The following study, “Violence at Educational Institutions: Motives and Prevention” was conducted by Baltimore Post-Examiner contributor Brian Bissett in an effort to delve more deeply into the topic of violence and security in our nation’s educational institutions. The aim of this study was to analyze, evaluate, and create alternative solutions to a specific security policy by critiquing its strengths and weaknesses and devising policy proposals for improvement. This is the first part of a two-part series.
A school shooting is every parent’s nightmare, and for precisely that reason it is a high-value symbolic target where the primary motive is usually to prompt a psychological response. The Sandy Hook elementary school shooting proved a target need not be prominent in order to have high symbolic value. Further, in some instances, schools are expressive targets motivated by personal anger due to bullying or any perceived injustice which may have occurred at or in relation to the institution.
From an attacker’s perspective, an educational institution is an ideal target. Educational institutions are architecturally designed for ease of access, hold multiple potential targets within confined classroom spaces which often have a single egress point, and historically have been neither hardened nor protected against attack in any meaningful manner.
Motels have long been magnets for crime as both guests and visitors can directly access the rooms without having to pass through a central conduit point for access verification.(1) Schools by and large suffer from the same lack of command and control of ingress and egress of persons whose motives or need to be on campus are unknown.
Educational institutions are a “soft target”, and as such provide an attacker with a target containing large numbers of helpless people within facilities that can be attacked successfully with little risk of immediate interference by law enforcement or security forces.
Fortunately, school shootings are a rare event, and schools today are safer than they were in the 1990s.(2) However, with each incident comes forth a host of suggested measures to be implemented with the intention of reducing or eliminating firearms violence in the nation’s educational institutions.
This paper will focus on pragmatic measures with the intention of reducing the incidence of firearms violence in schools, and the reduction of fatalities in the event of an attack on an educational institution. Such measures include the deterring of an attack from inception, detecting a potential attack early, restricting access to an attacker (denial), delaying the progression of an attacker (impedance), and the response of staff to an attacker (resistance.) In a traditional security system, the design emphasis is on detection, delay, and response.
This paper will not emphasize the response factor, whose policy and procedures are mandated by the responding law enforcement agencies. Instead, it will focus on the detection and delay components, because it is during the latency of the arrival of first responders that the most casualties are inflicted. The amount of time it takes police to respond to the scene has a large impact on the number of casualties, and in fact, the average police response time exceeds the average shooting duration by about six minutes.(3) Despite prompt law enforcement responses, most shooting incidents at educational institutions were stopped by means other than law enforcement intervention (4), affirming that people must be prepared to be their own first responders.
After the shooting at Columbine High School in 1999, school administrators nationwide began taking action and implementing programs designed to curb school violence. These programs include physical surveillance, the presence of security guards or officers on campus, and programs designed to address the precursors of violence, including bullying, profiling of potentially violent individuals, and counseling for at-risk students.(5)
Although bullying is far more prevalent than violence that involves weapons (6), a primary goal of improved physical surveillance measures is to prevent students from bringing weapons into school. Metal detectors and searches of student lockers and book bags are not uncommon in large urban middle and high schools. Indeed, fewer weapons are confiscated with these measures in place than are confiscated without them (7), implying that students are bringing weapons to school less frequently. It remains undetermined if metal detectors and searches can thwart a well-planned incident from taking place.
The presence of armed security guards or police officers on school grounds has been gaining popular support. This is especially true since the shooting incidents at Granite Hills High School near San Diego, California, and Great Mills High School in St. Mary’s County Maryland, where an armed police officer was able to intervene quickly and prevent further violence.(8 )
Numerous violence prevention programs are available for elementary schools, but only a few are designed for secondary school students. The most promising at the secondary school level are targeted for at-risk youth, typically aggressive students. Short-term outcomes for such programs are promising.(9) Such programs tend to focus on precursors or antecedents of violent behavior (10) with the presumption that, by targeting behaviors that predict violence (e.g., bullying and impulsive behavior), more serious manifestations of aggression will be prevented.(11)
Long term studies have shown that repeated interventions that include only problem youth can be counter-effective. Grouping high-risk youth together appears to reinforce negative behavioral patterns in a form of “deviance training”, increasing rather than decreasing the risk that they will subsequently engage in anti-social behavior.(12)
The profiling of potentially violent students has gained support following several highly publicized school shootings. Such an approach is based on the assumption that some external entity can predict who will become violent. Although a great deal is known about the early warning signs of violent behavior, the truth is that many students fit these “profiles” and yet only very few will ever commit a violent act.(13)
Among the ten key findings from “The Safe School Initiative” are that there is no accurate or useful “profile” of students who engaged in targeted school violence and that most attackers did not threaten their targets directly prior to advancing the attack.(14) Thus, it is highly unlikely that profiling will be of predictive value in the vast majority of firearms violence incidents at educational institutions. Mass shooting incidents are outlier behavior, and outliers by definition do not conform to attributable norms.
Other violence prevention efforts rely on counseling students with disciplinary problems. The assumption underlying the counseling approach is that students who repeatedly get into trouble need specific attention and services. Such approaches, however, are reactive rather than proactive, and may occur too late in the process to make a difference. Further, the qualifications and training of personnel might be critical factors determining the success or failure of such an approach.(15 )
Detecting an active shooter before they begin shooting is of paramount importance. An alert situational awareness results in the victims having more time to decide which options to invoke when dealing with a potentially deadly threat. Physical barriers, locking systems, adequate lighting, and video surveillance all contribute to preventing an assailant from entering an educational institution unnoticed.
