15 years after Columbine: 15 'big ideas' for stopping school massacres

“We need to make a stand right now that our schools need to be the most important thing we have in this country — not Wall Street, not Capitol Hill, our schools.” — Coach Frank Hall


Quick: What is ‘the one big idea’ you’ve had — or heard — which would significantly reduce the severity and frequency of active murderers in American schools? Got one? Good. Hold that thought.

It’s been exactly 15 months since the massacre at Sandy Hook elementary school, and almost exactly 15 years since the massacre on Columbine high school. “Columbine changed everything” is a common refrain. From a police-response perspective a lot did change — no more would containment be an acceptable tactic while gunfire continued unabated inside that perimeter. 

However, all the changes following Columbine — from TCCC to IARD training and tactics — were insufficient to keep those 20 little angels at Sandy Hook from being slaughtered. Even after the mass murder in Newtown, there were incidents in places like Pittsburg (Pa.), Sparks (Nev.), and Taft (Calif.). Clearly, we have room for improvement.

Five Solutions from PoliceOne Experts
Law enforcement is an ever-evolving profession filled with men and women devoted to learning new and better ways to ensure the safety and security of the citizens they’ve sworn to serve and protect. Preventing and responding to school massacres may have the potential for our most creative thinking. 

This brings me to my opening question.

It was a trick question.

There is no one big idea.

There are myriad ideas from which we may build layers of solutions based on local needs. What follows are 15 thoughts I’ve had, heard, and/or written about. Add yours in the comments area below.

Let’s roll.

1.) The Five Phases of the Active Shooter
PoliceOne Columnist Dan Marcou devised his Five Phases of the Active Shooter as a way to identify and interdict potential problems before they occur.

On the same day the Sandy Hook massacre happened in Newtown, another attack was prevented because students, parents, teachers, and police — whether or not they consciously knew it at the time — used the Five Phases to prevent 17-year-old Sammie Eaglebear Chavez from executing his plan to execute his classmates.

By way of reminder, those five phases are: 

1.) Fantasy
2.) Planning
3.) Preparation
4.) Approach
5.) Implementation

Dan’s concept of the Five Phases is one of the best ideas I’ve ever heard on the topic of preventing school massacres — all active killers, actually — and I think the National Education Association should mandate that all educators be educated on the Five Phases. 

2.) Modern Day Minutemen
PoliceOne Columnist Dick Fairburn has presented the concept of posting modern-day Minutemen — a force comprised of retired police and military personnel as well as a select group of legally armed citizens — in and around our schools. 

Fairburn’s proposal includes retired coppers qualified for nationwide concealed carry under the federal Law Enforcement Officer’s Safety Act (HR 218), military veterans who would be given specific training on legal use-of-force, and “the millions of U.S. citizens who have jumped through the legal hoops necessary to obtain a CCW permit in their state.”

In his column on the topic, Fairburn wrote, “Virtually every mass killing in recent memory has occurred in a gun-free zone. We must authorize our Minutemen to carry everywhere, especially in gun-free zones.”

3.) OODA Loop for Public Safety
PoliceOne Contributor Don Alwes told me recently that while we seem to be doing a better job of identifying and interdicting these threats, and that concepts like Run, Hide, Fight help in the areas of victim inoculation and empowerment, he sees opportunity to close the gap between the duration of these events and the time it takes for public safety professionals to respond to them. 

“One idea I just don’t hear people talking about is shortening the 911 process,” Alwes said. 

“We talk a lot about the OODA Loop for the individual, but there’s also an OODA Loop for the public safety process. Somebody has to see something and recognize what it is. They have to call 911. The call taker has to process it, the dispatcher has to dispatch it, the officer has to go to the scene, and all that takes longer than what these situations tolerate.”

Perhaps when a PSAP receives multiple, simultaneous 911 calls from a predetermined, geo-fenced location such as a school or other “soft target” in a given jurisdiction the system could automatically generate an alert to all MDTs and LMR radios about “an unspecified event” underway at that location. There would have to be measures taken so that such a system isn’t abused but it might be nice to have that tool in the toolkit. 

