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 second part of a two-part series. Part one may be found here.
IV. Access and Impedance
In an ideal world, detection of a malicious actor would occur before access were granted to any facility that they wished to cause harm. Unfortunately, access is often achieved by the perpetrator of violent acts before their intentions of harm to the occupants have been discerned. Access, however, is not confined to initial access to the institution, but also to continued unfettered access to areas further into the facility as the incident progresses. The purpose of locking down a facility is to impede further access of the aggressor to additional areas within the campus.
The reality is that schools, much like train and bus stations, must accommodate a high number of people entering and exiting their facilities during peak periods such as the beginning of the day, end of the day, classroom changes, recess, etc. During such peak access times, it is impossible to screen every single person making entry into the facility. Further, schools, by and large, are not hardened facilities and often are “gun free” zones. In the Sandy Hook incident, the gunman, Adam Lanza, simply shot his way into the school, defeating the security system that required visitors to be buzzed in. The school’s principal, contrary to first reports, did not allow him to go through the security system after recognizing him.(19)
Unfortunately, by virtue of the fact that educational facilities are largely unprotected, and that a malicious actor will no doubt come to the facility with sufficient tools to gain entry into the facility by force, access by someone with intent on committing violence is virtually guaranteed. Therefore, once this has inevitably taken place, the facility and the personnel who reside in it must have the tools and infrastructure built into the facility to impede the free movement and unfettered access of the attacker. For the purposes of this discussion, the term impedance refers to passive measures that can be employed to limit the movement and ability of an attacker to inflict harm. Resistance is the term utilized for active measures that potential victims can employ to protect themselves once the measures of deterrence, denial of access, and impedance fail.
For impedance to work, the measures selected must have the ability to be employed rapidly. A secretary at Rancho Tehama Elementary, a school in rural Northern California, heard what sounded like gunshots and initiated a lockdown at the school. Within forty-eight seconds, all students and staff had locked down, which was something they had regularly practiced. It was just 10 seconds later before a man with an AR-15 style rifle reached their quad. He tried to enter the classrooms and the main office, but was unsuccessful as all were secured. The gunman, who had already killed five people during his rampage, fired more than 100 rounds into the building, shattering glass and tearing holes in walls. Ultimately he gave up and left six minutes after arriving. He took his own life a short time later. Only one student was wounded, but survived.(20)
The Rancho Tehama Elementary School incident illustrates that effective security for children need not be excessively costly to be effective, and that existing schools can be retrofitted to provide a high level of security to impede an attacker. At a minimum, all doors should be solid core with steel frames and must have locks that can be activated in seconds, and cannot be unlocked if a door’s window has been broken. Aftermarket products such as locks that slide over door closer arms to prevent them from moving can be employed in seconds. For doors without closer arms, numerous products exist that will attach a door to its steel frame or the floor by means of a steel plate which can be mounted out of reach when a door’s windows have been broken.
Usually when a shooter encounters a locked door, they continue moving, but occasionally, as in the Parkland event, the shooter may shoot into the classroom.(21) It would be beneficial to have a bulletproof area in every classroom that students could take shelter behind. It could be something as simple as a steel plate on rollers that functions normally as a whiteboard. There also exist bulletproof blankets that are rolled up and can be attached to the ceiling, and can be deployed as quickly as a window blind to provide protection.
While concealment is not as effective as bulletproof cover, it is still an important element in self-protection. The first classroom the Sandy Hook shooter approached was unlocked, but a teacher had pulled a blackout screen over the window, and the gunman moved past the door.(22) The ability to rapidly cut power to all the lights in a facility will disorient an attacker and give those who have intimate knowledge of the facility an advantage in navigating and defending it under poor lighting conditions.
Last, all educational institutions should have panic buttons in every classroom that will alert law enforcement that an incident is occurring that requires immediate attention. Such an alarm should activate emergency lights on the exterior of the building to both notify the public to stay away, and to alert any potential passing first responders that intervention is needed.
