Tag Archives: Columbine school shooting

“In law enforcement, we cannot have a cookie cutter solution”: Post-Columbine Changes to Law Enforcement Tactics

The quote in the title is indicative of the stance law enforcement has now adopted in a post-Columbine context. The statement was made by Sergeant AJ DeAndrea (Arvada Police Department), a SWAT member involved in Columbine and two other school shooting incidents in Colorado. (1) This blog will discuss the ways in which law enforcement changed its rescue priorities and training techniques to deal with school shootings following the Columbine incident. It could be said that these represent the ‘militarisation’ of police forces, where they adopt the cultural (values, styles) and organisational (tactics) aspects of the military. (2)

A noticeable element of the Columbine shooting was the criticism it provoked of law enforcement response. The law enforcement officers stationed outside Columbine went through the lengthy process of ‘securing the perimeter’ to stop the perpetrators escaping and of escorting students out after searching each one for weapons. Issues contended in the public sphere more generally were whether: teacher, William ‘Dave’ Sanders, who was shot in the chest and survived for four hours afterwards, could have been saved had medical teams been ‘allowed’ to enter the school; and a more expeditious law enforcement response could have prevented the bulk of the carnage, which took place in the library and resulted in the deaths of ten students. (3)

On the contrary, a report by Jefferson County provided a justification of sorts for the delayed response at Columbine. The SWAT officers had to form an ‘ad hoc’ team of police from different agencies with no previous contact. Other difficulties facing the teams were: incorrect Intel being provided, such as there being snipers, hostages and up to eight gunmen in the building; out-dated information about the building layout; most officers did not have their tactical equipment with them. Additionally, inside the school, officers faced hazardous conditions of flashing strobe lights, overflowing sprinklers, and fire alarms wailing. (4)

Since the confusion about building layout was something that hindered police response to Columbine, law enforcement tactical operations are now driven by knowledge about the environment in which a crisis is occurring, according to Sergeant DeAndrea. A useful technique in preparing law enforcers for potential school shooting attacks could be ‘tactical architecture,’ predicated on interpreting public spaces and their links to behaviour, an approach intended to aid operational policing. (5) Relating this to schools, it could allow law enforcers to instruct staff and students of ways to optimise survival if a shooting were to take place by highlighting escape points and places to hide.

Secondly, Sergeant DeAndrea explained that law enforcement training since Columbine has been honed into a single response led by SROs (see previous blog post for more details of their role in emergency management and response). Further to this, during an active shooter or hostage situation, the law enforcement rescue priorities have now changed to ‘hostages, civilians, cop, suspect.’ Sergeant AJ DeAndrea went on to clarify that hostages being held against their will on the threat of violence and civilians in an active shooter situation are the priorities for rescuing; the lives of cops comes below this and the life of the suspect is the least important factor, since the most important aspect of response is rescuing those in harm’s way.

[The blog post was put together using statements made during Sergeant DeAndrade’s presentation at the ‘School Safety Symposium’ in 2013, further reading around the response to Columbine and scholarly discussions of law enforcement training. The next post will look at the differences to campus police at colleges and universities in the United States following school shootings.]

  • Statements from Sergeant DeAndrade were made during a presentation at the ‘School Safety Symposium’ held at Columbine High School in June 2013, organised by I Love U Guys.
  • For further information, see: Kraska, P. B. (2007) ‘Militarization and Policing – Its Relevance to 21st Century Police.’ Policing 1(4), 501-513.
  • These were criticisms often made in news media reports and letters to the editor. An extensive sample of these were analysed by the author as part of a separate research project.
  • Jefferson County Sheriff reports examined SWAT techniques, equipment and the critical incident reponse overall on the day of the shooting. See http://extras.denverpost.com/news/colreport/columbinerep/pages for more information.
  • Jonescu, E. ‘Strategic and Tactical Architecture: An Instrument of Law Enforcement.’ In Bouttell, L. and S. Doran. Reframing Punishment: Silencing, Dehumanisation and the Way Forward. Oxford: Inter-Disciplinary, page numbers needed.

