Active Shooter Response: Lessons from Experts

January 06, 2013

By Will Grant

The Sandy Hook tragedy in Connecticut last month has spurned national discussions on gun control, school security, and mental health. It seems that people have weighed in from every corner with their solutions on how to prevent something like this from ever happening again.

The National Rifle Association has called for armed law enforcement at every school in the country. Political leaders have called for a ban on assault weapons and high-capacity magazines. But most of these views are simply knee-jerk reactions that fail to adequately confront the problem.

“The whole discussion of mental health and gun control doesn’t address the issue,” says David Crane, a former law enforcement officer and SWAT operator who founded Response Options in 2000. “You can’t stop these people that want to do this [engage in mass killings].”

Crane founded Response Options in 2000 as a reaction to the Columbine High School shooting of April 1999. At the time, his wife was a school principal who felt her school and the school personnel were inadequately prepared for the active-shooter scenario. So Crane, with help from fellow officers, developed an easily understandable, easily taught program to give some level of situational awareness. Since its inception, Response Options has trained more than 1.5 million students.

The Response Options program teaches what is calls ALiCE training—Alert, Lockdown, Inform, Counter, Evacuate. Basically, the program is designed to prevent the passive approach to an active shooter.

“We’ve preconditioned Americans to be easy targets,” Crane says. “When people take on a static and passive response to a determined killer, the consequences are unreal.”

Crane refers to a handful of past scenarios where doing nothing has been the wrong decision. At Columbine, he points out that a group of students hid in the library for five minutes while Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold rampaged the school. The students should have left the building, he says: “Harris and Klebold should have come into an empty room. They [the hiding students] had a door to get out of there but didn’t.”

At the Virginia Tech Massacre, Seung-Hui Cho, who killed 32 people and wounded 17 others, changed magazines 17 times during his killing spree. To Crane, that’s too much of sitting back and letting the events unfold as they will. In both instances, somebody should have done something, anything to prevent the unchallenged killing.

Armed guards were also present at both schools. Columbine had an RSO on scene and Virginia Tech had its own on-campus police department. What that means is that the first responders aren’t law enforcement officers; the first responders are the teachers and students who hear gunfire down the hall. The bottom line is, nearly anyone can affect the outcome of these situations, if only to mitigate the casualties. At Sandy Hook Elementary School, a six-year-old boy led his classmates out of a classroom to safety.

“Try telling that boy’s parents that not everyone can make a difference,” Crane says. “We need to be learning from these circumstances.”

One thing that’s become obvious is that “gun-free zones” invite mayhem. In the cases of school shootings, the killer is not a trained gunman; he’s usually a disgruntled punk with access to a gun, and he chooses his easiest targets.

“America needs to remember that the days of Norman Rockwell are over,” says Gabe Suarez, a former law enforcement officer and owner and president of the training firm Suarez International. “Pretending that’s not the case is just bad for everyone.”

Neither Suarez nor Crane nor several other people interviewed for this article believed that armed guards at schools would prevent future shootings. Nor did they believe that arming teachers was the answer—just because someone elects to be an educator or school official that in no way means they’re ready to join a gunfight.

In fact, most people will run away from gunfire when they hear it, not toward it.

“The role of a protector is a self-selecting thing,” says Suarez. “You’re not going to grab and a handful of teachers and turn them into pit bulls. You can’t say, ‘Ok, Mr. Jones from history is the protector.’”

But what you can do is instill in people the knowledge and the confidence that they can make a difference when an active shooter is taking causalities. And that knowledge and confidence is best rendered through training.

A little training can go a long way. Anyone who’s been in a disaster situation knows that the brain reverts to only the most basic of functions during a catastrophe. That usually boils down to fight, flight or freeze. But with a minimum of instruction—of the same type that’s drilled into students and educators in case of a fire—the brain can be affected to respond in certain ways to an emergency.

“Training is all about empowering a person,” says Deputy Mike Puente of the Maricopa County SWAT Team. “So why not teach the teachers? Teach them that they can change the situation.”

Similar to what others say, a passive approach to a rampant killer means the killer has an unobstructed path to his goal. As past instances will show, a little resistance can make a big difference in saving lives.

“I don’t care if that means throwing a desk at the guy,” says Puente, “doing anything is usually better than doing nothing.”

Across the board, training agencies such as Suarez’s and Crane’s have seen increased interest in active shooter preparedness in the wake of the Sandy Hook tragedy. Crane’s Response Options has received an unprecedented number of requests for training. Some agencies and organizations, even offer the training to schools free of charge, like the Missouri Office of Homeland Security, which has also seen a large increase in demand for training.

At the end of the day, someone bent on killing others will find a way to carry out his or her misdeeds. Arming teachers isn’t the answer, more psychiatrists aren’t the answer, and no one except the NRA seems to think that school and police budgets will allow for cops at every school. There is no answer. There is no easy solution. But individual responsibility—on the level of schools, school administrators and parents and students—seems the most widely accepted prevention.

“You can’t legislate against rain, and you can’t legislate against people arming themselves,” says Suarez. “But you can give people the tools and knowledge to be a deciding factor.”

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