Mass Casualty Knife Attacks at Schools not Neccesarily a New Phenomenon

People who have seen me keynote conferences over the past five to six years are familiar that I often run through a series of mass casualty school attacks involving edged weapons.  I have blogged on this topic several times in recent years because we have noted a pattern for these types of attacks.  My officers worked two multiple victim edged weapons assaults committed by students during my ten-year tenure as a school district police chief in Bibb County, Georgia.  Having been attacked with edged weapons on a number of occasions and having been cut once with a box cutter, I have had a deep respect for what someone can do with a blade. 

One of our concerns about the intensive focus on active shooter incidents in schools in recent years has been that this often results in school and public safety officials failing to prepare for events like the attack that took place in a Pennsylvania high school. The majority of school crisis plans in this country have no relevant protocol for this type of attack or even the far more typical edged weapons assaults. 

This week’s tragic attack should be a stark warning to us all that focusing intently on active shooter incidents is not a balanced approach.  We have noted other attack patterns such as those involving fire as a weapon in school attacks that are still frequently overlooked in many school security approaches.  While it is not possible nor even perhaps logical to attempt to address every possible attack methodology, we should learn from past incidents over a long time span and with a global perspective.  As this week’s incident shows, international patterns can become a local issue very rapidly and with significant outcomes.  This week’s attack follows hundreds of serious injuries and deaths in K12 schools from incidents involving mass casualty edged weapons attacks in other countries.  We felt this was such a significant pattern that we discuss it in the introduction for our new book Staying Alive – How to Act Fast and Survive Deadly Encounters.  

When we started writing more than a year ago, we decided to include several references to mass casualty attacks involving edged weapons and fire. We continue to urge educators and their public safety partners to be sure they are using the all-hazards approach to school crisis planning. 

School Knife Attacks – Why Focusing Pervasively on Active Shooter Incidents can be Dangerous

National media are reporting that as many as twenty students have been stabbed at Franklin Regional High School near Pittsburgh this morning.  Mass casualty attacks with edged weapons at K12 schools have taken place before in the United States and particularly in Asia.  As we have described in previous blogs, hundreds of students and school staff have been killed and injured in edged weapons attacks in schools in the Peoples of China in recent years. 

These types of attack have been so prevalent globally that we discuss them several times in our new book Staying Alive – How to Act Fast and Survive Deadly Encounters.  We have been deeply concerned for some time now that the pervasive focus on active shooter incidents may leave schools vulnerable to alternative mass casualty attack approaches like today’s attack.

As we have pointed out before, the problem of mass casualty edged weapons assaults is exacerbated by the intensive focus on active shooter incidents which can leave school staff and students ill prepared for an array of other types of attack methodologies.  As fire, edged weapons, explosives, and other types of weapons have often been used for mass casualty school attacks, it is important that prevention, preparedness and response measures be broad enough to address any type of attack that occurs.

School Tornado Planning – Separate Action Steps for Tornado Watch and Tornado Warning in your School Crisis Plans

We review many school crisis plans each year.  There are recurrent patterns involving opportunities for improvement that we notice.  I have found one of these patterns in several school crisis plans I reviewed in recent weeks.  This involves lumping the same action steps for tornado warning and tornado watch into one set of action steps.  Barring unusual circumstances, schools typically have different sets of action steps for each of these different situations.  Attempting to use the same set of action steps for both could prove to be dangerous.  If your schools are in an area where tornadoes can occur and the severe weather protocols do not provide different action steps for tornado warning and tornado watch, it would be a good idea to work with local fire service and/or emergency management personnel to update your plans.

School Security Expert Tip – Outside Numbering for School Crisis Situations When it is Helpful and when it can be Potentially Dangerous

For a number of years, we have advised many of our clients to consider using large numbers and when possible, directional lettering (i.e. 1W for a front exterior door facing the West).  This can help emergency responders arrive faster at the location at a school where they are needed when seconds count.  This approach can also be helpful for daily wayfinding, helping visitors locate the appropriate door during a special event, or even for improving communications for maintenance requests.  Our preference is for schools to place these numbers above the door on the exterior for outside way finding and low on the interior to help occupants evacuate in the event of a fire.

