Tag Archives: crisis management

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Another common mistake is outdated or incomplete information in emergency management plans.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of this is Virginia Tech University’s plan, which, at the time of the shooting, was two years old: this meant it had outdated information in it, such as the name of a previous police chief.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.

“How to turn the ‘what if’ of emergency management into ‘how to’”: The Standard Response Protocol of I Love U Guys

The quote above was said by John-Michael Keyes, of the non-profit foundation I Love U Guys (1) set up by himself and Ellen Stoddard-Keyes, the parents of Emily Keyes: a young girl killed in a hostage situation at Platte Canyon High School, Bailey, Colorado (2006). This organisation put together a training package for parents and educators, said by John Michael Keyes, to turn the ‘what if’ of emergency management plans into ‘how to.’ Emergency management plans are a form of risk management, seeking to avert a crisis and deal with one most effectively if it was to occur — these are particularly relevant to incidents like school shootings, where the risks are unquestionably highest. The ‘standard response protocol’ developed by I Love U Guys (see image below) has been described as the ‘safety nexus’ of the school district of Jefferson County, Colorado, by its Executive Director of Emergency Planning. Over the course of three years, it has allowed them to converse with and train over eighty-two thousand school students.

i love you guys

The basis of this protocol is the federal-level guide (2) on crisis planning, which distinguishes between response actions in different situations. ‘Evacuation’ would take place in a situation where staff and students have to leave the building; thus refuge points should be decided in advance, taking into consideration the needs of disabled students. The ‘reverse evacuation’ scenario would occur when the incident is outside and students are re-entering the school. When students are unable to leave or move through the building ‘lockdown’ occurs. The ‘standard response protocol,’ devised by I Love U Guys, consists of four options: lockdown, when there is a threat inside the building; lockout, in the case of criminal activity outside; evacuation, allowing for escape; shelter, for seeking refuge. In the case of a ‘lockout,’ the priority of staff in this scenario is to account for every student inside the building, since the threat is outside. A ‘lockdown’ scenario would be more problematic to manage, with the ‘time barrier’ between the threat and potential victims — utilised through a locked door and lights being switched off to hide from the threat — being crucial to safety. It was stated by John Michael Keyes that there has only ever been one case of a gunman entering a classroom through a locked door and the teacher was able to tackle him because of this time delay.

srp

Pertinent to the effectiveness of the Standard Response Protocol is practice. I Love U Guys has put together a presentation and training workbook for educators and school resource officers (3) to conduct drills in classrooms. A state-law implemented in Colorado following recommendations made about response to the Columbine shooting (1999) mandated training staff members with local community partners and first responders (law enforcement, medical, fire) and highlighting the roles and responsibilities of every actor. After investigating the bill further, I Love U Guys found the legislative change did have an effect: fire, medical, and law enforcement response agencies were using a shared language and had a clear management structure. It is likely that relationships between rescue agencies and training involving all involved (educators, students, first responders) will improve reactions should an incident transpire. Something that has to be taken into account when devising training plans, however, is that the first responders to a school shooting incident could actually be the administrators and teachers who are there when events unfold, especially if they occur in the classroom — the Sandy Hook elementary school is a prime example of this.

[This blog post was put together using presentations from the ‘School Safety Symposium’ in June 2013, held by the I Love U Guys foundation, and reading about the organisation. Future blog posts will further examine the role of emergency management planning and training in managing school shooting incidents. Special thanks for this post go to the organisers of this event and the board members of I Love U Guys.]