Acts of terror in our nation's schools: Can active shooters be stopped?
A critical mechanism in preventing active shooter attacks is the ability to identify a student as a potential threat in the earliest possible stages
By Richard J. Hughbank and David L. Hughbank
In the 2005–06 school year, an estimated 54.8 million students were enrolled in pre-kindergarten through grade 121 attending more than 119,000 public and private schools where six million adults work as teachers or staff2 and “…78 percent of schools experienced one or more violent incidents of crime…”3 Furthermore, preliminary data show that among youth ages 5–18, there were 17 school-associated violent deaths from July 1, 2005, through June 30, 2006 (14 homicides and 3 suicides). In 2005, among students ages 12–18, there were approximately 1.5 million victims of nonfatal crimes at school, including 868,100 thefts and 628,200 violent crimes (simple assault and serious violent crime)4 Here we are only a couple of months into 2008 and school shootings continue to occur at an alarming rate at every level of our education system. From elementary schools to universities, students and teachers alike have become easy prey for anyone bold — or psychotic — enough to carry a weapon on school grounds and into a classroom.
Here’s a compilation and description of school involved shootings through the end of February 2008:
• January 8, 2008: Ashville, NC: A 16-year-old male fired two to four rounds from a gun after walking into the center of a high school. No one was injured.
• January 11, 2008: Indianapolis, IN: A 17-year-old female and a 24-year-old male were shot after a series of disruptions in the stands at a high school basketball game in which the conflict inside the school spilled out in the streets where the shooting occurred.
• January 15, 2008: Warr Acres, OK: A 17-year-old male was shot three times while sitting in his car in a high school parking lot after a basketball game. The bullets reportedly stuck him in the leg, back, and head.
• January 16, 2008: Charlotte, NC: An 18-year-old male student in a charter school was accidentally shot in the shoulder by another 17-year-old male student who was in a car with three others at the school parking lot.
• January 18, 2008: Las Vegas, NV: A 16-year-old student was taken into custody for allegedly shooting at another student outside a high school gym at a school basketball game.
• January 18, 2008: Hemet, CA: A 17-year-old was arrested for firing a gun in a high school parking lot during an altercation with his ex-girlfriend's new boyfriend following a basketball game.
• January 22, 2008: Chicago, IL: An off-duty Chicago police officer shot a 16-year-old male suspended student after he attempted to enter the high school where the officer was working, set off the metal detector, and a security officer found a gun while patting him down.
• January 22, 2008: Gary, IN: Two teens, ages 17 and 18, were arrested for firing a shot at a third teen outside of a Career Center school. A school board meeting was going on inside at the time.
• January 23, 2008: Charlotte, NC: Several shots were fired at a group during an altercation following a high school basketball game.
• January 31, 2008: Independence, MO: A teenager was shot while in a high school parking lot during a school basketball game.
• February 4, 2008: Memphis, TN: A 16-year-old male high school student was shot in the leg by another male student during an argument allegedly over rap music while the two were in their first period Algebra class.
• February 6, 2008: Los Angeles, CA: A masked male, estimated in the age range of 12 - 14 years old, reportedly went into an elementary school office with a semi-automatic handgun, waved his arms at administrators, and fled the building.
• February 7, 2008: Los Angeles, CA: A young adult male, approximate age 19 or 20, was shot in the shoulder shortly after watching a high school basketball game held on a university campus.
• February 8, 2008: Portsmouth, OH: A 53-year-old fifth grade Catholic elementary school teacher was stabbed in front of her children in her classroom by her estranged husband, who also fired a shot from a gun. He then fled to his home where he committed suicide.
• February 8, 2008: Baton Rouge, LA: Latina Williams, age 23, opened fire during an emergency medical technology class at Louisiana Technical College in Baton Rouge, killing two of her classmates, Karsheika Graves and Taneshia Butler. She then killed herself. Approximately 20 people were in the classroom at the time of the shootings.
• February 11, 2008: Memphis, TN: A 19-year-old male high school student was shot twice by a 17-year-old male fellow student. The suspect allegedly walked up to the victim and shot him twice while the two were in gym class at Mitchell High School. The suspect then reportedly gave the gun to a coach and said, "It's over now." Approximately 75 other students were in the room at the time of the shooting.
• February 12, 2008: Oxnard, CA: Lawrence King, age 15, was declared brain-dead after being shot by Brandon McInerney, age 14. The shooting occurred in a classroom at E.O. Green Junior High School. The killing in the Oxnard classroom was determined a premeditated hate crime and McInerney was charged as an adult.
• February 14, 2008: Dekalb, IL: Stephen Kazmierczak, age 27, and former graduate student at Northern Illinois University, entered Cole Hall with a shotgun and three handguns and opened fire killing five students and wounding 15 others. He then turned a gun on himself and committed suicide. Police found 48 shell casings and six shotgun shells, indicating the number of shots had been fired. School officials have stated there are limits to what any security plan can accomplish.5
A critical mechanism in preventing active shooter attacks is the ability to identify a student as a potential threat in the earliest possible stages of the prevention stage of a crisis management plan. A premade checklist, such as the one listed below, is a viable tool and can be used to assist in determining the emotional characteristics of a given student, faculty member, or administrator:
• Has a history of tantrums and uncontrollable angry outbursts.
• Characteristically resorts to name calling, cursing or abusive language.
• Habitually makes violent threats when angry.
• Has previously brought a weapon to school.
• Has a background of serious disciplinary problems at school and in the community.
• Has a background of drug, alcohol or other substance abuse or dependency.
• Is on the fringe of his/her peer group with few or no close friends.
