In order for schools to effectively guard against school shootings, they must take a multi-layered approach to school safety.

How districts can proactively protect against school shootings

In order for schools to effectively prepare for gun-related threats, they must take a multi-layered approach

Key points:

The U.S. continues to grapple with its gun-related violence problem as new shootings make headlines every day. In 2022, Americans witnessed the horror of the second deadliest school shooting of all time, which resulted in the deaths of 19 students and two teachers. While Robb Elementary School was the target in this particular tragedy, school shootings have proven to have a domino effect that permeates the entire school system.

K-12 schools are facing a national teacher shortage and declining public school student enrollments, with enrollment dropping by roughly 3 percent in 2020-21 compared with the previous school year. These declines cannot be attributed solely to budget cuts, salary disputes, or curriculum changes. In a recent National Center for Education study, 57 percent of students and 63 percent of parents claimed they are worried about a shooting happening at their school, while 40 percent of teachers reported feeling less safe compared to five years ago.

Furthermore, according to K-12 School Shooting Database founder David Riedman, 100,000 out of 130,000 U.S. schools experienced some sort of active shooter hoax, tip, or related threat in 2022, and this is a conservative estimate based on limited public reporting at the state and county level. The fear, anxiety, and psychological fallout that students and staff experience from swatting is similar to that caused by actual school shootings.

When looking at these statistics, it is clear that teacher resignations and student public school dropout rates are at least partly connected to the rise in school shootings, swatting, and gun-related threats. School shootings have created a public perception that school properties are unsafe. Children’s main worries used to be who they sat next to at lunch or whether they aced their algebra test – now they are worried whether they’ll make it to second period alive.

There are steps school districts can take to make themselves less vulnerable to gun-related violence and ensure that families feel safer sending their children to school each day:

Create a multi-layered plan that includes both reactive and proactive measures

In order for schools to effectively prepare for gun-related threats, they must take a multi-layered approach. There is no silver bullet when it comes to security; instead, there are several different types of measures that should be implemented in tandem. These include not only solutions that mitigate the threat as it occurs or speed up investigations afterward, but also those that can actively identify or prevent threats before they happen.

Reactive measures

Install smart lockdown systems: School districts should consider implementing smart lockdown systems that are able to remotely secure specific hallways, classrooms, and wings throughout the school. This reactive measure will work to isolate the bad actor(s) and reduce potential violence. However, these systems have limitations and must be used with care; without situational awareness, the smart lockdown system could inadvertently lock the shooter with students in a classroom, hallway, or other area.

Unfortunately, several schools have installed double keyed deadbolts requiring keys for entry and exit. This is dangerous and against National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) regulations. What would happen if an active shooter started a fire? How are the kids barricaded in a classroom going to escape if they are locked in?

Utilize communication platforms: Decision makers should also implement communications technologies that can provide first responders with important real-time information during a gun-related event, as well as inform teachers, students, and parents. A common issue we see today when active shooter incidents happen is that first responders lack the situational awareness necessary to take confident and swift action to save lives. Often, multiple people call 911 with contradictory reports, creating a confusing ‘fog of war’ and making it impossible to gauge the true nature of the threat. Studies find that nearly 25 percent of law enforcement are injured or killed when engaging an active shooter without accurate intelligence, and responders know this, making them less inclined to rush into an active shooter situation. With proper insight relayed through advanced communications platforms, first responders will be able to respond to threats more quickly and efficiently.

Again, however, this solution has limitations. It can take several minutes before the communication platforms are triggered. For example, at the 2018 Parkland shooting, it took over three minutes after first shots were fired for the active shooter communications to be activated. By that time, several students had been shot and killed. Furthermore, even if the communication system is activated as soon as the shooter starts to fire, it won’t necessarily be able to provide the exact location of the threat, and the students could end up running right towards the gunman.

Install innovative technology: There are many other cutting-edge tech solutions available that can help schools address shooting threats. Examples include intrusion detection systems and proactive gun detection that leverages security cameras situated at all access points and hallways.

Proactive measures

Assess and address potential vulnerabilities: When evaluating a campus’s vulnerability to potential threats, school administrators should think critically about where potential threats might come from (such as disgruntled employees or troubled students). They should also consider the school setting, whether urban or rural, and how it can influence gun-related threats.

Conducting a threat assessment from the perspective of a potential threat actor is also a good way to gauge which security measures are necessary and where they should be implemented. Schools should try to visualize where and how the shooter might enter the school and where and how they could hide. This process will expose potential weaknesses such as security blind spots, evident hiding places, or even poor lighting. There should be sufficient lighting in parking lots and the buildings’ exterior, and no bushes or items blocking security cameras. If necessary, schools can hire online resources, local emergency responders or specified vulnerability consultants to conduct these evaluations.

Determine safety policies and procedures and conduct training: Safety rules and procedures should be clearly identified in both the student and employee handbooks. These should include Emergency Response Plans that involve streamlined processes for staff, students, and local responders to follow in the event of a threat.

Frequently review policies and security measures: It is important for schools to frequently review their vulnerabilities and procedures and conduct regular safety drills as outlined in the handbooks. School admins and teachers are strongly encouraged to meet 2-3 times a year and evaluate whether legacy and new security measures are effective, whether the existing safety protocols are working, and how they can be improved.

Target harden the location by installing physical security: Schools should harden their security to prevent potential shooters from targeting the school in the first place. School districts should evaluate their points of entry and make sure that security systems are in place for all locations. Evident physical security features such as doors with limited access, security personnel on premises during and after school hours, and locks and bars on windows can deter bad actors from attempting to enter the campus.

Implement gun detection software: Newer technologies such as A.I.-based gun detection systems are also very effective, as they can detect brandished guns before the first shots are fired, alert schools and first responders of the threat, and provide real-time updates on the shooter’s location, appearance, and weapon. This solution is absolutely critical not only to potentially prevent a shooting, but also to save the lives of the injured. In many active shooter events, several minutes are wasted trying to locate and secure the area before law enforcement allows EMTs to approach the victims and provide life-saving medical care. In many incidents, the victims survive the gunshot wounds, but ultimately die by bleeding out before EMTs are allowed to help them.

Make schools safe again

Teachers and parents are increasingly concerned about safety on school campuses, and many are deciding to change careers or switch to homeschooling. With shootings continuing to occur every day, these safety concerns and their domino effect will persist. However, schools can help mitigate these concerns and prevent further losses by taking immediate action to improve their security.

Schools will greatly benefit from a multi-layered approach involving both traditional reactive and innovative proactive security measures. School administrators should regularly review and practice emergency policies and drills. While our politicians engage in discussions about gun policy and mental health programs, schools can implement immediate measures to help. This way, schools can confidently assure all concerned parties that they have taken all the necessary steps to prepare for school shootings, and hopefully, prevent the loss of more innocent lives.

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