Changing the Landscape of Emergency Management Legislation

During ‘crises’ — something as horrific and unexpected as a school shooting fits that criteria — immediate strategies have to be formed; prevailing narratives then have a direct impact on which coping strategies are selected.[1] As documented in the blog post published 16th February 2015, school shooting incidents have elucidated flaws in emergency management plans; this requires legislative response. In Colorado, the site of the Columbine school shooting (1999), the General Assembly passed the ‘Safe Schools Act’ (2000), requiring each school district board in the state to adopt a emergency management plan, crisis management procedures, and employee training. This framework had to adhere to the ‘National Incident Management System’: a federal-level framework of four principles for responding to crises consisting of organisational structures and strategies, intended to allow first responders from different jurisdictions and agencies to be able to coordinate more effectively.[2]

Following the 2007 Virginia Tech school shooting, legislation was implemented the year after at the state-level. All institutions falling within the purview of higher education were mandated to have emergency management plans and coordinate these with local community ones; every year the president or vice-president of every institution is to review and make any necessary revisions to ensure it remains current, and the institution shall carry out a drill; after a period of four years, the plan is to be reviewed and submitted to the state ‘Department of Emergency Management.’

Although Colorado had already taken action in the past, the Virginia Tech shooting (2007) prompted the Governor of Colorado to make school safety a priority item once again. In 2008, he signed a bill which established the Colorado School Safety Resource Center to provide assistance and funding to schools in preparing for and responding to emergency situations. An existing Colorado statute was amended to include the addition of a sub-section provisioning funds for the school mapping information to first responders.

Moreover, the Colorado ‘Safe Schools Act’ (2000) was amended in 2008 to include the requirement that all school districts had to incorporate components of the ‘National Response Framework’ into emergency management plans. The actions to be taken were: devising a plan to meet the date of compliance (1 July 2009); adopting the ‘National Incident Management System,’ the federal-level framework for dealing with emergencies and the ‘Incident Command System,’ as the management structures to organise and organise crisis responses; form relationships and communicate with local responders to check adherence to local, county and state level plans; define the roles and responsibilities of community partners through memoranda of understanding (known as MOU’s); engage in practice schedules, such as drills and tabletop (i.e. simulation) exercises; partake in an annual inventory of emergency equipment. Revised Statutes in the 2012 Colorado General Assembly made the legislative declaration that “emergency response and crisis management measures should be implemented in all communities within the state to protect students and school personnel.” The importance of emergency management plans, training and response means that legislation is an expected response to flaws; the next blog will discuss this in relation to law enforcement tactics.

[This blog was put together by analysing legislative documents from Colorado and Virginia. Future blogs will look at a different dimension of emergency management, by exploring the response of law enforcement to school shooting incidents.]

[1] Fairclough, Isabela. and Norman Fairclough. (2012) Political Discourse Analysis: A Method for Advanced Students. London, New York: Routledge, 3, 16.

[2]  Definition taken from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (n.d.) ‘National Incident Management System,’ https://www.fema.gov/national-incident-management-system

 

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.

“There’s nothing stopping prohibited persons until we close that background check loophole”: Will universal background checks prevent school shootings?

The quotation in the title was said by one of my gun violence prevention (GVP) interviewees. This is due to a loophole in the federal-level law the Brady Bill (1994), allowing background checks to be foregone in private transactions between individuals (such as classified advertisements) and at places like gun shows and flea markets. My GVP interviewees pointed to a lack of transparency surrounding such sales as the main motivation for prohibited persons using them. Notably, a gun show is where the Columbine perpetrators obtained three of their weapons. Robyn Anderson, a ‘straw buyer’ for the shooters who purchased the guns and then transferred them, admitted that she would not have done so had there been paperwork to fill out One of the shooters, Eric Harris, had been legally old enough to purchase the three long guns obtained. Presumably, then the Columbine shooters went through the ‘straw purchase’ method with Robyn Anderson to avoid alerting anyone to their plans. The fact that it facilitated preparations for this particular school shooting makes one think closing the gun show loophole federally — which would then act as a baseline for all the states to compile with —should at least be considered as a policy option.

A number of research studies have pointed out that ‘closing the gun show loophole’ only goes a limited way to solving the problem, as it is only addressing a small portion of private sales. (1) Taking this argument further, the interviewee quoted in the titled explained that those prohibited from buying and owning guns could also use the internet, newspaper advertisements and personal connections to circumvent the restriction. With this in mind, my gun-related interviewees overall believed that universal background checks would reduce school shootings and the more commonplace gun violence deaths, meaning it is the law which will save the most lives.