In any attack, the victim is usually operating at an initiative deficit. They never know the attack is coming until it us upon them. When an attacker has gained access to an educational institution and impedance measures have failed to prevent them from confronting an educator or an employee, a conscious decision must be made to either resist them, or allow their fate to be decided by someone who has already shown violent animus toward others. It is important to be cognizant that chances are high that if a school employee is confronted by an assailant, they are very likely to be the last line of defense for the students in their custody. Therefore, it is imperative that whatever means they choose to resist by have a high rate of effectiveness, because they will have no backup.
Resistance falls into two categories, resistance by means which are likely to be lethal, and resistance by means which are intended to be non-lethal. The most typical non-lethal methods of self-protection include pepper spray, Tasers or stun guns, and blunt force instruments such as baseball bats.
Tasers are an extremely poor choice for educators to utilize to protect themselves and the students in their custody. Tasers are unreliable up to 40 percent of the time, and in 258 cases over three years, a Taser failed to subdue someone who was then shot and killed by police.(23)
Contrast this to pepper spray, which has a 93% effectiveness rating in reducing violent behavior.(24) Pepper spray further has the advantage that it does not require a high level of training or precision to execute a successful counterattack. One must be cognizant when selecting a pepper spray that many manufacturers have a high variability in the capsaicinoid concentrations in oleoresin capsicum-based self-defense products. This can alter potency and effective stopping power of the product, jeopardizing the safety of the defender. Further, it is not the percentage concentration of capsaicinoids in a product that determine its efficacy, but the Scoville Heat Unit (SHU) rating. (Much like lumens being a more effective measure of light output as opposed to watts.) Unfortunately, the SHU value does not bear a discernable relationship to the percentage concentration of capsaicinoids, and SHU values calculated by such a formula are suspect as opposed to SHU values calculated by liquid chromatography-mass spectrometry.(25 ) Therefore, it is of the utmost importance to select a quality pepper spray product with a high SHU value.
Blunt force instruments such as baseball bats can be a very effective means of self-defense, but they suffer from several drawbacks. First, they require close proximity to the assailant. Second, their effectiveness is proportional to the amount of force that the defender can wield them. Third, they are much more effective when they are a surprise to the attacker rather than a direct frontal attack. Millcreek Township School District Superintendent William Hall distributed 600 mini baseball bats and encouraged the school’s staff to keep one in every classroom of the Pennsylvania district’s eleven schools.(26)
Data from the National Crime Victimization Survey for a ten-year period indicates that resistance with a firearm is the means that had the strongest effect on reducing the risk of injury to the victim.(27) The Gun-Free School Zones Act passed in 1990 prohibits firearms within 1,000 feet of a school zone under federal law, but it has several caveats including not applying to adults with concealed carry permits. In reality, half of the states have policies that allow schools or districts to give permission to individuals to carry firearms.(28)
While firearms are an extraordinarily effective means of self-defense, they, unfortunately, are easy to take away from the defender. In any given year, about 10% of police officers are shot with their own weapon, and 8% are killed with it.(29) Given this fact, it may be unwise to allow teachers at the middle school or high school level to carry firearms in the classroom. The potential exists for a student to wrestle a firearm away from them with disastrous results. However, it is probably wholly appropriate for teachers to be permitted to carry firearms in the classroom at the elementary school level, given this scenario is unlikely. Further, due to the lack of discipline that is commensurate with their age, elementary school children are unlikely to act quickly during an emergency. Thus, a teacher is probably more likely to have to intervene on their behalf to keep them safe as opposed to getting them all to shelter in place expeditiously. Whereas older students are more readily trained for shelter in place and lockdown drills, and are better able to respond and more likely to understand the potential consequences of delayed responsiveness.
