School Climate & Safety

Feds’ Advice on School Intruders Worries Some Experts

By Jaclyn Zubrzycki & Nirvi Shah — July 08, 2013 4 min read
Members of the Washington County Sheriff's Office, the New York State Police, and Hudson Falls Police Department approach the entrance to the Hudson Falls Primary School in Hudson Fall, N.Y., in January during an active-shooter drill at the school. New guidelines from the Obama administration that address planning for school emergencies include recommendations on reacting to active-shooting situations.

New guidelines from the Obama administration for planning for emergencies at schools following the December shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., touch on everything from school design and storm shelters to planning emergency drills and balancing privacy and safety.

But one facet of the plan, released June 18, is on active-shooting situations, and some of the recommendations in those scenarios make school safety experts nervous—namely, a suggestion that school employees try to fight an intruder when given no other choice.

While the White House document says this should be done as a last resort, that message is easily lost, said Michael Dorn, the executive director of the Atlanta-based Safe Havens International, which advises schools on safety and emergency planning. In his experience, when school employees are given the idea that in rare circumstances, fighting or disarming a shooter is an option, it’s the only thing that comes to mind for far less serious scenarios. In drills, school employees have become so focused on fighting a shooter they have forgotten to take the basic step of locking their classroom doors.

“Though [school shootings] are catastrophic, they’re rare,” Mr. Dorn said.

The new guidelines were written jointly by the U.S. departments of Education, Homeland Security, Justice, and Health and Human Services, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

What’s Inside

President Barack Obama promised the agencies would join forces on the advice as part of a larger set of promises and recommendations he made in January on curbing gun violence. The 75-page guide deals with prevention, protection, mitigation, response, and recovery from technological, human-caused, natural, and biological threats.

A student helps block the classroom door with furniture during a mock lockdown drill in January at Moody High School in Corpus Christi, Texas. "This is our first time empowering [students] not to be victims,” said Principal Sandra Clement of the drill.

The document is meant to be a guide and contains no mandates for schools. It compiles lessons and best practices from agencies and schools that have had to cope with various emergencies in the past and from previous federal guidance on school emergency planning.

The publication details a six-part process for schools looking to develop emergency plans: forming a collaborative team, understanding threats, determining goals and objectives, developing specific courses of action, reviewing plans, and implementing and maintaining the plan. Schools are encouraged to reach out to other local agencies as they assess the threats they face and their capacity to respond.

The guidelines also include a list of specific questions and possibilities for planning committees to consider. For instance: How will a school account for everyone? How will warnings and important messages be communicated? What would a lockdown look like and when would it be employed?

There’s a section about the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, or FERPA, and the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, or HIPAA, and frequently asked questions about how those laws apply in emergencies. A section on school climate encourages districts to create positive environments so students feel safe reporting threats.

Confronting a Shooter

The final section addresses active-shooter scenarios.

Those recommendations address head-on the debate that raged this spring about whether school employees should be armed, as the National Rifle Association has suggested. (“School Security, Mental-Health Measures Advance,” April 17, 2013.)

The guide says that, though it may be frightening, staff should be asked to consider confronting active shooters as a last resort, noting that in a study, 16 out of 41 active-shooter events were stopped by potential victims. But, it specifies, “the possibility of an active-shooter situation is not justification for the presence of firearms on campus in the hands of any personnel other than law enforcement.”

The guidelines emphasize that there is no foolproof way to identify a potential active shooter or to respond to the event once it’s begun. Each case is unique, though there are some signs that have been identified by the FBI and others—acquisitions of weapons, or fascination with previous shootings, for instance—as potential tip-offs.

Despite that unpredictability, the report suggests that students and staff be trained to recognize and try to defuse volatile situations; learn the best steps for survival if a situation does erupt; and work with law enforcement during the response. Law enforcement should take part in drills so that first responders are familiar with procedures and with the school, and students and staff know what to expect.

Before threats occur, schools should develop multidisciplinary threat-assessment teams to identify troubled students, parents, employees, or others who may become violent. Teams might include a principal, a counselor, police officers, and other school employees.

The guide also gives suggestions for coping with the aftermath of such events, including establishing a plan to avoid unwanted media outreach, and regularly updating the community on the situation.

Although generally, the guide is a good reference and starting point for schools developing their own unique plans, schools have already had access to best practices in emergency management, said Kenneth Trump, the president of the Cleveland-based National School Safety and Security Services.

“It seems a bit like déjà vu all over again: Another rehashed federal manual, throw in a webinar, and say you’re doing something, when in reality you’ve done nothing but take away actual programs and resources to implement the ideas in the manual,” Mr. Trump said. Two years ago, the Education Department cut emergency-planning grants for districts. (The president’s proposals earlier this year requested congressional action to fund emergency planning at schools, but Congress hasn’t acted on that idea.)

“Many [schools] have been creating plans and documents since the 1999 Columbine attack,” Mr. Trump said. “What is not being done as often, however, is putting these plans into action.”

A version of this article appeared in the July 11, 2013 edition of Education Week as Federal Advice on School Intruders Worries Experts

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