A Parent’s Guide to School Shootings
by Greg Ellifritz
I walked into the high school wearing two guns and a bullet resistant vest. I had a rifle, six spare magazines, and a ballistic helmet stashed close by in my car. It was Wednesday, April 21st 1999, the day after what had been the worst school shooting in United States history. Two high school kids had just killed 12 of their fellow students and a teacher at Columbine High School in Colorado. The television was awash in the news coverage and everyone was scared.
Parents, students, and teachers were worried about a copycat shooting in the town where I worked as a police officer. My town was suburban, affluent, and had a great school system -- just like Columbine. The school administration had asked for extra security from the police department and I was the officer they sent. I spent the next two days patrolling the halls of the high school trying to reassure the students and teachers that they were safe. No one believed me. I didn't believe it myself. For two straight days I pre-planned my responses to any possible violent scenarios that I could encounter. I was confident in my shooting and tactical abilities, but I knew that I couldn't be everywhere at once. I was worried that I wouldn't be any more of a deterrent than the school resource officer who had engaged the shooters at Columbine.
Students and teachers were asking me questions about what they should do in the event that their school was the next to make the headlines. I feigned confidence, but I had to admit that I really didn't have any good answers. For police officers, Columbine was a game changer. Everything we thought we knew about school shootings had changed, and we had yet to come up with any better solutions. All we knew was that everyone -- parents, teachers, and cops -- needed to improve their knowledge and tactics to ensure that another Columbine didn't happen in our city.
Fortunately, I didn't have to deal with any violence at the school during my two days of patrolling the halls. But my lack of knowledge about school shootings troubled me. I wanted to be able to provide definitive answers to any questions that might be asked of me the next time. Soon thereafter, I was assigned as my police department's full-time training officer and was sent all around the country to acquire the skills needed to teach our officers how to prevail in the face of lethal force encounters. During my last 12 years in the training position, my quest for knowledge about school shootings has lead me to research the history of previous events and the psychology of the shooters. I've read books, talked to school officials and interviewed people who have responded to school shootings in their own jurisdictions. I've studied and analyzed the actions of students, teachers, and police officers who responded to critical incidents in schools.
There is a lot of conflicting information available about the phenomenon of school shootings. Parents, students and teachers are often overwhelmed and paralyzed by the vast quantity of school shooting research that has been published during the last decade. Unfortunately, there hasn't been a single definitive source outlining any simple, easy-to-understand measures that parents can take to keep their children safe at school. My goal is to remedy that with this article. I've learned a lot in my last 12 years of study and I won't again be at a loss for words when asked difficult questions like I was asked in that school in 1999. Now I know the answers, and I will be sharing them with every parent here.
Recognizing the Shooter and Preventing the Shooting
Contrary to popular belief, there is no single profile that describes the school shooter. Shooters have ranged in age from preteen to adults. Both men and women have pulled the trigger in schools. The majority of school shooters are young, white, non-urban males and have been victims of bullying, assault, or intimidation. There is no other useful physical "profile." Most school shooters were known to have difficulty coping with significant losses or personal failures. Many had been prescribed anti-depressant and anti-psychotic medications. Most also had easy access to weapons.
The idea that school shooters are always trying to "get even" with people that have bullied them is not accurate. Killers have initiated shooting events by targeting certain individuals, but generally they soon move on to the school's population as a whole. In Columbine, one of the first victims was a student with Down syndrome who had never bullied anyone.
This physical profile doesn't really help us. There are dozens of kids who match it in every school. What does help us to recognize the shooter is looking at his or her BEHAVIOR.
The one behavior that precedes almost every school shooting is detailed planning. School shooters are influenced by past events. They study and learn from the successes and failures of past shooters. Infamy has become their prime motivator. Many shooters recognize that they will be captured or killed and want to "live on" through their body count. They will create written "manifestos" and YouTube "training videos." Occasionally those publications, plans and videos will be released before the shooting actually occurs. Parents should be alert and must be able to recognize these written or recorded plans when they see them.
