Reviewing Lessons on School Safety

By Mark Tarallo

In the 18 months after a gunman shot and killed 20 children at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Connecticut, there were 74 shooting incidents at schools in the United States, according to some advocacy groups. Each new occurrence gives security experts insight into the preparedness efforts undertaken by schools. For example, the most recent shooting as the magazine went to press, at a high school in Troutdale, Oregon, resulted in the death of two students, one of whom was the gunman. A security assessment immediately after the shooting noted that students and staff had been trained on how to respond to a shooting and that quick reaction by those inside the high school likely saved lives. However, according to press reports, the school had multiple buildings with multiple entrances. There were no checkpoints for visitors, and someone could enter the main classroom building from a parking lot and walk, unimpeded, into a common area where students gather.

Despite the sickening regularity of new school shootings, every such instance traces its roots to Columbine. The 1999 massacre in Littleton, Colorado, marked a turning point in virtually all aspects of school shootings, from the behavior of the assailant to the police response strategy to the concept of what constitutes a safe school building.

“Columbine set the stage to tell us that we’re not ready, we need to change,” says Timothy Dimoff, CPP, a former SWAT team member and president of SACS Consulting and Investigative Services, a firm that specializes in active shooter situations. The key lesson of the event, Dimoff says, was that “the first responders are no longer the police. The potential victims in the buildings are now the first responders.” 

In large part, this was because Columbine was “the launch pad” of a new kind of assailant. Before Columbine, police responded to active shooter situations using a more traditional model. The police response time might be 12 to 18 minutes; once on the scene, a SWAT team would often set up on the perimeter and work through a command post. The assailant might make demands; sometimes police brought in family members, and would negotiate. More often than not, “we’d have a peaceful ending,” Dimoff says.  

But the post-Columbine assailant operates more like a terrorist, with a new credo: “Kill people, create a body count, and get the media on the national and international level to take notice of you and what you did,” explains Dimoff. The traditional model of setting up a command post is now insufficient. “While you’re doing that, someone’s getting killed,” he says.

As a result, the police response to school shootings has changed dramatically. Response time has been reduced to less than 10 minutes. Working from the perimeter is no longer correct procedure; officers are trained to go in immediately, often alone. Neutralizing the shooter has become the imperative, and it comes before first aid. Officers are trained to “walk over people” to get to the assailant, Dimoff says. 



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