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The Best Defense

When a person faces a life-threatening situation, like an active shooter, higher analytic functions shut down. But training can ensure that the proper response to the threat occurs almost instinctively. That’s the basis of boot-camp training for soldiers. Police and private security professionals have long understood the need for strong training programs. In the wake of deadly shootings at Columbine and elsewhere, K-12 schools have come to realize that one or more attackers with modern large-capacity weaponry can cause massive loss of life before the police are able to arrive on the scene and intervene. Thus, students and staff will have to confront the threat on their own. Given that reality, schools are starting to put more emphasis on the importance of training students and staff in various response scenarios.

The approaches to active-shooter training are evolving, especially in light of the recent Newtown and Aurora shootings. Not everyone can agree on the best approach, but they all agree that any training program must be tailored to the school, taking into consideration the facility’s layout, the makeup of the classes, and other characteristics.


When a school orders a traditional lockdown, it includes shutting and locking doors, turning off lights, and having students hide as best they can. In some situations, this is still the safest approach. However, in other cases, students end up being defenseless targets for the shooter or shooters to easily and cruelly pick off. This was the case at Columbine when students were shot while hiding under tables in the library. (Though if the students had evacuated at the point that they knew there was a shooter, they may have met the gunmen in the hallway as well.)

Although many schools still teach traditional lockdowns, there has been a movement toward newer approaches that enhance the traditional techniques, says Amy Klinger, educational administration professor at Ohio’s Ashland University, who spoke on the topic at the GovSec conference earlier this year in Washington, D.C. Klinger is also director of programs for the Educator School Safety Network, a nonprofit school training organization.  

Not everyone applauds the newer approaches, however. Kenneth Trump, president of consulting company National School Safety and Security Services, is concerned that people are too quick to discard proven best practices, like lockdowns. While the lockdown and other security measures implemented during the active-shooter situation at Sandy Hook Elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut failed to save the lives of 26 people, those measures did save many other lives in that incident, he says. “There were people who reportedly were in lockdown when the gunman went past the room. So it did not work for all, but it did work for some. So you just don’t summarily throw out decades-plus of best practices,” asserts Trump. 

Proponents of the newer options counter that they are trying to marry the best of the old with something new. “Oftentimes, people think that it’s replacement of lockdown. It’s really not. It’s adding additional components to lockdown that are much more situation-specific rather than just sort of a general response to any particular event,” Klinger tells Security Management.

New Tactics

Two popular active-shooter response-training approaches that go beyond traditional lockdown in active-shooter training are Department of Homeland Security (DHS)-supported “Run Hide Fight,” and ALICE (Alert-Lockdown-Inform-Counter-Evacuate).

The City of Houston used federal DHS funds to produce “Run Hide Fight” as an active-shooter-response video. It instructs viewers that when they are confronted with an active-shooter threat, they should first run out of the building or kill zone if possible; if that’s not possible, they should hide. If hiding securely isn’t an option, they should fight with anything available to end the threat, rather than simply waiting to become the next victim. This approach has won many supporters, and it is part of the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s online active-shooter training program. But it was for the workplace, not schools.

ALICE, a training course developed by former SWAT-team leader Greg Crane, of training company Response Options, is specifically geared toward school shooters. However, the “Run Hide Fight” tools are now used in schools as well. Though both programs include the traditional tactics of evacuating (running) when possible and locking down in a room (hiding) when evacuation isn’t a reasonable option, they also include instruction on how to fight back, which has generated controversy (more on that later).

Evacuation. The evacuation aspect can be difficult. That’s true in a multi-level hotel or a high-rise office building, and it’s no less true in a school. There are often classrooms on several floors, and those rooms may not be near an exit. Additionally, there may not be communication about where the shooter is. But having a plan can help. That’s why Klinger tells Security Management that schools should have certain protocols for when to flee. Klinger said during her presentation that kids who leave tend to survive these attacks.

It’s important to remember that schools have a wide range of communication capabilities. “We work in schools where they don’t even have a PA system,” Klinger says. Others have advanced systems that can send messages throughout the school. But even where communications are good, it’s possible that the person responsible for operating the system will be incapacitated at the start of an attack—or that person may simply not have good information to relay—so there is no telling what sort of information will be passed back to teachers and classrooms. Faculty must be prepared to work with what they’ve got in the moment and use that for quick action.

“When I have information about what’s happening, if I’m at the north end of a building and the active-shooter event is occurring at the south end of a building in the gym, why would I lock the door and sit there, and wait for him to find me? Why would we not remove ourselves from this situation?” asks Klinger.

But running has its risks, because one never knows if the shooter will be along the escape route, and young children might be hard to keep quiet or control in an evacuation, increasing the risk of evacuation, while sheltering in place has fewer risks if the room is secure. “We’re talking about in K-12, with maybe the exception of the lunchroom or the gymnasium, those rooms lock. Even in many of those cases, those rooms lock. And if they don’t, we’re usually putting the kids in the kitchen or in locker rooms,” says Paul Timm, PSP, president of RETA Security.

