EXCLUSIVE: The Mitigation Of Attacks On School Property
Attacks on school property are a relatively new phenomenon, and the acts of violence seem to be extreme, ruthless and occurring at a more frequent rate. Police departments are often caught off guard when an incident occurs within their jurisdiction, adding to an already chaotic situation. Understanding some of the motivations behind these senseless acts and a generic profile of the possible actors may help police in preventing an incident on school property. However, if one occurs it’s essential to know your enemy as well as your limitations, and have a preplan to deal with the consequences. In the Art of War, Sun Tzu said, “Knowing others and knowing oneself, in 100 battles no dangers. Not knowing the others and knowing oneself, one victory for one loss. Not knowing the others and not knowing oneself, in every battle certain defeat.” Having a plan, knowing your resources and how to exploit them, and the inclusion of all stakeholders in the preplanning will help to mitigate injuries or even death, and bring the event to a successful conclusion.
Recently (as we’ve experienced far too often), another act of school violence occurred at a high school in Chardon, Ohio, leaving three students dead and two injured. Another small town is left asking the proverbial question: Why? Like the movie Ground Hog Day, these acts of violence on school property just seem to keep being repeated and proliferate at a rising rate; but there’s nothing funny about these tragedies. It’s my intention to provide a general compendium of protocol and response to similar incidents.
Motivation And Profile Of The Potential Actor
Often times, law enforcement is called upon to act as psychologist in volatile situations such as domestic disputes and hostage negotiations. Therefore, wearing our “psychologist hats,” let’s look at some of the triggers motivating and activating the actors in these attacks as well as their general profile.
As in Columbine, there seems to be common denominators with many of these disgruntled shooters, and unfortunately, there were often barometers of behavior, which may have predicted some future violent activity. Often, these students are the object of chronic ridicule and bullying and, as we’re now realizing since the Chardon, Ohio attacks, come from dysfunctional home environments. They typically have easy access to firearms, have outwardly fantasized to others about committing acts of violence, and have sometimes created a target list of specific students/teachers they want to direct their aggression on. However, once the violence starts, they become uncontrollable and unfocused on the intended targets, shooting at targets of opportunity. These students are predominantly white males from middle class homes, introverted and detached from the majority of the student body, and of the high school age group.
Similar to the Columbine shooters, these students may dress the part in goth-like or military-type attire/clothing (BDUs, combat boots) and have a fascination with firearms and destructive devices. At times, they will either reveal their plans through behavior or will actually communicate them to someone who, unfortunately, disregard it as harmless, machismo rhetoric. These students sometimes draw macabre illustrations or write schematics or blueprints of what’s to come. Due to some of these factors, it’s imperative the school faculty become aware of these indicia and, without prejudice, are able to bring it to the proper authority’s attention without fear of ramifications to the complainant.
Remember though, all students should be viewed on an individual basis. They shouldn’t be ostracized or treated with bias because they may not act or dress the norm. Experience and good judgment should dictate proper response and help identify potentially violent students. Also realize, not all school violence is perpetrated by misguided students. On Oct. 2, 2006, in the peaceful and heavily Amish area of Lancaster County, Pa., an unaffiliated adult gunman went into the Nickel Mines School. He took hostages before shooting 10 young girls (ages 6-13), killing five of them before committing suicide. Nickel Mines school was a typical Amish 1-room schoolhouse and to date the gunman’s motivation is still unclear.
The following plan is a general blueprint for the mitigation of violent acts on school property during operational hours and should be augmented according to your needs and logistical capabilities.
One critical component to the mitigation of school property attacks is having a preplanned response and the necessary intelligence and data to allow for an effective return, and to not being caught totally off guard by the occurring event. Preplanning should include all responding agencies, law enforcement, EMS, fire and rescue. It should also include public utilities, non-faculty school employees, the media, and one of the most important though often left out of the equation, the parents and the students themselves.
Just like fire drills, it’s important for students to be made aware of how they should respond to attacks within the school, and the parents should be informed about the plans developed. If an event occurs, this will help maintain order at the scene and give the parents and students a sense of confidence in the emergency responders. It’s not necessary to know of all aspects of the plans because as they say, “loose lips sink ships.”