Most school shooters told at least one other student about their plans for the attack before they acted. Harvard University did a study to determine why the students who knew about the shooting plans didn't tell the authorities. The students reported that they didn't believe that the shooter would actually follow through with the plan. Teach your children to tell you about anyone who talks about planning a school shooting, whether your child believes the potential shooter or not. This may be the single most influential action that you as a parent can take to prevent someone from shooting your child or someone else in a school.
With the increase in numbers of School Resource Officers (police officers assigned to a school, also called SROs), part of the shooter's planning process involves taking their presence into account. School shooters are wearing body armor and helmets, anticipating armed resistance.
Kip Kinkel had over 1,100 rounds on his person during his shooting at Thurston High School in Oregon. Seung-Hui Cho had over 800 unfired rounds on his person when he died at Virginia Tech. Thomas Hamilton had 743 rounds on his person when he shot up a school in Dunblane, Scotland. They know the best way to achieve lasting infamy is to score a high body count. They need guns, ammunition and body armor to do that.
All of the weapons and equipment has to get into the school somehow. Usually the shooters carry it in themselves. Teach your children to be especially aware of fellow students or adults carrying large packages into the schools. Any massive duffel bags, large boxes or huge backpacks should be viewed with suspicion. If the packs seem larger than normal, much heavier than average, or carried in a manner inconsistent with the way other students are carrying them, it might be a valuable early warning sign. A school policy that limits the carrying of backpacks between classes would help to more easily identify students who are carrying weapons and ammunition.
The recent school shootings at the Platte Canyon High School in Colorado, the West Nickel Mines Amish School in Pennsylvania, and Virginia Tech all involved the shooter using some method to barricade doors. This both slows law enforcement response and limits the victims’ opportunities for escape. The carrying of building materials or anything that could be used to fashion a barricade into a school should be a warning sign that teachers and students should look for. If your child sees someone carrying chains, locks, zip ties, handcuffs or any type of lumber at school, he or she should immediately notify school officials or call the police.
Student Response during a School Shooting and "The Myth of the Lockdown"
Since that fateful day in 1999 in Columbine, schools have become much more proactive in planning for a shooting event. Many states now mandate that every school submit formalized emergency plans to both the state board of education and the local police department. Some states even mandate that every school conduct a certain number of emergency drills during the course of the school year.
School administrators have complied with these directives with varying amounts of forethought and planning. Some schools with which I have worked have virtually perfect tactical plans for almost any conceivable encounter. Some others have barely complied with even the most basic of legal obligations.
Most schools have settled on the "lockdown" as the centerpiece of their response strategy. When teachers or administrators become aware of a threat in the school, they make a general announcement (either overt or coded) triggering students to "lockdown." That means that all students are to immediately enter the closest classroom and hide down on the floor in a position where they cannot be seen from the hallway. Teachers are responsible for directing the students, securing their classroom doors as best they can, turning out the lights and blocking the windows with paper or curtains. Other teachers, administrators, or custodial staff members are responsible for clearing hallways and other public areas as well as locking all exterior doors. The students and teachers stay in this "locked down" mode until they get some type of an "all clear" signal from administrators or police.
The lockdown idea is not a bad one. Lockdowns are generally helpful if the school is located in an area with a rapidly responding police force. They provide temporary marginal protection for students and teachers and deny some areas to potential shooters. They also allow rapidly responding police officers to find and neutralize the threat in the school. Lockdowns can also be used to protect students from a threat that has not yet entered the school. They are often triggered to deny entry to an armed criminal who is fleeing from police in the vicinity of a school.
The problem with lockdowns is not with the concept, but with the execution. Most schools do not train for any exigency except the lockdown. They lock students down in poorly defensible positions and don't tell students and teachers what to do if the lockdown fails or is breached. In essence, there is no "Plan B." If the students can't quickly lock themselves down or a police response is delayed, there is no other plan. Students and teachers must just cower in fear and hope that they will be rescued. That's unacceptable.
Lockdowns have failed in the past. The shooter in Red Lake, Minnesota killed an unarmed security guard purposely to trigger a lockdown. He wanted the lockdown so that he could easily find and target the victims he most wanted to kill. After the lockdown was triggered, he went to the classroom where he knew his victims would be hiding, shot a hole in the glass window of the door and entered the locked down room. He then killed the teacher and five students before he was shot by police.