Detection is a challenging problem in educational institutions as they are designed to allow rapid ingress and egress of large numbers of people into classrooms. Buildings typically have many entry and exit locations, and compounding the problem is that a bad actor can easily be obscured within a crowd. Further, it is not uncommon for students to carry backpacks or book bags, which can conceal weapons. Having authorized individuals funnel through a central conduit point for physical inspection is simply impractical for most institutions. Despite these challenges, it is still possible to implement some measures to improve detection of individuals with harmful intent.
For example, mandating that students and staff wear identification similar to government employees is one measure that can help readily identify an outsider who may have malicious intent. Training staff to monitor hallways during transition times and observe who typically traverses various buildings and locations at various times will also heighten situational awareness. Instruction on how to discern abnormal behavior such as wearing a winter coat on a warm day or a long raincoat on a sunny day, or carrying a much larger than normal book bag or backpack. Additionally, all well-traversed ingress, egress, and transitional routes should have cameras monitoring them where security personnel can monitor activity from a centralized location, and if necessary communicate the movement of a hostile person to responding personnel.
Unfortunately, even with the best of situational awareness, in many instances, the first indication that violence with a firearm has begun will be with the deployment and use of a firearm. In such situations, the use of shot detection technology can eliminate delays in determining both the start and location of such an incident. Gunshot detection systems utilize acoustic verification to discern gunshots. Acoustic detection uses sensors to capture a sound, compare that sound to an acoustic signature, and use signal processing to validate if the sound is indeed a gunshot. The data is then used to determine the precise location of the shot. Some systems utilize multi-factor authentication, where two or more sensing technologies are grouped together. Such technologies include the shockwave of a bullet passing through a sensor field, changes in barometric pressure triggered by a shockwave, and/or the optical flash or infrared signature generated from the barrel of a firearm when fired.(16)
Ideally, an acoustic detection system should be paired with a communication system to first responders. Unfortunately, active shooters can move at a fast pace throughout a building. This makes it difficult to track and neutralize the shooter, prolonging the event. Testing has shown that shot detection technology with automatic emergency communication enables law enforcement to respond and mitigate a threat up to sixty percent faster.(17) State of the art gunshot detection systems now have map-based graphical user interfaces that display the location of the shooter to building occupants and law enforcement, and can transmit the audio and video of the incident. Further, acoustic detection can indicate the number of shots fired and the cadence at which they were fired, giving insight into the type of weapon the shooter is using.(18) Ideally, such data should be transmitted in real-time to security, law enforcement, hospitals, and fire services to enhance their overall strategic picture of the situation and aid in response.
(Part II of this study may be found here)
1) Karin Schmerler, “Disorder at Budget Motels”, Problem-Oriented Guides for Police, Arizona State University, Guide No. 30, 2005, https://popcenter.asu.edu/content/disorder-budget-motels-0
2) Allie Nicodemo, Lia Petronio, “Schools are Safer than they were in the 90s, and School Shootings are not More Common than they Used to be, Researchers Say”, Northeastern University, February 26, 2018, https://news.northeastern.edu/2018/02/26/schools-are-still-one-of-the-safest-places-for-children-researcher-says
3) Keily Linger, “Analysis of the Police Response to Mass Shootings in the United States between 1966 and 2016”, State University of New York at Albany, Fall 2018, https://scholarsarchive.library.albany.edu/honorscollege_ehc/1
4) Vossekuil, B., et al., “The Final Report and Findings of the Safe School Initiative: Implications for the Prevention of School Attacks in the United States.”, Washington, DC: U.S. Secret Service and U.S. Department of Education, 2002.
5) Jaana Juvonen, “School Violence Prevalence, Fears, and Prevention”, RAND Issue Paper, IP-219-EDU, 2001, https://doi.org/10.7249/IP219
6) NCES., “Indicators of School Crime and Safety”, Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education, U.S. Department of Justice, 2001., https://nces.ed.gov/pubs2002/2002113.pdf
7) Mathews, J. (2001). “In the Classroom: Metal Detectors and a Search for Peace of Mind.” Los Angeles Times, B2.
8) Juvonen, 2001, p.3.
9) Farrell, A. D., A. L. Meyer., “The Effectiveness of a School-Based Curriculum for Reducing Violence among Urban Sixth-Grade Students.” American Journal of Public Health, 87, 979–988, 1997.
10) Hawkins, D. J., D. P. Farrington, and R. F. Catalano. (1998). “Reducing Violence through the Schools.”
11) Elliott, D. S., B. A. Hamburg, and K. R. Williams (Eds.). (1998). Violence in American Schools. New York: Cambridge University Press.
12) Dishion, T. J., J. McCord, and F. Poulin., “When Interventions Harm: Peer Groups and Problem Behavior.”
American Psychologist, 54, 755–764, 1999.
13) Mulvey, E. P., and E. Cauffman., “The Inherent Limits of Predicting School Violence.” American Psychologist, 56, 797–802, 2001
14) Vossekuil et al. (2002, p. 11).
15) Juvonen, 2001, p.5.
16) Thomas W. Connell II, “Confronting Active Shooters”, Campus Security & Life Safety, October 01, 2019, https://campuslifesecurity.com/Articles/2019/10/01/Confronting-Active-Shooters.aspx?Pa
17) Connell, Page 3.
18) Connell, Page 3.
Howard County, Maryland resident Brian Bissett is the author of two peer-reviewed books on Data Analysis.