4.) Sirens on Sticks
Speaking of the OODA Loop, here’s a thought (a Doug Wyllie original): We know that most of these murderers kill themselves at the sound of the approaching sirens. This being the case, wouldn’t it make sense to put sirens on sticks at strategic locations surrounding our schools? Wire them to a bank button in the principal’s office. Maybe enable their activation by the 911 call taker. 

Even if the assailant doesn’t commit suicide when those sirens start blaring, you’ve at least given them something else to think about and broken into their OODA Loop. 

5.) The Cubicle of Life
PoliceOne Member Stan Cohen calls for small — and affordable — changes to the layout of the furniture in the classroom itself which would create places for students to hide from an active killer in the hallway. Cohen’s suggestion is called “The Cubicle of Life” and he has already implemented his solution in at least one school (in the interest of operational security, I will leave it at that). The two images above show two different views of the hiding place.

Admittedly, this offers little more than simple concealment, but according to reports, first-grade teacher Kaitlin Roig closed and locked the door to her classroom at Sandy Hook elementary, hiding her students out of sight of the door. Likely thinking that room was totally empty, the killer kept going, and those children survived the attack. If you want to learn more about this idea, simply send Stan and me an email.

Ten More Ideas for Consideration
Anyone who has followed my column in the past half-decade knows that I’ve written about myriad other ideas, such as:

6.) Placing air horns in fire extinguisher cases for teachers to sound an alert
7.) Training and arming a select group of properly vetted school staff
8.) Putting floor plans for every school in the jurisdiction at every officer’s fingertips
9.) Equipping cops with patrol rifles, ballistic shields, breaching tools, and tourniquets
10.) Having cops do their paperwork in squads parked in front of schools
11.) Parking empty squads in school parking lots in a ‘shell game’ of sorts
12.) Deploying LMR radios in classrooms for teachers to talk with arriving cops
13.) Installing Makrolon Hygard bullet-resistant polycarbonate sheeting on windows and doors
14.) Using use a decommissioned school building to conduct scenario training
15.) Conducting multi-disciplinary training involving students, teachers, and staff

Learning from the ‘Regular Guy’ 
By my reckoning, that’s 15 ideas to mull over. I’ll end with one more — call this one the bonus — because if there actually is “one big idea” in all of this, it may perhaps be found in the words of Coach Frank Hall. 

Hall is the high school football coach and study hall teacher — and self-avowed “regular guy” — who chased a 17-year-old murderer from Chardon High School in February 2012. 

During an interview with 60 Minutes, Coach Hall said, “We need to find ways to secure our schools better. We need to make a stand right now that our schools need to be the most important thing we have in this country — not Wall Street, not Capitol Hill, our schools. We need to determine that in our minds and hearts, that our schools and our children need to be the most important thing we have.”

Amen, Coach.

About the author

Doug Wyllie is Editor in Chief of PoliceOne, responsible for setting the editorial direction of the website and managing the planned editorial features by our roster of expert writers. An award-winning columnist — he is the 2014 Western Publishing Association "Maggie Award" winner in the category of Best Regularly Featured Digital Edition Column — Doug has authored more than 800 feature articles and tactical tips on a wide range of topics and trends that affect the law enforcement community. Doug is a member of International Law Enforcement Educators and Trainers Association (ILEETA), an Associate Member of the California Peace Officers' Association (CPOA), and a member of the Public Safety Writers Association (PSWA). Even in his "spare" time, he is active in his support for the law enforcement community, contributing his time and talents toward police-related charitable events as well as participating in force-on-force training, search-and-rescue training, and other scenario-based training designed to prepare cops for the fight they face every day on the street.

Read more articles by PoliceOne Editor in Chief Doug Wyllie by clicking here.

Contact Doug Wyllie

  1. Tags
  2. School Violence
  3. Active Shooter
  4. Juvenile Crime
  5. Juvenile
  6. Newtown
  7. Sandy Hook
  8. Columbine

Recommended Police Trainers

Join the discussion