December 14, 2018
On this sixth anniversary of the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre, the nation looks to the new year ahead with hope — hope that things will change for the better and that schools will go back to being safe places.
But hope is not a strategy. Even worse, the vast majority of strategies and solutions being bandied about by industry consultants and so-called security experts simply haven’t worked. Why? Because our collective thinking about safety and security remains burdened by a reactive mentality. And we’ve done little to nothing to change that dynamic since the Columbine High School massacre in 1999.
So what does that dynamic look like today? To put it bluntly, our thinking is mired in post-incident emergency response — right of boom. We spend money like it grows on trees to “harden” our schools with automatic locking doors, security cameras, fencing, high-tech emergency communications systems, massive architectural design changes, gunshot detection systems and, my all-time favorite, hockey pucks for faculty and students to use “as a last resort” during active shooter incidents.
We do all of this and our children remain as unsafe as the students at Columbine were on April 20, 1999 and as unsafe as the children and staff at Sandy Hook Elementary were on December 14, 2012. In fact, our children are still being killed in school shootings — 2018 has been the worst year in decades, according to studies by the U.S. Naval Postgraduate School and Education Week.
Let’s be honest: The vast majority of technology solutions being marketed to K-12 schools today are tacit admissions of failure. A gunshot detection system prevents nothing from happening and is of even less utility when first responders are capable of reaching the scene within 60 seconds, as was the case during the Capital Gazette shooting in Annapolis, Maryland.
What we don’t do on a large enough scale is think about prevention. Perpetrators of violent crimes, whether terrorists, sexual predators or mass shooters do not suddenly “snap” and carry out their acts. They plan their actions, sometimes meticulously down to the last detail. Targeted acts of violence are often preceded by a series of stages, all of which are designed to improve the chances of the attack succeeding. This is critical to our understanding of prevention, because all of these pre-attack/pre-incident activities can be observed and reported by vigilant bystanders.
If we’ve learned anything from the recent spate of school shootings, it is that the vast majority of violent attackers exhibit warning behaviors throughout their individual pathways to violence that are often unusual and alarming to those who observe them. The Police Foundation has built a nationwide database of averted and completed acts of school violence. So far, analysts have studied 51 incidents of averted school violence and preliminary results have found that the vast majority of plots were discovered and reported by the school attacker’s peers, followed by school staff 1.
For example, a few days after the Feb. 14 school shooting in Parkland, Florida, a high school junior in Poughkeepsie, New York, received a series of disturbing text messages from an old friend in Vermont. Something in her gut told her there was cause of concern. So she reported it to her counselor. The information was passed to the Fair Haven, Vermont, police department, and the boy was arrested. In interviews, the boy told officers he had been planning for two years to shoot students and staff at Fair Haven Union High School.
In some cases, there are multiple opportunities to observe suspicious behaviors and report. If we study the 2007 Virginia Tech mass shooting, for example, there were a total of 19 opportunities over a 19 month period to report and potentially disrupt the shooter’s journey to violence 2. From the very first observation of the shooter’s unprovoked rage and fascination with knives and other weapons, to his obsession with writing about violence, at least one instance of suicidal ideation, and even his pre-attack activities on the day of the shooting, there were ample opportunities for students, teachers and staff to report information that may have ultimately prevented him from carrying out his attack.
At LiveSafe, we know that prevention is possible. Our tip and reporting platform has played a central role in preventing everything from student suicides to sexual assault, harassment, criminal activity and targeted acts of violence. Prevention works, but only the most forward-thinking organizations have chosen to operationalize prevention with a modern technology infrastructure.
If we want to change the safety and security dynamic from reaction to prevention, school officials will have to break free of the react and respond mindset. If your best choice of action is to hit a panic button, lock the door to your classroom at the first sound of gunfire and hope that the gunshot detection system alert got to the police, then it’s fair to wonder if you ever really had a choice at all.
1 – “Lessons Learned from Averted Acts of School Violence,” Campus Safety, July 2, 2018. https://www.campussafetymagazine.com/safety/averted-school-violence/
2 – “Mass Shootings at Virginia Tech, Addendum to the Report of the Review Panel,” November 2009. https://scholar.lib.vt.edu/prevail/docs/April16ReportRev20091204.pdf