There are, however, times when external numbering could prove to be helpful to an aggressor.  For example, during an assessment project for an independent school overseas, we advised a client not to utilize exterior door numbering.  The school is at unusually high risk for terrorist attacks and is surrounded by a high privacy wall to make it harder for terrorists to conduct surveillance of the school.  The campus is rather large with many buildings and can be difficult for someone who is not familiar with the layout to navigate.  Due to unreliable law enforcement response in the region, we felt the benefits of this type of numbering were outweighed by the risks of terrorists being able to more rapidly locate victims in an attack on the campus.  Trusted armed security personnel who would respond to an attack can utilize printed virtual tours and their familiarity with the campus for emergency wayfinding.

In the U.S., a far more common hazard involves situations where classroom and office numbers are placed on outside windows.  This could allow someone coming to a school to attack or attempting to abduct a specific person to more easily locate a particular victim or group of victims.  We suggest school and public safety officials weigh the advantages and disadvantages of this approach before marking individual rooms on the outside of the building.   


Death by lockdown? Questioning “Proof” that Lockdown is a Failed Concept

Though the specific remedies recommended may vary, a number of people have suggested that school lockdowns are a failed concept that should be replaced.  The solutions offered typically center around options focused heavily on teaching people to attack an active shooter as a last resort.  There has been considerable controversy about these options with no real consensus among school safety experts, law enforcement officials, or educators regarding these approaches. 

We feel that while it is important to discuss, consider, and most importantly, to properly test these approaches, it is even more important that we carefully evaluate the idea that lockdown is a failed concept.  Much of the discussion surrounding this assertion has relied heavily on emotional language with statements that are questionable at best.  For example, we have seen repeated references to fatality rates for occupants of individual rooms which do not accurately reflect overall survival rates for the facilities where shootings have occurred.

We have also seen repeated references to lockdown failure that do not match the facts of shootings that are cited as examples of “proof” that lockdown does not work.  For example, we have seen repeated examples citing deaths in classrooms that did not have locks on the door, where staff had not been issued keys, where no lockdown training has been provided, or where no lockdown drills had been conducted.  Using such questionable rationale as “proof” that lockdown is a failed concept should raise red flags.  If you have a solid basis for an assertion, you should not have to stretch to make a convincing argument.

I have repeatedly seen references to the Red Lake Reservation school shooting as “proof” that lockdown is a failed concept.  Having worked that case as an expert witness, I can firmly state that this is not a factually accurate assessment.  Neither I nor the other school security expert who evaluated that case reached that conclusion.  In addition, there was never an allegation of this in any of the many civil actions filed in this case.  Another case that has been used as an example involves the hostage situation in Bailey, Colorado.  One popular active shooter program includes statements that indicate the hostages remained passive and compliant and indicates that the students should have attacked the hostage-taker.  In this case, one student was shot and killed when a police tactical team made a dynamic entry in an effort to neutralize the aggressor because it was apparent that he was going to shoot hostages.  Suggesting that the teacher and students should have attacked the hostage-taker in this example is in contrast to the approach recommended by leading experts in hostage situations.

Some who make these arguments also incorrectly and repeatedly put forth the notion that all traditional lockdown approaches teach people to passively await execution should an active shooter breach a locked classroom door.  Many school districts have been teaching staff to deviate from their emergency plans for more than two decades.  We have long referred to this concept as “Permission to Live.”  Contrary to common assertions, there are ways to prepare staff to adapt to extremely rare and unusual situations like an active shooter breaching a locked classroom door without focusing the majority of instructional time on specific techniques used to subdue an aggressor.  It is important to note that thus far, not one of the students or school employees who have successfully subdued an active shooter has been a graduate of any of the training programs which teach people to attack an active shooter.   We also feel it is critical to remind people that while some active shooters have been stopped by students and staff who attacked an active shooter, a number of school employees have been shot and killed unsuccessfully attempting to disarm people with guns in schools.

While we agree that new and improved concepts can and should be developed, we feel it is critical that theoretical high-stakes changes this controversial, should be carefully tested and validated before thousands of people are trained in their use.  If the concepts are valid, they will withstand independent evaluation.   If assertions used to sell such concepts are accurate, verifiable statements should be used to convince people who are reluctant to embrace and implement them.

