up with guns in society… push through your grass root organizations to focus your elected leaders on the mental health issue… but to do it with teeth.. and not some fluff to make people happy and kick the can down the road. In fact, run for elected office yourself to get attention. Each week write to one elected leader in this country if that’s all you can do.
I cannot answer to a parent who had a child murdered in one of these events. I am not qualified in having had such a personal loss. But… the most important thing any parent can do who has school age children who witness this stuff on TV or even in person.. listen to them and get them help if it looks like they are beginning to drift outside their normal routines. We certainly do not want to allow the creation of a future active shooter from a victim of a past shooter.