According to the Crime Prevention Research Center, between 1950 and 2018, 97.8 percent of all public mass shootings occurred in gun-free zones. Similarly, in the 20 states that allow teachers to be armed, there have been no school shootings and no accidents or injuries caused by firearms possessed by teachers.(30) The 97.8 percent figure has been widely disputed based on what constitutes a “mass shooting”, and what is a “gun free zone” versus what some researchers term a “gun restricted” zone. Looking at 2019, if the definition of a gun free zone is one in which nobody but the police or hired security can carry a firearm, and if a mass shooting is defined as one where the number of killings or woundings exceeds the national mean by three standard deviations of all shootings in the country, then the United States had four mass shootings in 2019. (31) They were in Dayton, Ohio; Gilroy, California; El Paso, Texas; and Virginia Beach, Virginia.
All four occurred in gun free zones.
Given these facts, it would seem to be prudent to harden educational institutions to make them a much less attractive target. This can be accomplished by a number of means including: having small arms locker in the administrative offices with the staff trained in firearms use, employing school resource officers, having random visits by police officers while on patrol, and allowing both active and retired police and military personnel to volunteer to provide armed protection to schools. When terrorists attacked a school in Maalot, Israel in 1974, it did not declare every school a gun-free zone. It did, however, pass a law mandating armed security in all schools (32), and there have only been two school shootings since.(33)
It is extremely important to note that for self-protection in general, both forceful and non-forceful resistance reduced the likelihood of injury when compared to no resistance. Victim resistance appears to be a generally wise course of action, especially when combined with the fact that injuries following resistance are almost always relatively minor.(34)
VI. External Responders
Police responding to active shooter situations at educational institutions have one of two protocols they may invoke when arriving on scene, establishing a perimeter and waiting for a special operations team, or immediate engagement. The Columbine shooting incited a change in tactics, pivoting from a “contain and negotiate” approach to a “rapid confrontation” approach.(35) When active shooters are confronted, one of three things typically happens: they commit suicide, they are killed by the police, or they are now shooting at the police instead of unarmed students and faculty. Data has shown the total number of casualties rises with the duration of an active shooting event.(36) To minimize casualties requires that the shooters be confronted and challenged as soon as possible.
As long as educational institutions remain soft targets, they will be a tantalizing target for terrorists, the mentally ill, and anyone seeking national attention with a grudge to bear. Many have pointed to gun control as a solution to school shootings, but the reality is there is a firearm in one out of every three homes (that people will admit to) in the United States. When New Jersey banned the possession of assault weapons, only four people surrendered them to police.(37) When New Jersey banned the possession of “high capacity” magazines, not a single one was turned in. Even police officers who were not exempt from the ban did not turn them in.(38)
In New York and Connecticut, the registration compliance rate for firearms is 5% and 15% respectively.(39) In the United States, people will not even register their firearms, much less turn them in.
A pragmatic approach is presented whereby when an incident of violence occurs at an educational institution, the number of casualties can be reduced if not eliminated by utilizing a strategy of deterrence, detection, denial of access, impedance of movement, resistance, and immediate engagement by law enforcement.
19) James Barrondec, “Nation Reels After Gunman Massacres 20 Children at School in Connecticut”, The New York Times Company, December 14, 2012. https://www.nytimes.com/2012/12/15/nyregion/shooting-reported-at- connecticut-elementary-school.html
20) John Woodrow Cox, et al., “Armored School Doors, Bulletproof Whiteboards and Secret Snipers”, The Washington Post, Nov. 13, 2018, https://www.washingtonpost.com/graphics/2018/local/school-shootings-and- campus-safety-industry/
21) Amber Jamieson, “This is How America Tries to Protect Students from Mass Shooters”, BuzzFeed News, February 23, 2019, https://www.buzzfeednews.com/article/amberjamieson/america-schools-students-defense-guns- shooters-parkland
22) Ibid, Jamieson, 2019
23) Curtis Gilbert, et al., “When Tasers Fail”, APM Reports, May 9, 2019, https://www.apmreports.org/story/2019/05/09/when-tasers-fail
24) J. Bertilsson, et al., “Use of Pepper Spray in Policing: Retrospective Study of Situational Characteristics and Implications for Violent Situations”, Police Practice and Research, 18:4, 391-406, 2017, DOI: 10.1080/15614263.2017.1288119
25) Reilly CA, Crouch DJ, Yost GS., “Quantitative Analysis of Capsaicinoids in Fresh Peppers, Oleoresin Capsicum and Pepper Spray Products.”, J Forensic Sci, 46(3):p502–509, 2001.
