By: Steven Di Joseph
When referring to most small towns in America, you first need to identify the state and county they’re in before the average person has some idea of where it is located. Simply say the word “Newtown,” however, and hardly anyone would not be able to tell you exactly where it is.
After a lone gunman systematically murdered 20 six- and seven-year old children and six adults at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut on December 14, 2012, a school principal 2,500 miles away declared: “That day pretty much shook American schools to their core.”
More than that, though, the tragic events in that small elementary school nestled in an idyllic section of Fairfield County have made the immediate review and reassessment of school security plans a top priority. Whether examining individual schools or entire school districts, many daunting financial and logistical problems face those attempting to ensure a greater degree of safety for our children.
Budgets already stretched to the limit and buildings with numerous access points and very little protection make it necessary to implement safety plans that combine effectiveness with economy. Bureaucratic red tape and partisan politics can also present additional stumbling blocks to prompt and efficient planning.
One thing is certain, however, the next attack on a lower school, high school, or college is already being contemplated in the mind of one or more people who, for whatever the reason, see such an act, no matter how violent or irrational, as their response to some perceived wrong or injustice done to them.
However, as history shows, some of the worst mass killings involving “lone wolf” terrorists have been perpetrated by individuals who believe they are making some type of social or political statement.
Consider the anti-government attack on July 22, 2011 at a summer camp on the island of Utøya in Norway. The camp was organized by the youth division of the ruling Norwegian Labor Party. A lone gunman dressed in a homemade police uniform and showing false identification gained access to the island and subsequently opened fire on the campers killing 69 and injuring at least 110, 55 of them seriously.
The gunman (Anders Behring Breivik) claimed to have been planning terrorist acts for 9 years, since the age of 23. He had been part of Internet debates where he had spoken against Islam and immigration. He planned the 2011 attack from at least as early as 2009. He had carefully concealed his violent intentions.
The Oklahoma City terrorist bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City occurred on April 19, 1995 and claimed 168 lives, including 19 children under the age of 6, and injured more than 680 people. The blast destroyed or damaged 324 buildings within a sixteen-block radius and caused at least $652 million in damages.
The bomber, Timothy McVeigh, an American militia movement sympathizer, was a Gulf War veteran motivated by his hatred of the federal government and angered by what he perceived to be the mishandling of the Waco (Texas) Siege (1993) and the Ruby Ridge incident (1992). The attack was meant to coincide with the second anniversary of the deadly fire that ended the siege at Waco.
All of this demonstrates that what triggers these mass murders can vary from deep-seated psychological problems in young attackers to extreme (albeit irrational) social or political beliefs cultivated over many years by older assailants.
As a result, attempting to identify potential attackers before they act is a daunting task that offers no assurance of any success. It diverts valuable and scarce resources to hunt for people who might never be identified or who may not be planning to attack anyone.
Many school safety consultants believe the better approach is to formulate individualized safety plans which prepare for an attack regardless of who the attacker eventually turns out to be. In other words, plan for the attack and not the attacker.
Accordingly, careful attention should be paid to the following critical issues: (1) securing the points of entry into any building(s) in order to delay or prevent an intruder before he gets in; (2) the utilization of cameras, alarms, and other devices that will alert building personnel to any attempt at unauthorized entry. (The sounding of alarms may, for example, startle an intruder and cause him to abandon his plan of attack.); (3) installation of a direct emergency connection to law enforcement that will ensure an immediate response with appropriate personnel and equipment; and (4) mandatory training of all personnel (with regular refresher sessions) in terms of their response to this type of threat, including how to “lockdown” the building under attack. (This would be no different than required fire drills.)
The suggestion by some that every school in America should be guarded by armed personnel is, for want of a better word, extreme. Such a plan would introduce deadly weapons into an environment that, by its very nature is supposed to be free of such ominous instrumentalities. Accidents, mistakes, overreactions, inadequate training, false alarms and other situations having nothing at all to do with an armed intruder, present countless scenarios in which the very harm sought to be prevented is exactly what ends up happening.
The overly simplistic notion that; “The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun,” is hardly a “plan” in and of itself. The image of a shootout in an elementary school hallway simply does not provide the type of comprehensive program needed to make a school, school district, or college safer. Most experts with expertise in antiterrorism, hostage negotiations, armed standoffs and targeted attacks on unarmed civilians do not look at the “good guy/bad guy” solution as the answer to the problem.
