Tuesday, December 18, 2012

What We Can Do NOW about school shootings

          I hate this subject. I hate listening to the self-proclaimed experts who rush to the microphones to roll out the predictable arguments on the predictable subjects. I hate having friends think I might be one of those media scavengers. With grandchildren the right age to be in Sandy Hook Elementary School, I hate even thinking through the incident.  It’s Christmas and those babies will never see Christmas Eve.  Can’t we just leave the children and the teachers and the families alone?
            No, I guess not. I have been working homeland security issues for 15 years. One of those issues has been school safety, where I spent several years looking at preparedness for and response to shootings at major universities. And I am getting calls from family and friends asking what we can do NOW about the problem.  So this advice is not about high capacity magazines, or mental health diagnoses, or anything else that will take months or years and a big political fight to put in place. This is about what can be done this week so your local school, or church, or meeting hall can be safer and feel safer (which is a major issue) next week. And it is in the form of questions so you can think through the solution on a LOCAL LEVEL. You don’t have to wait for a national solution to better protect your children now.
PLEASE NOTE: I am not second guessing the teachers and police at Sandy Hook. We still don’t know what happened. We are just trying to add layers of security right now while the danger of a copy-cat remains high. 

     1)      How can you better DETER mass murders? Through fear of failure. The losers who commit these acts can’t bear the thought of another failure. So a police car parked out front might help, or a community patrol in the parking lot (always reporting, never confronting). Branding matters, too. Many perpetrators seek fame, power and revenge. They want to be called “shooters” and “gunmen.” Deny them that. Killers like this one don’t “snap.” They plan methodically. So intervene during that planning, by reporting anyone who talks about taking such actions. And call the perpetrators what they are: Pathetic Losers.
     2)      How do you put more DISTANCE (both space and time) between the losers and the innocents? The Israelis increase security by expanding the perimeter – challenging people in the parking lot, not inside the terminal. Yes, you can do this with new fences, cameras, gates and metal detectors – all expensive. But again, community patrols could help – and they are free. The DHS sponsored Citizens Corps already helps create local teams with Neighborhood Watch, Volunteers in Police Service, Fire Corps, Community Emergency Response Teams, and Medical Reserve Corps. Tens of thousands of our citizens have been organized and trained – then wait for months or years for a call to duty. Many are retirees who can volunteer time and flexibility. We are not talking about armed patrols here. Just a 2 person team with a radio asking why a 20 year old guy in fatigues is carrying a duffle bag across the school parking lot could be a big help
     3)      How can you DETERMINE possible threats?  This one is hard. It requires confrontation, and that is not for unarmed volunteers.  If you really want increased security, at some point you will need more armed security patrols and on-scene response.  Somebody has to coordinate the volunteers, handle the communications and reports, and respond to problems –potentially well-armed and deadly problems.  This is not an additional job for overworked teachers and administrators. And one part time “resource officer” teaching DARE and discouraging gangs is not the answer. Even if the response team (and that is what it will take) is composed of retired officers or constables, it will be expensive. And not every school will be able to afford this. On the other hand, mass shootings have been at upper end schools, not inner city schools. So my advice is for communities to take the measures they think appropriate and can fund now – and let the courts and officials work out longer term solutions.  
4)      Once there is a shooting incident at a school or church or public gathering, how do you DISPERSE? Having worked this issue at a university, I know there is a big disagreement over what to do during a crisis. There might be multiple violent losers about. They might be in several places. They might be waiting for the halls or school yards to fill with students evacuating. They might have put bombs at the exits. So there is disagreement over whether to Run, Hide or Fight.  My personal take is that Fighting is out for grade school teachers and children. And moving targets are harder to hit than students trapped in a classroom. So I would plan to lock down for a violent loser outside, and disperse (as with a fire drill) from an active threat inside. Again, volunteer patrols with radios could be very valuable. But the point of this blog is to encourage people to think through the questions locally, not just take my advice.
5)      Now the hard nut of the issue – how to DEFEND? What follows will be controversial.  The military response to an ambush (and that’s what school mass murder approximates) is immediate violent counterattack, under the assumption that the assailants have carefully planned the attack, and only an immediate violent response can break their organization and counter their advantage. This is not the standard law enforcement response to “shots fired.” Officers may arrive immediately, but then they set up a perimeter, establish command and control, expand situational awareness, and await special teams. This is the correct response to domestic disputes, botched bank robberies, and other common situations where time is on the side of the police, and every minute that passes reduces the chances of further murders. But this is the wrong response to the planned, methodical massacre of six year olds trapped in a room where every moment’s delay means another murder. More trained officers on the scene more quickly, “marching to the sound of the guns,” is the solution. This will require more resources and a change in law enforcement culture.
6)      And finally, how to get these new concepts of preparedness and response right?  DRILL. You can’t get it right without getting it wrong first in practice. Plan, exercise your plan, correct your mistakes, start the cycle again. To repeat, this requires a security team – not just more duties for a struggling principal.

As I said at the top  – we don’t even know what happened at Sandy Hook yet. And from early reports, the administrators, teachers and police responded according to plan.  So this is not a criticism of them or a call to new national action. This is just a pointed response to a pointed question – what can we do NOW to make our local school safer against violent losers? So I offer some points to consider in trying to protect our children from the Thinking Enemies who threaten them. Please take these points in the constructive spirit with which they are offered.   God bless us every one.

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