26) Ibid, Jamieson, 2019.
27) Jongyeon Tark, Gary Kleck, “Resisting Crime: The Effects of Victim Action on the Outcomes of Crimes”, John Wiley, Criminology, Pages: 861-910, 07 March 2006, https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1745-9125.2004.tb00539.x
28) Kayla Dwyer, “Guns in School? Here’s a List of States That Allow Armed Teachers”, McCall, February 14, 2019, http://www.mcall.com/news/education/mc-nws-guns-in-schools-list-20181108-story.html
29) FBI, “Law Enforcement Officers Killed and Assaulted (LEOKA)”, https://ucr.fbi.gov/leoka/2018/topic- pages/officers-feloniously-killed
30) George Parry, “Mass Shootings in Gun-Free Zones”, The American Spectator, August 7, 2019, https://spectator.org/mass-shootings-in-gun-free-zones/
31) Brian Bissett, “The Firearms Safety Act of 2013”, International Association of Crime Analysts, National Harbor, MD, 08/23/2019, Slide 30, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ph-q7rXA6-Y
32) Greg Tepper, “Armed Teachers, Guards Bolster School Security in Israel”, Fox News, December 2, 2015, https://www.foxnews.com/world/armed-teachers-guards-bolster-school-security-in-israel
33) Tzvi Lev, “Israel Proves the NRA’s Arguments”, Israel National News, 02/21/18, http://www.israelnationalnews.com/Articles/Article.aspx/21714
34) Ibid, Tark, 2006.
35) Tabatha Wethal, “Killers in the classroom”, Officer.com, April 29, 2016, https://www.officer.com/training- careers/article/12187928/killers-in-the-classroom
36) Ibid, Linger, p. 21.
37) J.D. Tuccille, “What Will Gun Controllers Do When Americans Ignore an ‘Assault Weapons’ Ban?”, Reason, 6/21/2016, https://reason.com/2016/06/21/what-will-gun-controllers-do-when-americ/
38) John Crump, “FOIA Request Confirms Zero Standard Capacity Magazines Turned In to NJ State Police”, Ammoland, April 16, 2019, https://www.ammoland.com/2019/04/foia-request-confirms-zero-standard-capacity- magazines-turned-in-to-nj-state-police/#ixzz67H8C6eau
39) Ibid, Tuccille.
Barrondec James., “Nation Reels After Gunman Massacres 20 Children at School in Connecticut”, The New York Times Company, December 14, 2012. https://www.nytimes.com/2012/12/15/nyregion/shooting-reported-at-connecticut- elementary-school.html
Bertilsson, J., U. Petersson., P. J. Fredriksson., M. Magnusson., P. A. Fransson., “Use of Pepper Spray in Policing: Retrospective Study of Situational Characteristics and Implications for Violent Situations”, Police Practice and Research, 2017, 18:4, 391-406, DOI: 10.1080/15614263.2017.1288119
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Crump, John., “FOIA Request Confirms Zero Standard Capacity Magazines Turned In to NJ State Police”, Ammoland, April 16, 2019, https://www.ammoland.com/2019/04/foia-request- confirms-zero-standard-capacity-magazines-turned-in-to-nj-state-police/#ixzz67H8C6eau
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Parry, George., “Mass Shootings in Gun-Free Zones”, The American Spectator, August 7, 2019, https://spectator.org/mass-shootings-in-gun-free-zones/
Reilly CA., Crouch DJ., Yost GS., “Quantitative analysis of Capsaicinoids in fresh peppers, Oleoresin Capsicum and Pepper Spray Products.”, J Forensic Sci, 2001;46(3):502–509.
Howard County, Maryland resident Brian Bissett is the author of two peer-reviewed books on Data Analysis.