• Is preoccupied with weapons, explosives or other incendiary devices.
• Has previously been truant, suspended or expelled from school.
• Displays cruelty to animals.
• Has little or no supervision and support from parents or a caring adult.
• Has witnessed or been a victim of abuse or neglect in the home.
• Has been bullied and/or bullies or intimidates peers or younger children.
• Tends to blame others for difficulties and problems s/he causes her/himself.
• Consistently prefers TV shows, movies or music expressing violent themes and acts.
• Prefers reading materials dealing with violent themes, rituals and abuse.
• Reflects anger, frustration and the dark side of life in school essays or writing projects.
• Is involved with a gang or an antisocial group on the fringe of peer acceptance.
• Is often depressed and/or has significant mood swings.
• Has threatened or attempted suicide.6
There are ways of determining and reducing the threat of active shooter such as the checklist above, but also being fully prepared through exercises, safety information sheets posted through out the schools, detailed threat and vulnerability assessments, and constant communication with first responders will increase the chances of surviving these types of incidences.
If the general public subscribes to the statement of the Northern Illinois University administrators that there are limits to protecting the students, teachers, and administrators within a given school, then where does that leave us as a concerned society? The fact is, we are no worse off today with the security of our schools than we were tens years ago. It would appear a trend of extreme violence has begun, primarily involving our students, supported by a tremendous amount of hype within the various forms of media. This new abnormality of excessive school shootings has occurred without much rhyme or reason, and everyone is acutely concerned about how they can secure the grounds of their educational institutions to avoid becoming the next Virginia Tech University or Northern Illinois University.
Having been involved with the safety and security of the cadets and faculty members of one of the United States service academies, current professional experiences clearly demonstrate the warranted concerns of everyone directly involved in the education and welfare of our students, instructors, and administrators. Attempting to create security measures necessary to enhance a school’s protective posture has proved a daunting task and one that requires input from the most experienced in the field of security. Once templated security measures have been drafted and agreed upon during the prevention stage of a crisis management plan, a tabletop exercise could prove a valuable tool in the initial testing of a force protection plan and supporting viable checklists.
The purpose of a tabletop exercise is three-fold:
1. It allows critical players (e.g., security managers, senior administrators, first responders, etc.) an opportunity to come together and work out scenarios at the highest levels before revealing final security measures to the rest of the school.
2. This takes a minimal amount of time to exercise with great operational results.
3. Minimal monies and resources (such as personnel) are needed to fund this rubric exercise.
Determining a school’s various security vulnerabilities and attempting to exploit those obvious weaknesses is critical to establishing a reliable, functional, and practical tabletop exercise. Knowing where your Achilles’ heel lies, how much security is needed to off-set those exposed areas, and how to properly emplace force protection measures should come to the forefront upon the conclusion of such exercises. Once a tabletop exercise has been conducted and all the primary players are satisfied with the final results, it’s time to go back and make the fundamental adjustments found during the course of the exercise. Should the tabletop prove successful, further validation of a security management program is accomplished by conducting a practical exercise involving as many personnel and first responding agencies as possible (minimizing simulated responses and actions lends more realism to exercises while ensuing better training for those involved). The overall results will prove invaluable in establishing institutional security policies and reaction checklists.
Sadly, our nation’s schools have become a haven for active shooters, and we must find a way to prevent, if not mitigate, future acts of terror by these psychopathic individuals. Success can be defined in many ways when it comes to protecting valued resources. Some consider success complete deterrence of an attack, but this is just not a realistic goal. Simply stated, deterrents are only as effective as those you are trying to deter believe it to be. Others might believe a quick and effectual response to an incident qualifies as an accomplishment in the security arena. Regardless of the individual perspective, your institution MUST have a plan in place, it MUST be rehearsed, and it MUST be continuously updated to ensure unfaltering results when an active shooter decides to target innocent students and teacher.
1 U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics. Digest of Education Statistics, 2006. Washington, DC: 2007.
2 U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics. Digest of Education Statistics, 2001. Washington, DC: 2002.
3 National Center for Education Statistics (December 2007). “Indicators of School Crime and Safety: 2007”, p. 22.
4 U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics. Digest of Education Statistics, 2006. Washington, DC: 2007.
5 Data retrieved and compiled from various on-line news reports.
6 National School Safety Center. Retrieved at http://www.schoolsafety.us/ on February 26, 2008.
Richard Hughbank is the Founder and Director of Extreme Terrorism Consulting, LLC and a Major in the US Army with over 20 years experience in the Military Police Corps. He is a certified SRT leader, master antiterrorism specialist, and physical security officer. Richard is currently assigned to the US Air Force Academy where he assists in the development and execution of security and crisis management plans and works for the Center for Homeland Security at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs as a graduate course instructor in terrorism studies and homeland defense. Richard also chairs the Terrorism Studies and Standards committee for the Anti Terrorism Accreditation Board and is a member of the National Center for Crisis Management. His graduate studies are in security management, counseling, and terrorism studies. He can be contacted through his website at www.understandterror.com or at email@example.com.
David Hughbank is the Marketing Director for Extreme Terrorism Consulting, LLC and has over three years of active duty military service. He has over seven years of practical experience in conventional physical security and asset protection with various retail organizations. His areas of working knowledge include close circuit television (CCTV) systems, vulnerability assessments, and perimeter security. David is one of the founding members of Extreme Terrorism Consulting, LLC and can be contacted through his website at www.understandterror.com or at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The views expressed herein are those of the author’s and do not purport to reflect the position of the US Air Force Academy, the Department of the Army, or the Department of Defense.