Roundtable: 20 years after Columbine, are our schools safer?

Police response to school shooters has changed dramatically since Columbine, but what work remains to be done to protect our schools?


By PoliceOne Staff

April 20, 2019, marks the 20th anniversary of the Columbine High School shooting in Littleton, Colorado. The two perpetrators, who were twelfth-grade students at the school, murdered 12 students and one teacher and injured 21 others. At the time it was the deadliest school shooting in U.S. history.

The police response to Columbine was heavily criticized at the time, leading to a drastic change in active shooter incident response nationwide. Immediate action rapid deployment (IARD) tactics replaced scene containment, leading to departments training and equipping personnel for solo officer response. While “Columbine changed everything” is a common refrain, events like the Parkland school shooting show we still have room for improvement in how we secure our schools and respond to active killers on campus.

Garrett Bentley looks at a display of crosses for the 13 victims of the massacre at Columbine High School to mark the 10th anniversary of the killings near the Columbine Memorial in the southwest Denver suburb of Littleton, Colo., on Monday, April 20, 2009. (AP Photo/Jack Dempsey)
Garrett Bentley looks at a display of crosses for the 13 victims of the massacre at Columbine High School to mark the 10th anniversary of the killings near the Columbine Memorial in the southwest Denver suburb of Littleton, Colo., on Monday, April 20, 2009. (AP Photo/Jack Dempsey)

We asked PoliceOne editorial advisory board members and columnists to answer the following question: The way law enforcement agencies respond to mass violence in progress has changed dramatically since the Columbine massacre in 1999, but what work remains to be done regarding school safety and active shooter response on campus?

How has your agency’s training for active shooter response evolved in recent years? Share your thoughts in the comments below or email editor@policeone.com.

IMPLEMENT A THREAT MANAGEMENT PROGRAM

Law enforcement has made considerable strides in the way we react to the report of a mass violence incident. We react quickly. We react with superior tactics. We react with all available resources. Unfortunately, we are still being “reactive” rather than being “proactive” in our management of these incidents. Until we seriously embrace a collaborative proactive approach, we will continue to see the high numbers of injuries and deaths associated with the aftermath of a mass violence incident.

One proactive approach for our schools is threat management. The goal of a collaborative threat management team, composed of law enforcement and school officials, should be to successfully address all three phases of a threat management program:

  • Review information to intelligently identify a threat;
  • Select the best available options for mitigating the threat;
  • Monitor the threat behavior until the subject is no longer deemed a threat.

 Lt. Mike Walker is a 27-year veteran of local and federal law enforcement. 

Response means that the incident has already started and by then, lives have surely already been taken. Prevention is the best strategy used to address the individuals who show precursor tendencies. The Las Vegas killer seems to be the anomaly in keeping planning close to the vest, but even he acted suspiciously when he sent his girlfriend away and started scouting his targets and accumulated weapons and ammunition.

Other shooters showed some indicators of violence before their acts, including the Columbine killers. They carefully planned their rampage, assembling pipe bombs at their homes along with their cache of weapons.

Privacy advocates may not like it, but law enforcement and social media providers need to pay attention to pre-event rants, threats and unusual behaviors. Tips from the public need to be thoughtfully investigated, not dismissed. The recent uproar over red flag laws has some law enforcement agencies refusing to act on confiscating guns from individuals reported by friends and family, but, in fact, weapons need to be seized from individuals in times of crisis or instability. The process is not frivolous as some may think, with law enforcement officers required to petition the seizure before a judge, prior to any firearms confiscation. A court proceeding may return the seized weapons in many cases and over the course of the process, tragedy may be averted.

 James Dudley is a 32-year veteran of the San Francisco Police Department where he retired as deputy chief of the Patrol Bureau. He is currently a member of the criminal justice faculty at San Francisco State University.

Columbine did not change the way I was teaching in La Crosse, Wisconsin. We had already experienced an active shooter in a church. I called my training in-progress killing. I taught single officer response and to ride to the sound of the guns. Use the chaos created by the killer as your diversion, bypass the wounded and locate the killer, take the shot and make the shot. Bring to him a noise he will never hear.

