Helplessly crying out, “Why me, why us, why them?” does not deliver solutions; examining “why” most definitely will. To further this discussion of school shootings, it is important for understanding several basic concepts of crime and society. I offer three perspectives for helping advance the vision of minimizing school shooting risk factors for reoccurrence.
School Shooting Risk Factors
Since 1980 there have been 137 fatal shooting scenarios, killing 297 victims in the U.S. According to data from The Bully Society: School Shootings and the Crisis of Bullying in America’s Schools, elementary schools saw 17 incidents, while high schools were victimized most with 62 shooting scenarios. The U.S. Department of Education list the total number of recognized educational institutions in 2010 at 138,925. The recent US Census shows over 77 million children and adults enrolling at learning institutions throughout the U.S.
The reality is that bad things happen to innocent people. Lending to this are the vast targets of opportunity for the properly motivated offender. While the math would demonstrate the number of shooting incidents over the last 32 years and the number of victims compared to a total student enrollment population shows an overall safe environment for learning, try telling that to a parent in Newton, Connecticut. Unfortunately, soft targets have been and will continue to be prey for the offender.
To understand the relationship between crime and society, I use leading theorist examining the associations. Remaining aware that bad things happen leads to realistic solutions.
Emile Durkheim explores the Normality of Crime showing it naturally occurs in society. There is no society exempt from crime. Since the beginning of humanity, a certain level of crime exist, and there is no more offensive action than actively shooting children.
Researchers Derek Cornish and Ronald Clarke identify the Rational Choice Theory showing people as reasoning actors weighing means and ends prior to crime commissions. Crime is purposely committed for satisfying the needs or goals of the offender. This again supports the argument that the act and location of shooting is not random. Because there is pattern or routine associated with initiating the active shooting, there are opportunities for intervention.
Relating directly to Marcus Feldman and Lawrence Cohen’s Routine Activity Theory, crime is normal and dependent upon available opportunities. This requires three elements to converge in time and space; 1) a motivated offender, 2) suitable victim and 3) absence of capable guardian.
Examining shooting scenarios show offenders are motivated and methodical. Although shooters are described by media as on a “rampage,” that only occurs after the first round is fired. In the school shooter incident I was actively involved in, the 15 year old offender had documented an operations plan with more detail and precision than most SWAT ops orders. These offenders do not “snap” and believing in random selection is counterproductive.
In addition to the motivated offender and suitable victims, the presence or absence of capable guardians is critical to this discussion. Who should and could serve as guardians over the 77 million students in 140,000 educational institutions!
Now, let’s examine the solutions. The emergency response revolution inspired by Columbine’s shooting continues challenging the industry to become better prepared with school designs, policies, reporting of threats and partnerships with police. How many shooting scenarios have been adverted by these progressive plans, we shall never know.
- The Built Environment
Reconstructing campuses like war-area green zones are unrealistic, but there is a growing body of knowledge for the practical application of best practices in school security. Reducing opportunities for victimization is a realistic goal for addressing this issue.
CPTED (Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design) developed by C. Ray Jeffery capitalizes on Oscar Newman’s Defensible Space ideal. Using elements within the built design and natural environment to control access and provide surveillance opportunities, along with natural reinforcements afford schools an option for hardening their target.
Another strategy for reducing opportunities is the military’s concept of Defense in Depth. This strategy is designed to delay, rather than prevent an attacker from entering the premises. By slowing the offender’s approach, they lose energy or attacking momentum, which disrupts a well-designed assault. This allows precious extra time for schools to alert and police to arrive.
The approach to a target is key to the attacker. Most arrive directly to the location, rather than concealing their vehicle and taking a covert route for sneaking onto school grounds. Therefore the principles surrounding the built environment are the first stages of defense, deterrence and detection. Additional layers in the defense in depth strategy at or inside the school may include controlling entry points with electronic access, door greeters, foyers limiting penetration into the complex or escorting visitors inside.
- The Technological Environment
Technology is high-performance and low-cost, and should be used to complement (not replace) human observations. Student identification cards with biometric data assist with personnel accountability, and allows or restricts human flow within an open and vulnerable space.
Metal detectors at points of entry are an immediate notification to the potential presence of a weapon, and serve as a visual deterrent to the potential offender in the initial planning phase of target selection.
Web-based and communication applications like anonymous hotlines for students to vent frustrations with a peer counselor via voice or text allows trained staff to detect potential triggers in the context of the interaction.
Students are likely to engage in typed correspondence with an on-line resource than engage in speaking with another person. This is an opportunity to decode the patterns of communications for threatening terms, and defuse the potential for acting out.
- The Human Resource Environment
Establish a clear vision for reducing the potential and opportunities for becoming victims of an active shooter. Staff should be realistic about the potential for catastrophe occurring at their location. Annual meetings are fine for sharing the vision of school security, but drills, rehearsal, and practice instills an immediate reaction in times of duress and a constant state of readiness.
Controlling the human flow also applies to staff. Coordinate duty stations, break areas with external observation locations, outside surveillance by maintenance and custodial staffs. Law enforcement speaks of the warrior mindset; maybe schools can adopt the “Momma Bear” ethos for protecting their young.
Revisiting the topic of “capable guardians,” bring us to the question, “What is capable?” Without firearms, anyone on sight is just another target. Each jurisdiction will have to determine levels of risk versus reward for allowing properly permitted carrying of weapons on campus.
Some agencies assign Patrol units to randomly visit schools. This by design will not deter nor detect the active shooter, and unless by the most highly-improbable chance of them arriving simultaneously, is useless beyond giving a false sense of cozy. Chance is not a plan. If the jurisdiction decides upon armed guards, then ensuring their capability is critical. This is no place for retirees looking to escape the house and catnap.
- The Policy and Planning Environment
I will wager that if the Police Department, Sheriff’s Office, School Board, Hospital and Office of Emergency Management are progressive enough to have developed active shooter response plans, no one has seen the other’s document.
Planning and policy development are what these institutions do. There are committed individuals eager to be taught, trained and participate in drills on every level. The administrations of the respective institutions cannot cause delays in these preparations. I’ve sat in meetings where engaging in purposeful planning was “what if’ed” to death. Start today, because it will happen.
Whichever you choose, it’s time for Momma Bears to sharpen their claws, or shooting skills.