The post-Sandy Hook grassroots momentum pertaining to background checks has been described by one of my interviewees as ‘palpable,’ with it “all coming down to ‘let’s do the background checks’” for all GVP groups, which should generate solidarity and improve their chances of success. Despite not having a clear link to background checks, Sandy Hook has mobilised public support for this policy measure. This is evident in the introduction of a universal background checks bill into the Senate in spring 2013 shows this issue has been identified and acted upon. The bill failed by a narrow margin; however, interviewees were hopeful this will be successful if reintroduced in future.

Universal background checks also get the highest level of public support than any other regulatory measure. A nationwide poll carried out by the Pew Research Center found that 85% of 1500 adults supported universal background checks. (2) This support is not particularly partisan either: 86% of Republican and 92% of Democrat supporters were in favour of universal background checks. (3) It seems, therefore, that despite its divorcement from the Sandy Hook shooting itself, background check support has increased as a result of it.

This measure appears to have a higher chance of gaining public backing because it does not affect gun owners in any way: it is about regulating who can buy and own guns, rather than controlling guns themselves. This is reflected in high, non-partisan levels of public support. To sum up, universal background checks appears to be an objective that all GVP groups and politicians can get behind because it focuses on the users of guns rather than controlling guns themselves.

[This blog was put together using material from interviews with GVP groups and attendance at related events, polls and information about the ‘Brady Bill’ legislation. The next blog will look at redefining the criteria for prohibited persons in relation to mental illness, which is a common factor in school shootings.]

(1) Webster, D. W., J. S. Vernick, E. W. McGinty and T. Alcorn. (2013) ‘Preventing the Diversion of Guns to Criminals through effective Firearm Sales Laws.’ In D. W. Webster and J. S. Vernick. Reducing Gun Violence in America: Informing Policy with Evidence and Analysis. Baltimore, Maryland: The John Hopkins University Press, 109-121.
Wintemute, G.J. (2013a) ‘Comprehensive Background Checks for Firearm Sales: Evidence from Gun Shows.’ In D. W. Webster and J. S. Vernick. Reducing Gun Violence in America: Informing Policy with Evidence and Analysis. Baltimore, Maryland: The John Hopkins University Press, 95-107.
(2) Cited in Page, S. (2013) ‘Poll spots activism in gun control debate.’ USA Today, 15th January, News 6A (hard copy).
(3) McGinty, E. E., D. W. Webster, J. S. Vernicle, and C. L. Barry. (2013) ‘Public Opinion on Proposals to Strengthen U.S. Gun Laws: Findings from a 2013 Survey.’ In D. W. Webster and J. S. Vernick. Reducing Gun Violence in America: Informing Policy with Evidence and Analysis. Baltimore, Maryland: The John Hopkins University Press, 239-257.

Lawsuits and School Shootings: Punishment, Blame and Accountability

When a school shooting occurs and students and staff are killed or injured, attributions of blame are, not surprisingly, made. The most obvious and accountable recipients would be the perpetrator(s) of the school shooting attack themselves; however, there are two main issues with this. First of all, as the blog published on the 8th June 2014 documented, school shooters tend to commit suicide immediately after the attack. Secondly, and most importantly, the act of imposing legal penalties in a democratic society tends to be formalised and institutionalised. Since victims and their families are unable to ‘punish’ the perpetrators themselves, punishment is instead shifted onto other parties, such as the parents of the perpetrators, the entertainment industry, gun manufacturers, and so forth. There are, however, issues with pursuing cases against these particular groups.

In the case of parents, the monetary value of these lawsuits tends to be low in comparison to others since the amount is determined by the individuals’ insurance policies. After the 1999 Columbine High School shooting in Littleton, Colorado, parents of the two perpetrators resolved lawsuits with a blanket settlement of almost one point six million dollars to be shared amongst several families of those killed; these lawsuits were predicated on claims that the parents had allegedly failed to notice that their children were making bombs and planning the attack months in advance. One of the victim’s parents, Brian Rohrbough, outlined his impetus for the lawsuit: “What I know from the Klebolds and the Harrises is they have an awful lot to answer for and neither one is willing to do so.” With that in mind, it certainly seems that the motivation behind these lawsuits could be to receive explanations from those most closely involved with the perpetrators. However, these lawsuits usually fail to be resolved, given the numerous difficulties involved in proving a parent’s culpability for crimes their children have committed.