There are many general paradigms in school disaster response and mass casualty incidents; however, these plans are only applicable if the eminent threat is no longer a factor. When it comes to school violence; preplanning, a good dose of common sense and simplicity can be the best guides. One of the easiest and most effective ways to plan is through brainstorming. Local law enforcement agencies can hold a 1-day seminar inviting all stakeholders in a response scenario. At this gathering, you can include the “what if” type questions and answers to develop strategies and formulations for incident response, then create a mutually agreeable and valuable plan everyone understands.
As law enforcement professionals, we’ve learned to take advantage of any resources as a means to an end for a given problem. Since no bigger problem comes to mind than an attack on innocent children within the confines of a safe zone of school property, technology is a resource that must be included in preplanning.
Most schools keep their records in computer databases. The information usually includes grades, student rosters, faculty information, health records, contact information and other pertinent data. It may be suggested parents provide the school with student’s cell phone numbers — this can literally be a lifesaver during an incident — allowing law enforcement to contact students inside the building and gather intelligence information. If the cell numbers are not on record, command should assign someone to contact parents for the numbers. Command centers should be equipped with dedicated computer terminals, which can be used to patch into school computers and acquire the aforementioned information.
Law enforcement should also know the location of all cell towers in the area, have the provider information and the ability to shut down cell service during the crisis, if necessary. Another resource sometimes overlooked is Google Satellite images. It’s a good way to obtain aerial views of the school property. Images can be obtained and kept as part of your “library” of intelligence documentation prior to any incidents.
There is no fixed rule of thumb for post incident response, since all scenarios are different and provide a series of individual complex variables. Anyone who tells you otherwise is either trying to sell you something … or they’re the “Second Coming.” What you can do is try to mitigate injuries and death by following a series of steps to help guide your responses and reactions. The six steps include: assess, isolate and evacuate, negotiate/tactical, triage (mass casualty plan), communication and crime scene.
After arriving at the incident, a primary and secondary perimeter should be set up to contain and preserve the integrity of the scene, and to prevent anyone from migrating or infiltrating in or out of the scene without clearance. Gather all the intelligence and logistical support you preplanned for; blueprints, layouts, class rosters, etc. Immediately speak to any eyewitnesses and gather viable information, involving the type of assault taking place, the number of actors and who they may be (students, faculty or external perpetrators). Try to establish what types of weapons are being used, if there are any casualties, the location of initial assault and where the suspects are believed to be upon your arrival.
Unless there are immediate assaults taking place, try to make contact with either students inside or the suspects before deploying tactical operations. This may seem odd, but when police respond to these situations, emotions run high and the first reaction is to run in to save the students. The most difficult and stressful condition for police officers is standing by while innocent people are in harm’s way, without the ability to immediately negate the threat.
Something often overlooked until too late is the proliferation of news helicopters swarming over the scene. They can be noisy, distracting and cause undue stress for everyone involved in an already bad situation. They also provide intelligence to those who may not be privileged to have the information via radio and television reports — consider keeping them out from the outset.
Isolate And Evacuate
Try to isolate the area of attack and keep the suspects contained. If your agency has the availability of robotic monitors, this would be a good time to use them. Once valid and reliable information is obtained, providing the location of the suspects, a tactical deployment should commence with the purpose of keeping them in a controllable location.
At the same time, teams should be evacuating any people not in the immediate threat zone, getting them out of the building to a staging area. Isolate the students for intelligence debriefing, identifying and in order to discount their participation in the attack. Any injured victims should take priority in evacuation and then triaged and transported to medical facilities.
It’s important to remain objective and to make sure none of the injured are involved in the event. If they are suspected of any involvement, they should be transported with the appropriate police personnel. Keep in mind the possibility of booby traps, pipe bombs, odor of flammable substances and ambush scenarios when entering the target buildings.
Negotiate Vs. Tactical Response
This is probably the toughest part of the job, and the most scrutinized and criticized decision a scene commander will make. When the public and the media have weeks to dissect a decision you had only hours or perhaps minutes to make, they’ll pass judgment on it, and most likely hang your department out to dry. But, who the hell cares?!
I hope our professional decisions are made on our expertise and practical judgments, not on popular opinion … but that’s a whole other discussion.
If the decision to go tactical ever comes to fruition, no one else can provide you with a remote suggestion. It’s your call and your call only, and may God guide you. It’s not a politically correct comment, but again, who the hell cares?