While the “meeting force with force” proposal could be called extreme, it can be held up for comparison as moderate alternatives are considered. A Bloomberg Businessweek article looked at levels of personnel who would provide protection in schools, identifying them as, first, trained law enforcement officers; then, armed guards; finally, a vaguely-described level known as volunteers.
Asa Hutchinson, a former U.S. Representative from Arkansas and Department of Homeland Security official, currently lobbies for the NRA and is often the person explaining or modifying that organization’s position. Hutchinson “plan” would give schools “up-to-date technical information” from top law enforcement experts in law enforcement. The armed security personnel would be but one element of the security force assisted by volunteers. This support staff might draw its members from the ranks of retired police, military, or rescue personnel.
In the past, highly trained police officers with expertise in tactical units such as SWAT (special weapons and tactics) have worked in various schools as security guards while training a number of school workers in emergency procedures such as how to “lockdown” and evacuate the building in an emergency. Teachers were taught to lock doors, close curtains and turn off lights. Students were also instructed as to how they should conduct themselves if an incident occurred.
In a 2001 California case, a man with a shotgun (and a pistol) blew out a window in a San Diego County high school being guarded by a police officer involved in this type of security program. The officer pursued the gunman while the people he had trained at the school went about their assignments. The officer confronted and wounded the assailant before he could gain entry into the school. The injuries in the school were limited to cuts from flying glass.
What this approach has shown to school officials and safety experts, however, is that security guards with guns assisted by volunteers are not a substitute for trained law enforcement officers.
It should be noted, though, that a trained police officer was at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado in April 1999 when two students shot and killed 13. This suggests to some people that there should be larger security forces in schools, while to others it implies there should be none at all.
“It’s a school. It’s not a place where guns should be,” said Dennis Van Roeckel, president of the National Education Association, a teachers’ union. The chairman of the Orange County School Board in Orlando, Florida reacted similarly to a city plan to put sheriff’s deputies in 60 elementary schools in the county for the rest of 2013.
“Frankly, I don’t think it’s something the school board wants going forward,” he said. “We don’t want to turn our elementaries into armed camps; we don’t want to turn into fortresses. They’re elementary schools.”
Jeffrey Rutzky, superintendent of a K-6 district in Roseland, New Jersey, said security plans there are being developed “without losing the understanding that school is supposed to be a . . . safe place for kids” and without taking away “the purpose of what school is supposed to look like.”
He disagreed with the decision made in a neighboring school district to put a police officer in every school and added that his local police chief also didn’t think that a wise measure. Rutzky even ventured the opinion that had there been a police officer at Sandy Hook Elementary School, he would likely have been killed by the gunman. Other experts disagree with that assessment and believe the several minutes the attacker needed to force his way into the school would have allowed a trained police office to gain the advantage needed to stop the attacker before he was able to enter the building.
Although many sympathize with Rutzky’s sentiments, a great deal more than wishful thinking is needed to provide the type of protection necessary to anticipate and effectively deal with the type of violent attack that is becoming all too frequent in our society. Some level of armed deterrent may very well be needed as a component of any realistic school safety plan.
In an Atlantic article, written in response to the Aurora, Colorado movie theatre massacre in July 2012, but published weeks before the Newtown shootings in December, Jeffrey Goldberg offers an opinion that students and other people who might one day find themselves confronted by a person or persons intent on mayhem might very well be better able to defend themselves if they too were armed.
Against that he lists recommendations for conduct during such perilous situations, which were drawn up at colleges and universities after the 2007 Virginia Tech attack, which left 32 people dead and another 17 wounded, and intended for students who are assumed to be unarmed.
Some instructional literature even includes suggestions that seem counterintuitive and a product of the hysteria such sudden acts of mass violence arouse.
One such questionable “plan” in the University of Colorado’s guidelines states: “If such an event occurs, quickly develop a plan to attack the shooter . . . tackle the shooter, take away his weapon, and hold him until the police arrive.” It is easy to envision a terrifyingly chaotic situation in which many would be wounded or killed attempting to storm a heavily armed assailant (often wearing various forms of body armor) with no real appreciation for the destructive power of an assault rifle being wielded by an irrational person who probably sees his own death as the anticipated end of his attack (whether by his own hand or in some variation of “suicide by cop”).
Goldberg says reading that recommendation and the others is “depressing because they reflect a denial of reality.” He further charges that “encouraging learned helplessness is morally corrupt.” (Of course, on September 11, this was the very plan adopted by the 40 passengers [or at least several of them] on United Airlines Flight 93. Unfortunately, all of the passengers as well as the four highjackers were killed when the jetliner crashed.)
