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Michael Dorn on Lessons Learned from School Shootings

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Frequently, school employees who are well prepared to function under extreme stress are still not ready to initiate life-saving actions in the first thirty seconds of a crisis.

BY MICHAEL DORN, February 27, 2012 -- Today's tragic multiple victim school shooting in Chardon, Ohio is yet another reminder of some of the more critical prevention and mitigation, preparedness, response and recovery efforts that should be properly covered in school crisis plans. While no plans can be expected to be perfect, we have seen many instances where top-flight school safety planning has enabled school and public safety officials to properly respond to such incidents and in a number of instances to prevent them from occurring in the first place

I should be clear that none of the following comments are intended to imply that staff at the school or in the district have made any mistakes in any of these areas. These are instead offered as lessons learned from our involvement in the wake of dozens of past school shootings that have occurred at times when students are not on class as well as for multiple victim school shootings in general.

  • A number of what the United Secret Service and United States Department of Education define as targeted acts of violence have taken place at times when students are not in class. This demonstrates the need for schools to conduct drills relating to key functional protocols like room clear, reverse evacuation, emergency lockdown and evacuation at times when students are in different locations and at different times of the school day. For those who have never conducted a lockdown during passing times or a lunch period, it can be a most revealing experience.
  • These types of incidents also highlight the need to provide written plan instructions, training and to conduct drills to empower staff and students to initiate life-saving action on their own without first contacting an administrator when it is appropriate to do so.

Actual incidents as well as extensive assessment simulations with hundreds of school employees from small, mid-sized and large school districts around the nation has revealed that school employees are often well prepared to function with direction under life and death stress but are frequently still not well prepared to be the person to initiate life-saving actions in the first thirty seconds of an event. The most powerful example of this is the deadly 1958 school fire at the Our Lady of Angels School fire which killed 95 students and employees. Staff at the school waited approximately five minutes before pulling the fire alarm while they tried to locate an administrator at the school.  We have seen similar stress reactions in more recent mass casualty events at schools.

  • These events demonstrate the importance of focused mental simulation of a wide range of types of crisis situations. A number of researchers have documented the profound effects of life and death stress on the human mind and body. We have found that an overemphasis on active shooter scenarios can reduce the ability of staff to function for any type of incident including active shooter situations. Researchers have found that having a broad base of knowledge can help people make better decisions regardless of the type of crisis they face. While the failure to conduct drills and exercises relating to active shooter situations can be deadly, too many lockdown and active shooter drills and exercises can also be quite dangerous.
  • School officials should plan and practice making decisions, communicating with both internal key staff and with area emergency responders and to effectively communicate with the public promptly but accurately in the wake of a major school crisis event. Formal training or school staff in the National Incident Management System and crisis communications are both important.
  • School and public safety officials should be well prepared to perform key strategic functions such as off – site family reunification and to initiate these actions very early in the crisis. For example, the decision to begin off site family reunification should normally be made in the first five to ten minutes of the event in most types of situations. This is because parents and relatives of students often rush to the affected school during a crisis and can overwhelm responders.

There are also a number of strategies that can help to prevent these types of incidents. Successful interventions have occurred since the early 1990's when a series of planned school shootings were averted by Bibb County Public School Police Officers and School Social workers. The concepts developed in this school system combined with techniques developed by the United States Secret Service and the United States Department of Education have been utilized to prevent numerous planned attacks at schools since that time.

  • Training in visual weapons screening to help staff recognize the specific physical behaviors that can indicate that a person is carrying a gun
  • Multi-disciplinary threat assessment teams
  • Informational efforts to educate students to report potentially dangerous statements and behaviors

More recently, educators have been receiving on other proven tools to recognize dangerous individuals and situations that have been in use in the military, law enforcement and emergency medicine for many years. For example, many educators now receive formal training in an evidence based concept know as pattern matching and recognition. This training has helped cardiac units in hospitals reduce mortality by as much as 50% and is now being used to help school custodians, teachers, counselors, school bus drivers and other employees to detect troubled students based on subtle but clearly noticeable cues that something is not right.

We hope this information is of help to you in your efforts to make schools even safer. American K-12 schools and their community partners have made tremendous strides in reducing the homicide rate in our schools over the past three decades but more opportunities for improvement exist. Again, we in now way intend anything in this blog to reflect specifically on today's tragic event. The information we have at this point on the incident has not been confirmed which would make any such critiques unreliable at this point.


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