I taught before Columbine the need to harden targets and that these killers go through five phases where they can be stopped before bullets start flying, innocents are dying, and families are crying:

  • Fantasy;
  • Planning;
  • Preparation;
  • Approach;
  • Implementation.

I taught if the killing is taking place, SWAT is too slow. It takes an immediate response by honorable gunfighters.

What needs to be done? Many current trainings are slowing the response down all over again. More needs to be done to train how to identify these people before they kill and the legal recourse an officer has when he comes across evidence of an impending attack.

Also, if Facebook and the light can spy on me and tell buyers what I am going to buy next or political parties how I am going to vote, they most certainly should be able to red flag for law enforcement someone who is going to be a mass killer. That is a road not yet taken.

 Lt. Dan Marcou is an internationally-recognized police trainer who was a highly-decorated police officer with 33 years of full-time law enforcement experience. 

COORDINATE INTERAGENCY RESPONSE, INVEST IN PUBLIC READINESS

We’ve made progress in many areas since Columbine, but many significant challenges remain, with two rising to the top.

First, we need to do a better job of integrating fire, EMS and police resources, particularly at the senior leadership levels, to ensure a coordinated response to mass violence. Comprehensive deployment doctrine must be drafted, agreed to and trained. Senior leaders need better training to fulfill their roles as on-scene commanders. Responders from all public safety disciplines need more opportunities to train together and develop an appreciation for how they fit into a collaborative response.

Additionally, public safety leaders need to be more engaged with training, educating and equipping the public to fend for themselves while awaiting outside help. The greatest amount of violence is committed prior to the inevitably delayed police and fire/EMS response, so we must give the public better tools and training to protect and preserve innocent life before professional help arrives. An investment in public readiness will be a force multiplier that will save many lives in mass casualty attacks.

 Lieutenant Colonel (ret.) Mike Wood, author of “Newhall Shooting: A Tactical Analysis”

Law enforcement has clearly focused on and made great strides on the “stop the killing” aspect of school shootings and other intentional mass casualty incidents. Eliminating the threat and stopping the shooting is paramount. In addition, the next phase of school shootings has also been largely embraced by the LE community, that is the “stop the dying” phase by whatever means are available.

Once the threat is mitigated, law enforcement has been using tourniquets and initiating lifesaving medical interventions before EMS arrival into the crisis site. LE is working with the EMS and fire community to quickly establish and create “safe corridors” and secure areas to get medics into the area to manage mass casualties. The concept of the rescue task force has been adopted across the country with a better appreciation for the immediate need to extricate victims and transport them to trauma centers to minimize loss of life. It is great to see many more multi-agency and multi-discipline trainings and exercises to prepare for the worst.

 Jim Morrissey is a former tactical paramedic for the San Francisco FBI SWAT team and the terrorism preparedness coordinator for the Alameda County (Calif.) EMS Agency

REALISTICALLY ADDRESS SCHOOL SAFETY

Columbine was a flash point that ignited our paranoia about school shootings. Wikipedia lists school shooting incidents going back to 1840. Violence in urban schools seldom made the front page. Gunplay in rural areas was noted, but too far removed from the nation's experience to be widely feared. But Columbine was in sight of the peaceful Colorado Rocky Mountains – comfortable, prosperous, mostly white, suburbia.

The savagery of the attack, the evil of its gestation, the innocence of its victims, the normalness of the boys who plotted a much greater devastation than they were able to consummate, and the sheer number of bodies all playing out over agonizing hours of news coverage with vivid video from news helicopters launched from just a few miles away – it was a perfect storm for grabbing the hearts and minds of a nation.

We thought that making a change from securing the perimeter and waiting for SWAT could make a difference. So, we all trained on diamond formations. Even that was too slow, so we began advocating for solo officer response, forgetting that there was an armed school resource officer at Columbine that day.