With past lawsuits levelled against the entertainment industry, the argument has been that its violent content resulted in a ‘copycat effect’ where the perpetrators emulated what was shown. For instance, an unsuccessful lawsuit was brought against the producers of the film The Basketball Diaries and a number of video game companies by the parents of three murdered victims after the 1997 Heath High School shooting in West Paducah, Kentucky. Given that violent media content involves the expression of ideas, it falls under the realm of the ‘protection of free speech’ pursuant to the First Amendment of the US Constitution and hence these types of lawsuits tend to collapse. It has been suggested that the motivation for filing these lawsuits with low chances of success is to ‘express outrage’ at what has happened and to further the debate on the causes of such violence and ways to change or regulate violent media content.

Those involved in gun production and selling also seem to be another viable target of lawsuits, with their being held responsible for crimes committed with weapons they manufactured and sold. In the past, a successful case was brought against Bushmaster, the manufacturers of a semi-automatic weapon used in the 2002 Washington, D.C. sniper attacks, for a settlement of two and a half million dollars. This case was considered a huge loss for the gun industry and so an immunity law has since been implemented which offers gun makers and retailers protection from lawsuits, except in cases where they knowingly violated a state or federal law pertaining to guns and this then resulted in someone being injured or killed. Therefore, changes in law have made the gun industry a less viable target in the aftermath of school shootings, unless evidence exists that violations of gun laws have taken place.

With all this in mind, the school itself then seems a more viable target for lawsuits. The main arguments against the schools are that they failed to notice the warning signs given by the perpetrators and/or that they did not respond to the shooting properly. In the next blog, I will use the specific example of the lawsuit filed against Virginia Tech University for the delay in communication on the 16th April 2007.

[Material for this blog has been published in a chapter in the edited volume Reframing Punishment: Silencing, Dehumanisation and the Way Forward. The next blog will examine the issue of lawsuits following school shootings in more detail by using the specific case study of the Virginia Tech shooting.]

15 Year Since Columbine: A Legacy of Fear

It is fifteen years today since the massacre at Columbine High School, Littleton, Colorado, where thirteen people were murdered and numerous others wounded. Accounts from eyewitnesses in news reports documenting the attack conveyed the horror of the shooting; long-term news coverage portrayed school shootings as an on-going trend and a naturalised risk which could occur at any time. It now appears the term ‘Columbine’ has become shorthand for an event so horrific that it requires no explanation. Last week, a colleague of mine at a university in the United States attended an emergency meeting to deal with the threat of a student threatening to ‘pull a Columbine’ if a situation about their finances was not resolved. Following the Columbine school shooting, copycat threats escalated at an exponential rate for a number of months. These threats eventually dropped, only to spike again every year around the time of the anniversary of Columbine on the 20th April.

The threat of future attacks meant there were positive policy legacies to come from this fear: revising emergency management plans to address flaws which had been highlighted by past school shooting situations; adapting training to a potential school shooting scenario; making emergency alerts sent out in a school shooting situation clearer and detailed, with explicit instructions about actions to take; it created a market for mobile phone safety applications, such as LiveSafe, which facilitates communication in an emergency situation and allows users to alert others of an on-going incident.
Despite these positive changes, fifteen years later, discussions on social media indicate that students still feel vulnerable and anxious about the prospect of a school shooting occurring. Embracing the idea that they are likely to become victims, some students are devising potential strategies to deal with an attack, such as searching for exits and windows in classrooms to escape from. Such feelings of vulnerability have also given traction to movements like ‘concealed carry on campus,’ lobbying to allow students to carry concealed firearms in higher education institutions to negate any threats which may occur. The tragic legacy of Columbine means conquering the fear, dread and anxiety it left behind is the only way to move forward.

(The statements made here are taken from the research findings of my doctoral thesis on news media and policy responses to school shootings.)

This photograph was taken at the Columbine Memorial Site, behind the High School in Littleton, Colorado.

This photograph was taken at the Columbine Memorial Site, behind the High School in Littleton, Colorado.