Bob Lang, assistant vice president for strategic safety and security at Kennesaw State University in Georgia, sees evacuations as one viable option, depending on the circumstances. His school trains teachers to plan out possible evacuations. “So we are training them in what to do when they first walk into their new facility and new classroom and what to look for relative to escape routes...what to look for in figuring out how to get people out.”

In training and conducting drills with the students to prepare them for evacuations during an active-shooter situation, it’s important to stress that those evacuation routes might differ from the ones used daily or during a fire drill, Klinger says. They’ll also need to be taught that doors and windows that they normally wouldn’t think of using might be something they’d need in this unique type of threat situation.

The key is “to make sure kids understand there [are] multiple ways out of a room or out of an area. Especially areas like gyms or cafeterias, where you have large numbers of kids. They’re going to try to go out whatever door they came in as opposed to the four or five other doors that might also lead them to safety,” Klinger says.

Barricading. If there is a closet or a safe room for children to hide in so that it appears there is no one in the classroom, that’s a desirable option and one that has been employed successfully by schools in mass shooting events. But when there is nowhere to hide, a barricade against the door may help deter the shooter or at least stall him while law enforcement arrives. In training, teachers are taught to be aware of the way the door opens. They are taught “to determine whether the door opens in or opens out, [because]..... If it opens out, then you’re not able to barricade the door,” says Lang.

Barricades are going to be makeshift, says Klinger. “You’re not trying to keep this individual out for two hours. You’re trying to keep him out for a very brief amount of time, until he moves on to the next room or until law enforcement arrives or to delay, deter, and defend from that individual. So we use whatever you have—desks, chairs, tables. Whatever you can flip over and put up against a door,” she explains.

Klinger adds that there can be internal barricades also, so children can be barricading within the room, such as behind overturned desks. That way, if the shooter does get through the door, at least it will be more difficult to actually get at anyone, which might buy time to disarm the shooter.

Situational specifics. An important aspect of training is to get teachers to recognize that they will have to make some snap judgments based on the specifics at the time. In Klinger’s training program, faculty are taken into a classroom environment where they can role-play how they would respond in certain scenarios. That way, she explains, they can get the hang of thinking through the scenario and quickly deciding what the best route to take is. This “really helps people to start to understand that there is no right or wrong answer, that there [are] a lot of different options that people could undertake depending on the situation and what they know is happening and so on,” says Klinger.

Teachers are also taught what factors to consider in evaluating the viability of evacuations. For example, if the teacher has a first-floor classroom where there’s a door that leads directly outside the building rather than into a hallway, or if there are windows that the students can climb out of, then evacuation may be feasible and safe—and thus desirable—even if the teacher or students can’t tell where the shooter is.

If the shooter comes at lunchtime, evacuation may also be the best option for those teachers and students in the cafeteria, because there are typically multiple exits in that area, and it’s an open space where it might be harder to find cover from the shooter, says Klinger.

If the teachers are in upper-floor classrooms, however, the only exits will be into hallways, which could be a more dangerous choice if they don’t know where the shooter is; so instead, their best option might be to barricade the room until they get a better sense of the situation.

Fight/Counter. Most people agree that evacuating when possible and barricading when stuck in a room are the right approaches, but there are many dissenters from the idea of fighting back in an environment that involves K-12 students. Trump thinks the ALICE approach, particularly the “counter” portion, is preying on the heightened post-Newtown emotions and isn’t the best way to prepare for a potential active shooter. “You’re asking a kid to take a 20-minute or 40-minute workshop or assembly, and then implement something that people in the public-safety community armchair quarterback every time they have an encounter with someone,” Trump says. Trump notes that the approach doesn’t take various age levels, development stages, and special needs into consideration. He adds that it could open students up to further injury, such as if the shooter has explosives or was only going to commit suicide rather than hurt others.

Moreover, schools that encourage students to attack may be opening themselves to additional legal liability. “One kid stands up and runs to attack the armed gunman and gets shot and killed, somebody’s going to be held accountable. There’s going to be tough questions. What were your policies and procedures? Was this run by your school attorney and approved? Did your school insurance carrier consider this and review this and give you the go-ahead?” Trump states.

Timm agrees that teaching students to fight back might not be the best approach, particularly if the students are in schools where the doors can be locked and the students might be safe in traditional lockdown. “From a liability standpoint, I probably don’t want the kids fighting anybody,” he says. And while he wouldn’t want kids to just be sitting ducks if the shooter gets into the safe room, he worries that if kids are told fighting is an option, they won’t understand that it should only be a last resort. “I just get nervous that whether the kid is 8 or 12 or…even 15, he might have a little cowboy in him and think, ‘I’m going to get that guy. I’m going to sprout a cape and get that guy.’ And maybe even leave the confines of the safe room to do it. I just think it’s not a good idea,” Timm says.

Supporters stress that fighting back is a last resort. “If you’re in a dire situation, you need to go into survival mode and do whatever you have to do to have a chance to live,” Linda Watson, CPP, security consultant with Whirlaway Group LLC says. She adds, “We know these kids aren’t cops. They’re not trained in martial arts. They’re just little kids going to school…. But do you sit there paralyzed, or do you say, ok, if we have to fight, we fight?”