We've strained resources looking for the predictor killer profile. We've hardened targets, made everyone an ID card, locked our doors, spent millions on consultants, expanded mental health services, established hotlines and practiced active shooter drills. We have no idea if any of these things have stopped killers or saved lives – prevention can never be truly measured.

By now every prospective killer knows what students and staff will be doing if the alarm sounds, because they went through the drills themselves. We know that criminals get guns regardless of laws in place, so that emotional response is toothless. Almost every circumstance of these events is unique and anomalous, making so-called protocols and responses unlikely to go as planned or to have a major effect on prevention and survival.

Two things we know: these events are over by the time the cops get there, and that no children have been killed who were behind a locked classroom door. In some ways our fear of mass shootings is like the fear of child abduction – the things that really threaten our children are overlooked, and the stress and fear imposed on children may do more overall social harm than the events. As soon as we think we have a pat answer, we'd better pray it's never tested.

 Chief Joel Shults, Ed.D, who retired as a chief of police in Colorado, operates Street Smart Training and is the founder of the National Center for Police Advocacy

I believe law enforcement as a profession by and large has done what it can regarding active shooter response on campuses. Yes, we can always train more, but I believe what needs to be done moving forward is for police agencies to work with our campus partners to move away from perceived safety to actual safety.

School security improvements such as driver license readers, locking front entrances and camera installations are sweeping the country and many parents believe these features are making their kids’ schools safer. However, most of these changes are not making schools safer. We must continue to work with our school partners to develop strategies aimed at making schools safer such as limiting access to campuses whenever possible and taking threats seriously. We can’t prevent all aspects of active violence, but we can mitigate them somewhat by focusing on strategies aimed at actual safety as opposed to perceived security.   

— Dr. Booker Hodges has been a police officer for over 13 years and is the assistant commissioner of law enforcement for the Minnesota Department of Public Safety.

First and foremost, every school can benefit greatly by having at least one carefully selected, specially trained school resource officer (SRO) on campus. SROs are often able to prevent school violence by receiving intelligence from the school community through the relationships the SROs build. While strides have been made in providing schools with these specialized law enforcement officers, especially in places like Tennessee and Indiana, too many schools still lack this valuable resource.

Secondly, where SRO programs exist, more must be done to ensure that every SRO receives specialized training to work in schools. Just as a community would not task a police officer with a hostage negotiation or SWAT position without specialized training, it should not place an officer in a school without training specific to that position. Communities that ignore this often find themselves with school police who do not build strong relationships with students and who don’t understand that some behaviors that might result in arrests on the street should be handled differently in schools.

In addition, schools need to pay more attention to the many simple things they can do to help keep attackers out of their buildings. This starts with building a culture in which everyone – including students, faculty, staff and parents – feels ownership of school security. Such a culture can do much to help secure school perimeters. For example, most school buildings have dozens – if not hundreds – of exterior doors to allow emergency evacuation. Every one of these doors is also a potential entry point for an attacker, even doors that are normally locked. With the right culture, everyone in the building understands this and therefore never blocks such a door open or lets anyone into the building through one.

School security personnel must also carry out the simple but important tasks of checking such entry points regularly and reporting any maintenance needs that might, for example, prevent a door from closing properly. They can be assisted with relatively simple technology that can immediately alert them anytime an exterior door is open at time it shouldn’t be.

Of all the available methods to prevent or mitigate school violence, attention to the simplest details can often create significant improvements in safety and security.

— Mo Canady is the executive director of the National Association of School Resource Officers.

INTEGRATE TECHNOLOGY AND TRAINING

The Columbine shooting was the turning point in law enforcement active shooter response. It was determined that responding officers could no longer wait until a tactical unit could engage a suspect, and that each passing moment was critical for saving lives. This is elementary in principle yet challenging to implement. Officers must strike a delicate balance between the rush to save lives and neutralize the shooter versus jeopardizing their own safety in the process.