Students at Virginia Tech attempted unsuccessfully to lock down individual classrooms once they knew a shooter was prowling the halls. Only one classroom out of the three that attempted this tactic was able to deny entry to the shooter.
Some other issues that come into play (but are rarely considered by school administrators) are the following:
- What if the classroom door cannot be locked from the inside?
- What happens if the shooter pulls the fire alarm during a lockdown?
- What should teachers do if the shooter has a hostage and is threatening to kill him or her unless the lockdown is breached?
- How should severe medical emergencies be handled in a locked down classroom?
- Is there any plan to evacuate gunshot victims safely?
- What should the teachers and students do if the door to the locked down room is breached by the shooter?
- What are teachers instructed to do if the shooter kills a staff member and takes a master key or ID card that gives him access to the entire school?
- How would a school administrator respond if an armed student orders the administrator to give the "all clear" signal to end the lockdown?
- Some school shooters have utilized explosives to augment their primary weapons. What should locked down students do if the school becomes structurally unstable due to the effects of any bombs that the shooter has placed?
As a parent, you should confer with school officials to verify that they have plans to address any such contingencies. If they don't, your child isn't likely to be safe in the event a shooter enters the school!
Escape - The Best Option
In studying every school shooting that has occurred in the United States, as well as many that have happened in other parts of the world, I have come to the conclusion that escaping the school is the best option for individual students in a school shooting situation. Virtually all students who get out of the school (even if they have already been shot) survive.
In the Virginia Tech shooting, the students who did not get shot were those who jumped out of a window or ran to another part of the building. Most of the students who attempted to lock down the room, hide, or play dead were shot. There are many other examples of fleeing students surviving while their counterparts who locked down in a room were shot.
If you as a parent are unsatisfied in the preparations of your child's school, you should teach your child to run at the sound of gunfire and not be locked down. Note explicitly the advice I just gave; if your child hears gunfire within the school, he or she should flee via the closest exit in the opposite direction from where the gunfire is coming. I did not say that your child should never go into lockdown! If there is an external threat (like a fleeing criminal outside) or a different type of hazardous situation (like a domestic violence incident between divorcing parents), lockdown is likely the safest response for your child. But if your child hears gunfire in the school, escape will almost always be the better option.
Ideally, your child should escape to a location that has been pre-identified by you. Pick a couple of safe locations, ideally public areas that are some distance from the school. Instruct your child to flee to the safe area and call you to be picked up. Make the location far enough away from the school that it isn't enclosed within the barricaded traffic perimeter. In the event of a shooting, police will shut down all the roads adjacent to the school. You'll want your "safe place" far enough outside this perimeter that your access to it won't be limited.
Children who haven't thought about safe areas run AWAY from danger during shootings. They end up getting lost or hiding in sub-optimal positions like under beds or in bathroom stalls. In the event of gunfire, people should run TOWARD safety, preferably your pre-identified rendezvous spot, and not just AWAY from the shooter.
Teach your child what type of materials stop bullets (including rifle bullets). These materials are called "cover." If under fire, your child should run toward the nearest piece of hard cover that will deflect a bullet. Concrete walls, car engines, filled bookshelves, and steel doors will likely stop or deflect most bullets. Practice by playing a game of making your children identify pieces of cover occasionally when you are out together in a public location. That will help build your child's awareness skills and refresh their knowledge base.
Let your children know that a backpack filled with school books is likely to stop handgun bullets. If your child has a backpack loaded with a couple of books, instruct him to put it on (in front of the body if necessary) between himself and the shooter as improvised body armor. Better yet, outfit your child's backpack with armor panels from old bullet resistant vests purchased cheaply on EBay. Even if the vest panel is expired, I've never had one fail to stop a bullet that it was rated to stop despite the panel's age. I've shot vest panels as old as 25 years and they still work. As long as the panel has not been submerged in water or left out in the sun for extensive time periods, it will still stop bullets.
Make sure your child knows not to run to the police for safety. The police are often the ones drawing gunfire from the shooter(s). There have also been shootings (Norway is one example) where the shooters have impersonated police officers. Have your child stick to your plan of getting to a rendezvous location and awaiting your arrival. Don’t allow them to force a police officer to make a decision between protecting a single child and going after the shooter. The officer must stop the shooter. He may be the only one nearby capable of accomplishing that task. Ensure that your child isn't the one who distracts the officer from his primary objective.
