Active Shooters: Pinpoint, Prepare, & Prevent

Posted in Blog on October 22nd, 2013.
There is an alarming trend occurring in our nation’s schools today: an increase in school violence. A 2007 study conducted by the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) indicates that 78% of U.S. schools experience at least one violent crime each year. Incidents of bullying, assault, drug abuse, robbery, and gang related activity have all increased, leading many to believe there is an epidemic of violence across the country. One particular violent event that has dramatically increased in the last twenty years is the Active Shooter Incident.
Active shooter incidents are defined as “an individual actively engaged in killing or attempting to kill people in a confined and populated area.” While the term active shooter was coined due to the common use of firearms during these violent encounters, any weapon could apply to these rampage acts. In fact, law enforcement experts agree that active shooter events are beginning to evolve and morph into behavioral patterns more closely resembling terrorist attacks or assassination attempts. Police departments are changing their tactics in order to better prevent and respond to these events. These existing and evolving threats to schools reminds us that the world is a dangerous place and every effort must be made to protect our nation’s most precious resource, its children.

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While there is no definitive psychological profile of an active shooter, most suspects have general similarities. Those that perpetuate acts of violence in schools tend to be between the ages of 15-19. 98% of the time they act alone. Rarely are these events impulsive. Instead the attacker planned the event carefully over time. Most school attackers experienced bullying or injury prior to the attack. These individuals almost always have a known mental health issue and have considered or attempted suicide prior to the attack. Most active shooters frequently expressed anger or rage and exhibited unusual behavior before the attack. Additional attack related behavior includes:
 •  Drawing excessively violent images
 •  Writing about excessively violent subjects
 •  Downloading bomb making recipes from the internet
 •  Obtaining bomb making books in the mail
 •  Purchasing bomb making materials or chemicals
 •  Expressing admiration for other school shooters or talking about how others failed where he could have succeeded
 •  Expressing admiration for mass murders and serial killers
 •  Developing a hit list of enemies
 •  Drawing plans of school
 •  Talking about plans for a shooting
 •  Talking about taking revenge on individuals or groups
 •  Expressing hatred of groups with or without apparent reason
 •  Gaining access to weapons
 •  Posting violent or suicidal messages


These are all behavioral clues that school officials and staff should investigate when seen or heard. While no one behavior is indicative that someone is at risk of becoming an active shooter, a pattern of behavior should certainly cause concern. In 80% of the active shooter cases someone else knew that the attack was going to occur but did not believe that the individual was serious or would follow through. Suspects will often write or talk about their plans with someone else. Therefore, it is important to encourage students and faculty to speak up if they hear about violent plans. Schools need to implement a procedure to allow individuals to come forward and tell someone of their concerns. Additionally, a violence mitigation program should be implemented that lowers delinquency rates, bullying, harassment, and other forms of anti-social behavior. These steps are all mitigation measures to make sure the school has created a safe and healthy environment for its students.
Part of a violence mitigation program includes a threat assessment of the school. The assessment will look at total organizational assets, properties, and personnel, and evaluate vulnerabilities from potential threats as well as the level of risk posed by these threats. Schools are encouraged to partner with local law enforcement, community mental health professionals, juvenile justice agencies, and other community organizations to develop a threat assessment process. These outside agencies can be part of a larger support team that helps evaluate the effectiveness of the process and recommends changes to the program.
Once a threat assessment has been completed, school officials should consider improving physical security as well as security processes and procedures. The objective is to make it as difficult as possible for criminals to access the school and perpetrate their actions. It is important to have law enforcement agencies and security consultants review the schools current security program so as to offer suggestions for upgrades.
One significant security upgrade is the addition of a school resource officer (SRO). Schools that have resource officers on staff benefit greatly by having someone who can be on scene immediately if an active shooter event occurs. The presence of an SRO also improves the perception that young people have of law enforcement. School resource officers reduce bullying and fighting in schools as well as other criminal behavior. Students are more likely to report violent behavior or criminal activity to an SRO than to a teacher. Finally, students feel safer knowing there is a law enforcement presence close by.
In addition to the school facility the transportation department and school buses are a major safety concern. School buses lack the security capabilities of a fixed location. Typically school buses have only one staff person on board – the driver. This makes the school bus an exceptional target for criminals and terrorists. While the United States has not experienced terrorist attacks against school buses or its bus transportation system, active shooter events have occurred on buses. School bus drivers should always be on the lookout for suspicious packages and individuals, unusual activities, or anything that seems out of the ordinary. A school bus driver must maintain situational awareness of their surroundings at all times. They should report anything observed to their supervisor. The school bus driver is responsible for normal bus pre-trip and post-trip inspection activities. The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) has created an Employee Guide to School Bus Security to help identify security threats and provide recommendations for conducting security sweeps of school buses.
School officials should prepare for the worst case scenarios and include active shooter incidents in their emergency operations plans. All school staff should receive training on what to do if an active shooter event takes place. This training should include how to act when law enforcement arrives, first aid and de-escalation drills. Schools should schedule monthly drills for students and staff to practice evacuating the building. The worst thing to do is pretend that it can never happen at your school. Most active shooter events occur at rural or suburban schools in quiet middle class neighborhoods. These events can happen anywhere at any time.

National Center for Education Statistics (NCES): Indicators of School Crime and Safety – 2007

New York City Police Department: Active Shooter Recommendations and Analysis for Risk Mitigation- 2010

Marcou, Lt Dan, The Active Shooter Assassin, Police One January, 2011

Schweit, Katherine W. J.D.; Addressing the Problem of the Active Shooter, The Federal Bureau of Investigation, May 2013.

Fein et al., The Final Report and Findings of the Safe School Initiative: Implications for the Prevention of School Attacks in the United States 2002

Fein et al., Threat Assessment in Schools: A Guide to Managing Threatening Situations and to Creating Safe School Climates 2002

Mass Violence: Why do they do it? What can we do about it? 2007

Marcou, Lt. Dan; 5 Phases of the “Active Shooter”, School Resources & Training Institute

Guide for Developing High-Quality School Emergency Operations Plans, Readiness and Emergency Management for Schools (REMS) Technical Assistance (TA) Center, 2013

Peterson, Kevin E. CPO 8, Chapter 27: Security Risk Management, International Foundation of Protection Officers

Davis, Kevin; Active Shooter Response at Schools, Law Officer Magazine, February 2013.

Glidden, Ronald C; Stopping The School Shooter, National Association of School Resource Officers, 2011 21st Annual School Safety Conference

Guide for Preventing and Responding to School Violence, Bureau of Justice Assistance, Washington DC 2007

Threat Assessment in Schools: A Guide to Managing Threatening Situations and to Creating Safe School Climates, United States Secret Service and the Department of Education, May 2002

Lazaro, Ream; School Bus Driver Security Training Program: New Mexico Surety Task Force, New Mexico Department of Transportation, New Mexico Public Education Department, April 2004

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