Author: Chief Joel F. Shults, Ed.D.
The scene is familiar. Lines of high school students filing out with hands on top of their heads, watched closely by a phalanx of helmeted police officers with rifles at the ready. Is this really every school attack response planner’s end game? Should it be?
The purpose of evacuation is to move students and staff from a high-risk environment to a low-risk environment. This formula, designed with orderly demobilization of an active scene in mind, must also calculate the risk of the evacuation movement itself. We could also justify evacuation by claiming that we are moving from an uncontrolled environment with unknown risks to a controlled environment with known low risks. But are these assumptions accurate? Here are some arguments for re-evaluating evacuation and reconsidering protecting in place.
The irony of 20 years of active shooter drills in schools is that nearly every potential school shooter has had multiple practice sessions since preschool. Since 95% of shooters are current students of the school they attend the attacker can predict student movement once an alarm is sounded or shots are heard.
In a review of fatalities on school property, after eliminating suicides and killings of specific targets resulting from domestic disputes, we can calculate that students are safest behind a locked door with their teachers. With the exception of the 2007 Virginia Tech mass shooting, the lack of injuries to students in locked classrooms shows that this is likely the safest place to be during an attack. Readers will recall that the Sandy Hook shooter shot his way into the front entrance, but should note that he shot out enough glass in the entry to walk through without opening a locked door, and did not injure students who were behind locked classroom doors.
Risks of movement
A mass relocation of students requires clear communication from a person clearly in charge. The task of directing dozens or hundreds of students to staging points and areas of perceived safety exposes students who are moving slowly and closely to each other, putting them in a tactically indefensible condition. We envision that the line will be closely watched by officers, but the reality of coordinating the required number of officers, many of whom will have responded from various jurisdiction, can not likely guarantee a strong police presence escorting the evacuees.
Students who flee the building instead of remaining in a locked-down classroom may survive or may become an easier target. Accounting for students who have fled will be a time-consuming effort filled with anxiety for families, responders and school staff. Offenders who begin an attack in a classroom will be problematic, as in Colorado’s Platte Canyon incident, but at least will be contained.
Responders to attacks on schools recognize the real possibility of encountering explosive devices placed in the area before, during, or after an attack. Experts recognize that most of these IEDs are designed to hurt people and not collapse buildings. The Columbine killers attempted to cause a structural collapse but failed. These anti-personnel devices are most likely going to be placed in common areas and areas of egress with the intention of harming as many persons as possible. Evacuation puts students in exactly those paths.
Remaining in a locked classroom provides walls of protection. When rescuers arrive, they can be assisted by students and teachers who would be able to point out suspiciously placed backpacks or packages that a stranger to the room would miss.
School administrators and emergency planners should strongly consider against an automatic evacuation in cases of bomb threats. Following the decision-making guidelines from the Department of Homeland Security and Department of Justice will help in determining which incidents would merit a full or partial evacuation.
One of the most confusing and anxiety-filled processes in the aftermath of a school-related mass casualty incident is getting students back to their families and siblings. If students are allowed to remain in a safe classroom, accounting for students and staff will be much simpler than tracking down students bussed to various other locations. As responders arrive at the staging area and are looking for assignments, scene commanders can team up volunteers to go to classrooms immediately after the unsecured areas of the building have been cleared. The classroom responders can work together to search the room, do triage, and render immediate psychological first aid and guidance.
Any plan that includes evacuation as one option and not a default will have to have consensus among first responders, school administration and parents. Fire drills or any other evacuation drills should never be unannounced. Doing drills trains behavior and improve procedures. There is no merit to surprise drills. “Pop quiz” drills teach students and staff to think every alarm is a drill. Unannounced alerts will be taken more seriously if everyone knows that the pretend ones are always planned and announced.
The emotional urge to flee danger is strong and finds its way into policy and practice. Every campus is unique and only a careful and collaboratively achieved response plan based on the best predictive information we have on hand. Keeping students safe behind a locked door until reunification could be the safest and simplest plan.