You must also teach your children to avoid denial. In Virginia Tech, students rationalized the sounds of gunfire as construction noises. Students in Columbine initially thought the gunfire was caused by firecrackers being lit as a student prank. The students at Beslan, Russia, thought balloons were popping. Students and teachers in shooting events universally express the thought that "I couldn't believe it was happening." This denial and rationalization leads to a paralysis. The waiting for verification of actual gunfire takes time that can better be used to escape.
Instruct your children that if they are in a school and think they hear gunfire, they shouldn't await instructions. They can't delay while trying to figure out what's happening. If they think it's gunfire, empower them to ACT! Immediately escape! The people in active shooter events who wait around to be sure that the noises they are hearing are actually gunfire typically delay so long that they no longer have any viable options except locking down.
Building a Better Lockdown
If your child is unable to escape due to the physical proximity of the shooter or if he or she is forced to lock down by a school official, there are a few things that they should do to maximize the utility of the lockdown procedure.
If they have a choice about lockdown locations, tell them to avoid rooms that cannot be locked or rooms that have no alternate escape routes. Rooms higher than the second floor should be avoided as well.
Talk to your child's school principal about creating a door and window numbering system. Numbers should be on the outside AND INSIDE of every classroom door and window. All exterior doors should also be numbered. If students are locked down in a certain room, they need to be able to easily see the room number (from the inside), so they can better direct emergency responders to help them. Cops and firemen can also use room numbers written outside of windows to identify alternate entry/exit points.
Another topic of conversation between you and the school administrator should be the mandatory safety equipment that should be kept in every classroom. Every school classroom should have a survival kit. The kit needs to have different supplies depending on the age and needs of the students. All kits should contain:
- Resources to barricade doors (wedges, ropes, etc.)
- Paper and writing instruments to communicate silently both within the classroom and with emergency responders outside
- Medical supplies suitable for treating gunshot wounds (bandages and tourniquets)
- Alternate communication devices (cell phones or radios)
- Food, water, and entertainment options (for younger children)
- A strong flashlight and dust masks. They are essential to have in the kit in case of a power outage or if the shooter is also using explosives. Smoke, dust and darkness are very common in more extended school shootings.
If the classroom has a drywall wall separating it from another classroom or hallway, consider adding a razor knife, hammer, or small hatchet to the emergency kit. These items will allow you to cut through the drywall to create an alternate escape route. Have a method to break window glass to facilitate escape as well. Glass-breaking window punches are available for sale online for around five dollars.
If the classroom is on the second or third floor and has a window, adding ropes, rope ladders or some alternate method of safely lowering students from the window is essential.
On lockdowns, teach your children to place desks, chairs and other furniture in the pathway of the potential shooter to slow his entry into the room. PowerPoint or overhead projectors can be directed at the door to blind the shooter with bright light if he makes entry into the room.
Most importantly, you must instruct your child to break lockdown and escape or fight in the following circumstances:
- If the door is broken down or unlocked and the shooter makes entry into the room where your child is locking down.
- If your child sees large amounts of smoke or a fire that threatens the classroom.
- If the fire alarm is triggered without your child seeing smoke or flames, they should stay put. Some past school shooters (like the ones in Jonesboro, Arkansas) pulled the fire alarms to force students to move into an area where they had set up an ambush.
- If the building becomes structurally unstable due to damage from explosive devices.
If lockdown is breached, your child will have to choose between either fighting or fleeing. No other option will likely be successful. As a parent, only you are in a position to determine which course of action is best for your child. If you think that fighting would be a viable option (if your child is large, athletic, aggressive, competitive, or has specialized training), teach your child to push the shooter's gun down and away from them as they attack his eyes or throat. Those targets are likely to cause the quickest incapacitations and require the least amount of skill and strength.
Better yet, teach them to use improvised weapons such as sharpened pencils, fire extinguishers, or scissors against the same vulnerable targets. If the students are old enough to comprehend, have them come up with a plan for a simultaneous attack with several of their other aggressive classmates. Five or six children, even if they are pre-teens, can overwhelm a grown man if they coordinate their actions.