Economic constraints are certain to make school boards or other decision-makers choose what to apportion, and to which schools, regarding school security. At a forum held in January at a hotel in Melville, New York (and covered in CommackPatch), more than 90 school officials met to discuss suggestions to either establish new security plans or improve existing ones .
“The strategies we adopt must be scalable, must be sustainable, must be flexible and must be cost-effective within the resources we have,” Michael Balboni, former New York state deputy secretary for public safety, told the meeting. “There are fiscal realities to our school systems.”
But, others stressed, the Sandy Hook incident has made it imperative that the budget and a program for the protection of students be handled in such a way that the latter gives every appearance of effectiveness and money well spent, even if everyone dreads the thought of the occasion when it would have to impede an armed intruder.
“If you haven’t done a safety audit in quite some time, now is the time to do it,” said Tom Rogers, superintendent of Nassau County BOCES (Boards of Cooperative Educational Services).
Others at the meeting, including a school safety officer, Don Flynn, formerly of the New York City Police Department, and David Antar, President of a security company that has provided safety instruction and drills for school staffs as well as suggestions for establishing safety perimeters around school buildings.
Flynn stressed centralized surveillance monitoring, which could be established through “funding streams that exist through the state from BOCES” and would allow cooperation with local police, who would have access to cameras and floor plan layouts, for faster response to an emergency, or even the power to lock building doors electronically and sound duress alarms.
Across the country from Long Island, in Coeur d’Alene, Indiana, Tammy Fuller, Principal of East Farms Elementary school, who made note of how the Connecticut killings affected school districts all over America, said that she and neighboring school officials are “now analyzing what we do and what we should do, always thinking about what if.”
According to the Spokane Spokesman-Review, the Coeur d’Alene School District, having evaluated the security program in its schools, was requesting increased funding from the board for a wide variety of protective measures.
Among them were perimeter fencing, metal detectors for all school entrance points, bulletproof glass, video surveillance, key cards for building access, and more school resource officers—though there was no mention of arming them, as there was west of the Washington state border in Spokane.
In New Jersey, four days after the killings in Connecticut, state Education Commissioner Christopher D. Cerf, sent a letter to public, non-public and charter school administrators, outlining the State’s mandated security drills and crisis literature, including School Safety and Security Plans, Minimum Requirements, issued in 2011.
Monthly school security drills, he stated, are by statute. Additionally, schools “are required to hold a minimum of two of each of the following security drills annually: active shooter; non-fire evacuation; bomb threat; and lockdown.” Another requirement is for schools to invite local law enforcement to observe these drills.
School Safety and Security Plans, Minimum Requirements is a 20-page guide that begins by explaining that all school districts in the state must have a school safety and security plan, of local design and aided by law enforcement, emergency management, public health officials “and all other key stakeholders.”
There are eight sections, each listing a set of requirements in a left-hand column and corresponding resources and guidance in the right-hand column. Constant references are made to School Safety and Security Manual: Best Practice Guidelines.
This is a revised edition of a 212-page report, School Safety Manual: Best Practice Guidelines, issued by the state’s Department of Education in September 2004. It was ostensibly produced in response to the September 11, 2001 attacks on New York City and Washington D.C. but contains extensive material on securing school safety.
Securing a school is largely a mechanical process which, in the case of an armed attacker, must be designed to confront highly irrational human behavior at its worst. As pointed out above, while some advocate finding out why particular people want to exert violence on the defenseless, it is the job of security professionals to prevent the evil plans of such people from coming to fruition.
“Although we cannot prevent all crises and acts of violence from occurring in our schools,” Cerf wrote in his letter to the state’s school administrators, “we can work toward reducing the risk and minimize the harmful effects through continued coordinated planning, preparing, training and exercising.”
Budgetary constraints, bureaucratic “red tape” and philosophical differences of opinion are everyday impediments to the rapid implementation of all types of well-meaning programs. However, school safety programs are not the same as health care, taxes or highway maintenance. The formulation, deployment and maintenance of effective safety plans for individual schools, school districts, colleges and universities cannot fall victim to such delays since those who carry out these horrific attacks operate well outside the rules of civilized society and every day rational people debate what should be done is one more day for the irrational among us to cause yet more heartbreak and sorrow on a catastrophic scale.