I wish we could say that 20 years later this response protocol has been mastered. Unfortunately, we have recent examples where law enforcement was criticized for not acting soon enough to prevent further loss of life during school shootings. This also applies to the response to an active shooter in other venues besides schools such as nightclubs, hospitals and workplaces. The question was, is and will always be, “How do officers neutralize an active shooter and preserve their individual safety at the same time?”

While there is no exact answer to this challenging question, there are, however, possible ancillary remedies. Smartphone applications are being developed that could aid in helping law enforcement track the location of an active shooter. There’s also an active dialogue taking place with law enforcement security experts and architects involved in the design and construction of new school facilities. The blend of technology with more safety-conscious school design will provide some assistance during active shooter responses in the future.

In the meantime, the ultimate objective should be the preservation of life, however officers must be vigilant in preserving the basic tenets of officer safety. Chief executives must not waiver in their support for ongoing training and coordinated efforts with police agencies and school staff. We have learned much since Columbine, but there is still more work to be done.

— Paul Cappitelli is an honorably-retired law enforcement professional with over 40 years of experience.

I believe there are four areas where more work needs to be done regarding school safety and active shooter responses on campus:

1. Creating a safer classroom environment

Recent government studies indicate teachers, instructors and professors must work to create a feeling of safety in their classrooms. Teacher education programs need to discuss how to accomplish this. Students who feel safe in their classroom will notify their teachers, instructors and professors of a potential threat. This has worked in preventing school violence, including active shooter attacks. This type of training program needs to be integrated into our K-12, community and college environments.

2. Conduct ongoing tabletop or simulation training

Tabletop exercises involving school and public safety personnel should be done every six to 12 months. All first responder agencies involved in responding to a major school safety incident or an active shooter need to rehearse their response with the school or college personnel in charge of handling these incidents in their environments.

3. Integrate technology into response

Drones are providing first responders with on-site observations into critical incidents. Fires, flood, explosions and other disasters – man-made or natural – occur daily. Drones have been used in these incidents to assist command personnel handling response and recovery efforts. UAS provide critical information for saving lives, evaluating damages and placing resources to mitigate and resolve crisis. As technology continues to evolve, first responder administrative personnel need to continually update their knowledge of the capabilities of new technologies and how to integrate them into disaster response.

4. Ongoing education

Crisis management, school safety incidents and active shooter incidents continue in our country. Emergency directors and educators, along with public safety administrators and emergency management educators, are continually researching new programs and integrating technology and management ideas to improve how these incidents can be prevented or managed. Cloud-based technologies present another incident management tool that can save lives in future responses.

In the 20 years since Columbine, numerous changes have occurred in how first responders handle man-made or natural disasters. Using education, combined with technology and ongoing practice sessions, we may prevent future incidents and, if they do occur, first responders equipped with this type of training may be able to resolve issues quickly.

 Dr. Harry Hueston is a professor of criminal justice at West Texas A&M University and a retired chief of police.

UNDERSTAND THE LONG-TERM TRAUMA OF MASS VIOLENCE EVENTS

In the years since Columbine we have made tremendous strides in the public safety community to prepare for and respond to active shooter events. The policies, practices and training that have been implemented have prevented attacks and saved lives, including attacks in schools and on campuses.

Research collected through the National Police Foundation’s Averted School Violence database has proven many attacks have been prevented as a result of advanced training, improved policies and practices, and collaboration between schools and law enforcement and others responsible for school safety. However, the law enforcement community, in particular, struggles to fully appreciate the magnitude of the trauma generated by mass violence events, and the toll it takes on individual officers, their families and departments. In the words of therapist Dr. Peter A. Levine, "Trauma begets trauma and will continue to do so, eventually crossing generations...until we take steps to contain its propagation.”

As the law enforcement community reflects on the tragedy of Columbine and continues to advance active shooter policies, practices and training, we must also recognize the impact of trauma, and the need for appropriate intervention in the acute phase (immediately following an event), as well as over the long-term to help all survivors, families and first responders heal.”   

Frank Straub, PhD, is director of the National Police Foundation’s Center for Mass Violence Response Studies.

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