Once the threat has been neutralized and uninjured students have been evacuated, it’s time to triage the injured casualties. Hopefully your first responders have developed a mass casualty plan to streamline the process. This can be a very emotional part of the event and all personnel involved should be provided with CISM (Critical Incident Stress Management) sessions, which should be mandated and not optional. All unequivocal fatalities are to be left undisturbed for the crime scene processing and coroners evaluation. Head count is then taken against roster and absentees who were out that day. This information should be checked and rechecked. As difficult as it may be, parents should not be given any information on casualties or deceased until identities are confirmed and information approved by command.
Once the students have been accounted for, parents may be notified as soon as practically possible, and all students debriefed. A staging area for the parents should’ve already been provided, and a liaison officer should communicate the situation to all parents as suggested earlier; provide assurance they will be reunited as soon as achievable. Give them all the information you can without jeopardizing the operation and subsequent investigation. Remember, the parents of any students responsible for the attack are also victims, and should be treated with empathy and respect.
And then there’s the media. If you have a public information officer, he should be provided with a preapproved information statement. It’s suggested any Q&A period with the media be conducted after a cooling-off period, and as soon as sufficient information is available for dissemination. Some of the media will try to get emotional responses from you. Be concise, accurate and respectful, and try to keep emotions and personal opinion out of the dialogue.
I remember several years ago, there was a lone gunman who walked into a local mall near the town where I was police officer. The gunman opened fire killing several people in the mall including an infant, and injuring many others. At a news conference following the incident, a reporter inquired the Chief of Police one of those moronic questions sure to evoke anger. He asked, “Chief, when you first arrived onto the scene, did it upset you?”
The chief, being a professional and keeping his anger in check retorted, “Of course it upset me. You have to remember, before I was a police officer, I was a human being, and some of that has remained with me regardless of your perception of police officers.”
That says it all!
Finally, the location is now a crime scene and should be treated as such, minimizing access to only those needed to process and document. It’s predictable many police officers will want to go look at the scene — this in instinctive of cops — but you must remain disciplined. I suggest the District Attorney or one of the assistants remain at the scene to provide legal expertise and guidance.
Provide the crime scene people all the time and resources they require, and solicit the fire department to supply lights and generators if needed. It’s wise to have the name of an approved company that performs crime scene cleanup and disposing of biohazard material. Take all the time necessary to process the scene correctly the first time! Once the scene is released, it’s contaminated and compromised.
College And University Environment
History has taught us college and university campuses are not immune from school violence and attacks. Some of us are old enough to recall the murders at the University of Texas at Austin in 1966. Atop the observation deck of an administration building, Charles Whitman shot at anyone he could get a sight picture on — killing 15 and wounding 32.
A more recent incident occurred April 2007, when a delusional student went on a killing rampage at Virginia Polytechnic Institute in Blacksburg, Va. Before this coward committed suicide, he managed to kill 32 people and wounded another 25. Now, remember what I stated about post-incident criticism: You’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t. The responding police and university administrators were heavily criticized for their response to this shooting.
Basically the response to college and university incidents are similar; they offer different challenges and logistical problems. First, the geographic layout is much larger and remote. The access to the public and the identification of students and faculty is much more broad and complex. Isolation of the target may be complicated by the amount of buildings and associated structures. The more agencies that respond, the more difficult it will be to maintain accurate and disciplined communication. Any agency having a college or university within its jurisdiction should include members of the community into preplanning. This should include campus police and administration. It’s also a good idea to have a written policy and reaction plans for campus RAs (resident assistance) for dormitory response and evacuation.
School property attacks seem to be on the rise and have become too common. It seems like everyday we turn on the news, there’s been a shooting in a school or one was thwarted just in time. The use of school police and metal detectors seems to have little effect on these incidents; perhaps it’s because they appear to occur more often in rural schools, which do not have these preventive measures.
While psychologists, sociologists, criminologists and politicians provide a knee-jerk reaction to these events, as police officers you must deal with the response to these attacks in real time. Why these incidents happen is out of my pay grade, but how we respond to them to alleviate deaths, injuries and associated carnage should be within our limit of competence and expertise.
Every incident has its own complexities and demands. I hope these steps provide a generic guide to help put some sanity into a chaotic event, but most of all, I hope my suggestions are never required.
Robert D. Boyden, Ph.D., was a police officer in suburban Philadelphia, Pa. and retired after 21 years of service. He currently is a private consultant on public safety issues and has written extensively for professional trade magazines, journals and newspapers. Robert’s full credentials may be located on Linkedin.com.