One additional skill to teach your children (depending on age) is how to operate common firearms. Many school shooters are physically stopped by their potential victims while the shooter has a weapon malfunction or is in the act of reloading. Older students should be trained specifically how to recognize when a shooter has a malfunction or is out of ammunition. That is the moment when the shooter is most vulnerable and least likely to be a danger to your child. If your child can stay behind cover until he or she sees that the shooter’s gun is empty, have them wait until that moment before fleeing or attacking.
Other viable options
Some children are emotionally incapable of acting with aggression. Others are not athletic enough to flee from a gunman. What can those children do?
Without a doubt, fleeing, locking down, or attacking the shooter are the most viable strategies to ensure your child's safety. If they cannot adopt one of those techniques, there may be other strategies they can employ.
Several shootings have been stopped when the shooter has been calmly confronted by another student or teacher telling him to stop shooting. While it probably shouldn't be a person's first choice of tactics, it can work when potential victims have no other options. Some teachers and students don't have the temperament to fight back or lack the physical ability to escape. Train those people to talk. Telling the shooter: "Stop shooting. That's enough for today. Put the gun down" may work and is a better strategy than freezing in fear.
Hiding may be another option. Don't allow your child to hide under a desk in the same room as the shooter. That seldom works. Desks don't stop bullets and some shooters (Cho at Virginia Tech, for example) specifically practiced tactics that included targeting students hiding under desks and chairs. Every student who hid under a desk at Virginia Tech was shot. If your child can't do anything but hide, have him or her hide in an area where a shooter might not look. Someplace like a janitor's closet or up in the drop ceiling might be a decent location.
If there is absolutely no other option, instruct your child to hide amongst the injured students and "play dead." It is the least successful option of any I have identified, but it has worked in a few situations. “Playing dead” should only be used as a transitional strategy to buy time to implement another tactic. You should tell your child to escape as soon as the shooter moves on to another location.
Educational institutions and police officers are much better prepared to respond to the school shooter than they were just a few years ago. Tactics continue to evolve and we all continue to learn from these tragic events. Now it’s time to do your part as a parent. Take an active interest in your child's survival. Discuss these ideas with your school administrator and teach your children how to respond to the school shooter. It may be frightening to think about. It may put you at odds with your child's teachers. But I promise you that your child will be more likely to survive a school shooting and you’ll be thankful that you made the effort.
As a police officer, I am committed to protecting your children from a school shooter. My fellow officers and I will risk our lives to save your children. Help us out by teaching your kids what to do when someone starts shooting at their school. Every child who can keep himself safe frees an officer to rush in and stop the shooter. Teaching your child how to be safe will ultimately protect the entire school.
Greg Ellifritz is a 16-year veteran police officer, spending the last 12 years as the fulltime tactical training officer for his central Ohio agency. In that position, he is responsible for developing and instructing all of the in-service training for a 57-officer police department. Prior to his training position, he served as patrol officer, bike patrol officer, precision marksman, and field training officer for his agency. He has been an active instructor for the Tactical Defense Institute since 2001 and a lead instructor for TDI's ground fighting, knife fighting, impact weapons, and extreme close quarters shooting classes.
Greg holds instructor, master instructor, or armorer certifications in more than 75 different weapons systems, defensive tactics programs, and law enforcement specialty areas. In addition to these instructor certifications, Greg has trained with most of the leading firearms and edged weapons instructors in the country.
Greg has been an adjunct instructor for the Ohio Peace Officer's Training Academy, teaching firearms, defensive tactics, bike patrol, knife defense and physical fitness topics to officers around the state. He has taught firearms and self defense classes at the national and international level through the International Association of Law Enforcement Firearms Instructors, The American Society of Law Enforcement Trainers and Ohio Association of Chiefs of Police.
Greg holds a Master's degree in Public Policy and Management and has written for several publications including: "The Firearms Instructor," "Ohio Police Chief," "Combat Handguns," "Concealed Carry Magazine" and "The Journal of the American Women's Self Defense Association."
You may also enjoy this Greg Ellifritz story: An Alternate Look at Handgun Stopping Power
For more information or to contact Greg, visit his training site at Active Response Training.