Rapid Response: 4 key takeaways from the Fla. high school shooting

If we want to make a dent in mass shootings like the one in Florida, we need to fix our mental health system


A 19-year-old man shot and killed 17 students and adults at a high school in Parkland, Florida, and wounded many more. The man is in police custody after he surrendered to them “without incident.”

We will learn more about this horrific crime as the investigation continues, but even at this early stage, we can identify useful pieces of information from the reporting to highlight several longstanding truths about these rapid mass murder incidents:

1. We have a mental health crisis in America.

Family member embrace following a shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, Wednesday, Feb. 14, 2018, in Parkland, Fla. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)
Family member embrace following a shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, Wednesday, Feb. 14, 2018, in Parkland, Fla. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)

There will be a predictable focus on the tool used by the killer by some people with a political agenda, but the real story here is about a young man who had mental and emotional problems, and didn’t get the right help for them.

We’ve already heard reports from people claiming that “everyone predicted” the man would snap and commit violence. Reportedly, the man had previously been suspended from the school where he committed the murders for “unspecified behavior problems,” and made statements on social media that he aspired to become a “professional school shooter.”

We can’t say with any certainty right now, but it’s likely that in the coming days we will discover a pattern of behavior indicating this man needed professional help that he didn’t get for some reason.

Cops will be the first to tell you that the mental health system in America is broken, because they’re the ones who inherited the primary burden of dealing with the mentally ill after we deinstitutionalized mental health care in the 1970s. With nowhere else to go, many of these ill people wound up in the criminal justice system, which is ill-equipped to handle their needs. Most of the rest wound up on the streets, with no help at all.

If we want to make a dent in mass shootings like the one in Florida, we need to fix our mental health system and ensure that the people who obviously need help are getting it.

2. Our schools deserve better security.

While there was an armed school resource deputy on campus at the time of the shooting, he never encountered the shooter, according to the Broward County Sheriff's Office. It’s reported that a football coach – who also served as an unarmed security officer – bravely responded to the attack and shielded students from harm.

In this day and age, it’s unacceptable for a school – any school, be it public or private, regardless of student age – to operate without an armed security presence on site. There is no combination of passive security measures, defensive architecture, or unarmed security that can adequately protect our most precious resource – our children – from an armed attacker intent on destruction. The only thing that can properly defeat an armed attacker is a defense manned by trained and armed personnel.

Please note, this does not have to be a police officer. Programs such as the Transportation Security Administration’s Federal Flight Deck Officer program or the Buckeye Firearms Association’s FASTER program have ably demonstrated how selected volunteers can be trained to provide a necessary layer of defense, and act as on-scene first responders, while more capable resources (the police) are summoned. Furthermore, such volunteers can act as force multipliers even if a School Resource Officer (SRO) is assigned to the school, and can fill in the gaps for those occasions when the SRO is not on campus.

We trust our teachers and school staff with our children’s welfare every day. We trust them to protect our children from dangers such as fires and natural disasters, so we should also be willing to train and equip the suitable volunteers among them to defend our children against armed violence.

3. Enemy tactics are improving.

The killer reportedly wore a gas mask and had smoke grenades, setting off a smoke alarm to flush students from their classrooms, where they could be more easily targeted. In an environment where a lockdown is the predictable response to an active killer threat, today’s killer found an easy way to short circuit the defense by using the school’s own fire response protocol against them.

This denotes a rather sophisticated level of planning and tactical awareness that shouldn’t surprise anyone in this audience. We know these killers study the successes and failures of other killers, and make continuous improvements to their game. They adapt their tactics and their weapons to ever-changing conditions, managing to retain the initiative. We should expect this cycle to continue.

4. We cannot relax our efforts.

As a result, we cannot afford to rest. We too must seek continuous improvement in our tactics, training and equipment, and must never allow our preparations to grow stale. We must stay abreast of the latest enemy tactics, and organize flexible, responsive defenses that can quickly adapt to the situation.

Among other things, attention should be paid to:

  • Developing more comprehensive security protocols for our schools than simply relying on “lockdown” tactics;
  • Ensuring our schools have a trained, armed security presence;
  • Providing vehicle-pedestrian exclusion in public areas and venues;
  • Eliminating fictional “gun-free zones” that only disarm the law-abiding, but leave criminals free to terrorize and injure innocents;
  • Teaching hemorrhage control basics to the public;
  • Integrating law enforcement and fire-EMS assets;
  • Honing the tactics for the joint deployment of these police-fire-EMS resources.
  • Integrating EOD into our tactical teams, and ensuring those teams are nimble enough to respond to the complex, coordinated attacks that we know are coming.
  • Providing meaningful safety education and training to employees, instead of pretending that they are suitably trained because we have a “Run, Hide, Fight” poster on the wall in the break room.

Stay Alert

The mass murder in Florida was horrific, but it was not unforeseeable. We don’t know the details of when or where, but we know another tragic scene like this is on the horizon.

It’s incumbent on us, as the guardians of public safety, to take advantage of the time we have and ensure that we are using it to prepare for the next event like this. Hopefully, the citizens in your area will never be the target of a mass killer, but we can’t count on that.

Work hard. Stay alert. Be safe.

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