Monthly Archives: February 2015

Managing the Risks of School Shootings: Flaws to Avoid

Continuing the theme of the last two blogs of emergency management plans and training — something which is crucial to managing something as deadly as a school shooting — this post elucidates what to avoid when planning for and responding to acts of violence. Since something like ‘risk’ cannot be entirely eliminated, what organisations should strive to achieve instead is a level of ‘safety,’ i.e. what is deemed to be “an acceptable level of risk.”[1] In terms of school shootings, this means planning for which actions to take in a crisis should be located within the wider rubric of school violence; as well as accounting for potential spectacular events, which are rarer but more likely to be lethal in nature.

A common flaw of emergency management plans in educational institutions where school shootings have already taken place is not considering the possibility of such an event occurring in the first place: for instance, Columbine High School and Virginia Tech University had guidance in place for fires, bomb threats and so forth; yet not for an active shooter scenario. Whilst schools may feel that ‘it can’t happen here,’ the myriad school shootings which have occurred in the United States show that these tend to occur in suburban areas with relatively little crime. Moreover, the danger in not acknowledging the risk of a school shooting is that no plans would be put into place about how to eliminate or reduce that risk.[2]

Another common mistake is outdated or incomplete information in emergency management plans. An example of this is Virginia Tech University’s plan, which, at the time of the shooting, was two years old: this meant it had outdated information in it, such as the name of a previous police chief. Another instance of incomplete information is the case of Columbine High School, where, prior to the shooting, the building layout for the school had not been included in the plans — it has been said by delayed the response of police and other rescue personnel.[3] In situations like these, it certainly seems the point that Coombs[4] makes about the danger of having a plan in place is providing a false sense of security is correct: these have limited usefulness when actually applied to a crisis.

Probably the most well-known of emergency management mistakes is the delay in emergency communication at Virginia Tech University (refer back to the blog posted on the 20th August 2014 for more information). In addition to staff error, this transpired because of a number of pre-existing flaws: there was confusion about what ‘timely’ actually meant; there was no set template(s) for emergency communication messages; there were inconsistences in the emergency communication policy and emergency management plans about who had the authority to release an emergency alert. This exemplifies the importance of the linkages between different facets of emergency management: prevention, planning, communication, training and response.

[This blog post was put together using analyses of policy documents produced after the Columbine and Virginia Tech shootings, as well as further reading. The next blog post will document some of the changes made to law to eradicate these flaws.]

[1] Borghesi, Antonio and Barbara Gaudenzi. (2013) Risk Management: How to Assess, Transfer and Communicate Critical Risks. Springer: London, New York. Page 19 cited.

Vestermark, S. D. (1996). ‘Critical decisions, critical elements in an effective school security program.’ In A. M. Hoffman (ed.) Schools, violence and society. Westport, CT: Praeger, 101-122. Page 108 cited.

[2] Coombs, W. Timothy. (2012) Ongoing Crisis Communication: Planning, Managing and Responding (third edition). Thousand Oaks, CA.: Sage. Page 41 cited.

[3] For more details refer to Jefferson County Sherriff report. http://extras.denverpost.com/news/colreport/columbinerep/pages

[4] Coombs, W. Timothy. (2012) Ongoing Crisis Communication: Planning, Managing and Responding (third edition). Thousand Oaks, CA.: Sage. Page 106 cited.

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“We are just waiting around as easy targets”: Anxiety about School Safety Procedures

The last blog detailed measures that can be utilised to prepare educational institutions for the occurrence of a school shooting. Discussed in this blog post will be the results of research into online commentaries of videos relating to previous school shooting attacks: these elucidate a further need to reassure students about the importance of emergency management training to their safety. In online debates, notably, there were insecurities expressed about whether school safety measures actually offer protection.

One issue, for instance, was a concern about hiding in a corner or under desks, rather than running for the nearest exit. Likely exacerbating these perceptions is knowledge of past shooting events — the mass shooting in Norway (2010) and the school shooting at Columbine High School (1999) were commonly cited  — and how others were killed. Extrapolating from this, the main ideas probably driving these reactions is a kind of helplessness at being inside where the threat is rather than running out to safety. Appropriately, a study by Fisher and Nasar’s study[1] into fear of crime on college campuses discovered that fear levels were highest in sites which offered low prospects for escape. As the last blog outlined, however, in cases where the attacker is inside the building, a ‘lockdown’ procedure is actually safer than trying to escape. With this in mind, training scenarios for educational institutions should spend a substantial amount of time explaining why taking a particular kind of action would be the safest in a particular situation, so that students are aware of why they are hiding rather than trying to escape.

In addition to this, despite the wave of school security measures implemented after high-profile school shootings like those at Columbine High School and Virginia Tech University, online users still felt that this was an area of weakness; this is evinced with statements like “schools need better security” and “security was lax as usual.” Online users were particularly incredulous that higher educational institutions do not even have metal detectors, pointing out that this made them ‘open targets’ for shooters. Considering this, some users argued in favour of universal metal detector implementation across all educational institutions. Despite this, as pointed out by my blog post ‘Creating a Market? The Commercial Products of School Shootings,’ (published 14th May 2014) the actual likelihood of metal detectors preventing school shootings is questionable. A study[2] of school safety administrators found that only 32% considered these to be effective in reducing more general school violence; this is even less likely to be the case when dealing with an active shooter event. Instead of metal detectors and other ‘target-hardening’ measures, it would be more fruitful to train students to prepare for school shootings, as well as to report any ‘warning signs’ that could prevent an attack from occurring in the first place.

[This blog post was put together by using analyses of comments from YouTube videos and some scholarly sources. The next blog post will discuss emergency management mistakes to avoid.]

[1] Fisher, Bonnie S. and Nasar, Jack L. (1992) ‘Fear of Crime in Relation to Three Exterior Site Features: Prospect, Refuge and Escape.’ Environment and Behaviour 24 (1), 35-65.

[2] Crystal A. Garcia. (2003) ‘School Safety Technology: Current Users and Perceived Effectiveness.’ Criminal Justice Policy Review 14: 30-54.