School Security Expert News – Man Brandishing gun shot by Columbus State University Police Officers

Police Chief Rus Drew from the Columbus State University Police Department in Columbus, Georgia confirmed that a suspect had been shot and killed by Columbus State Police.  Chief Drew told reporters that the man was shot and killed after a foot chase.  According to reports, Columbus State Police responded to a report of a man with a gun and the man fled when officers arrived.  Initial reports indicate the man may have pointed a gun at officers before he was shot.  The Georgia Bureau of Investigation is conducting an independent investigation of the incident as is a common practice for officer involved shootings in Georgia.

School Safety Expert Tip – Carefully Consider Traffic Hazards as Part of the School Safety Assessment Process

Steve Satterly has been working on a study contrasting the relative risk of death for fatal school-related traffic incidents and other types of safety incidents in relation to deaths from active shooter incidents in K12 schools.  The results of the data analysis are clear, far more people are killed in school-related traffic incidents than in K12 active shooter situations. In fact, even when counting acts of violence in all categories, the fatality rate for school-related transportation incidents is still higher. 

While school and public safety officials in every community should take the risk of active shooter incidents seriously, they should not do so to the exclusion of more common causes of death in American schools.

Though media coverage may intently center on mass casualty acts of violence, it is important to expend time, energy, and resources to address all forms of risk rather than only those that receive intensive media coverage.   One opportunity to reduce the risk of serious injury and death for students involves a careful evaluation of pedestrian safety as students arrive and depart from school each day.  Take the time to consider this very real type of school safety hazard.

School Safety Expert Tip – Consider GIS Mapping Studies to Improve Student Supervision and to Reduce Risk

During a recent meeting with clients, Bill Miller who is one of our adjunct analysts, explained to district personnel how one large urban school district had reduced incidents, out of school suspensions, and expulsions by as much as 50% using GIS mapping surveys of students to identify hotspots combined with improved student supervision at those locations.  In this instance, the school district worked with local law enforcement to utilize a GIS mapping software the police department had to conduct GIS mapping studies of high schools.  Bill related that this process had provided an invaluable tool for building and district administrators.  This approach can dramatically improve school safety, security, climate and culture.



School Safety Architecture

I had the great pleasure to work with an extremely talented group of school safety experts recently.  I had an opportunity to work with a nationally recognized Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design (CPTED) expert Tod Schneider along with a group of architects and engineers from Parkhill, Smith and Cooper (PSC).   PSC staff included Allan Wolf, Ken Johnson and Miles Hardaway who is both an engineer and an architect.  PSC has more than 350 staff with about 60 of them assigned on school construction projects full-time.  Ken Johnson has worked on approximately 150 Department of Defense projects around the globe and has an extraordinary base of experience in school safety architecture. 

Our team was evaluating the school safety architecture design approaches being used by large school district as part of a larger school safety assessment project.  I also had the opportunity to work with engineer Jonathan Zeigner for a week to evaluate traffic flow in relation to school safety a few weeks before for the same project. 

I have been blessed to have had the opportunity to work with a number of really sharp architects and engineers on these types of projects and always learn new things.  I have found these professionals are very good at taking the time to explain building design concepts to me in terms I can understand.  I have also had the privilege to work with Tod on a number of occasions and have learned new things from him on each occasion.  A quiet, bright, and thoughtful man, Tod is always a true joy to work with on school safety architecture projects.

Visiting an array of prototype schools, reviewing blueprints, and talking with a number of exceptional building administrators, security personnel, school resource officers, and district facilities personnel, our team was able to identify a number of opportunities for improvement for a school district that is already well above average in the area of school safety architecture.  These types of projects are truly fascinating and it has always impressed me how a good architect or engineer can break down fairly complex design concepts so building administrators, school resource officers, and folks like me who lack their technical background so we can understand them.

I am really looking forward to my next opportunity to work with another team of architects and engineers in a different school system next month to evaluate school safety architecture once again.

Free School Safety Guide Near Completion

Safe Havens International recently completed its sixth statewide school safety assessment project for the Maine Department of Education.  As we have done with previous state school safety assessment projects, our team agreed to work on a pro-bono project to supplement our work on the project.  We are nearing completion of a free web-delivered guide which outlines twenty no-cost and low-cost school safety strategies based on our findings from school safety assessment projects around the nation.  Drawing on their experiences in assisting with school safety assessments for more than 6,000 K12 schools, our analysts have seen specific patterns of school safety issues.  The authoring team attempted to focus on twenty topics that are practical for the average school or district to address without a major budget impact.

We will post a blog with link to the guide once it is published.