“Ninety percent of our time training is on evacuation and barricading. We also spend time talking about violence-prevention measures. We talk about how teachers and school people can think more like an emergency responder, and even with things like communication and calling 911 and how to assist a law enforcement response, all those kind of things,” Klinger says.

“We spend hardly any time…on the counter or fight aspect of it, for a lot of reasons,” she explains. “Number one because there is that pushback. But the primary reason is that when you focus on the fight aspect, everything else gets lost.” Klinger adds that what little training she does do on fighting back includes throwing things and creating diversions to get away. The “Run Hide Fight” video advises people to incapacitate the shooter if possible, by using whatever is available, such as chairs. The video also shows people hiding beside the door so they can catch the shooter off-guard when he enters the safe room.

Emergency Communications

Ensuring that critical information can be communicated during an active-shooter situation is important. Klinger notes that the whole staff should know how to carry out these tasks in case the people who would normally fill those roles are hurt or not available during an attack.

Teachers and other staff throughout the school should be trained not only in how to use the school’s emergency communications equipment but also in how to provide effective information to 911. For example, they should learn to be as specific as possible when giving information to 911 operators or when communicating with the rest of the school; in describing a shooter’s suspected location, for instance, that would mean providing room numbers if possible rather than just providing a wing or a floor.


Experts all agree that it’s not enough just to tell people what they should do. You have to give them a chance to act out those lessons through exercises, both to test their training and to test the protocols themselves. “We have to do drills because there’s only a few times we know if our emergency procedures work and one of those is during the emergency. So that would be an inconvenient time to find out they don’t work,”says Timm. He advocates including local law enforcement agencies in such drills when possible so that there is collaboration and consensus between the school and potential first responders to any incident.

Watson says that going through the motions during drills can make the actions that will be required feel more like second nature to the students should they ever have to respond in a real incident. “We pop up, and we hide under a desk, and we all pull into this room…or we all shelter in place so that it becomes a very natural, not a scary thing, just something that we do maybe once a month or whatever the frequency they feel they need,” says Watson.

Klinger says that for the lockdown enhancement drills, her group conducts “what-if” scenarios, where teachers might find out from the principal whether there is a certain level of lockdown or if there is a shooter in a certain area, and then they have to figure out what the appropriate reaction would be to that particular threat situation. It’s not as crucial for the students to actually practice barricading as it is for them to understand all of the potential evacuation routes, she says.

It is important to drill for a variety of possible situations that could arise with an active shooter. Trump is concerned that some schools do drills that are convenient for them, rather than ones that will be helpful in demonstrating the different problems that might come up during a true emergency. For example, some schools will only do drills in the morning but not when there are lunch periods. “That doesn’t make sense. That’s not good practice,” he states.

The age of the children involved will affect how they are trained in these procedures, says Klinger. “When you’re looking at high-school kids, when you’re looking at secondary kids, I think you can be very open and very forthcoming, [explaining] ‘this is what we’re doing and why,’” Klinger says.

However, for elementary students, Klinger says her organization encourages teachers to build on important skills that are already being taught. Among those skills are moving together quickly without pushing or trampling, and obeying certain commands quickly without asking questions. For younger kids, especially, it’s “not necessarily saying ‘this is what we would do if there was a guy with a gun,’ but instead you’re saying ‘this is what we would do if in an emergency we all needed to move quickly away, or if we all needed to get away very quickly, or we all needed to be together.” She adds that these are skills that are transferable to other extreme situations, such as a weather emergency.

John Bruner, founder of In-Crisis Consulting, compares drills to game-day training in professional sports; for example, football players will practice with loud crowd noise being pumped in so they get used to playing in hostile stadiums. He says he has at times used simulated gunfire during drills with teachers and faculty to simulate the noise and smell of gunpowder that might send the individuals into fight or flight responses. He adds, however, that they would only do this when students are not at the school and with advance notice to participants and cooperation from local police and public safety.

“Even though [they] know what’s going on…I’ve seen teachers at the end get a little emotional and start crying because they’ve gotten a true feel for what this feels like,” says Bruner.

Some schools go even farther and use the sounds of live gunshots on drills with student participants. Those sorts of drills may do more harm than good, however, according to Stephen Brock, school psychology professor at California State University in Sacramento and a member of the emergency assistance team for the National Association of School Psychologists. Brock worries that many children are going to be upset and potentially traumatized by being exposed to that type of training.

Brock also says that training for an active shooter could have the effect of making young children, in particular, view schools as violent, scary places, even when their schools are safe. It can help to avoid referring to the events as active-shooter drills and to reassure younger children that the school and the teachers are there to protect them, he says. However, he questions whether active-shooter training is an effective use of school resources. He says limited dollars and time might be better spent preparing for other incidents, including natural disasters like earthquakes and tornadoes.

Other experts agree that schools must not forget about the natural disasters that Brock mentions and other emergencies that need to be prepared for. Watson says that emergency managers should consider using an all-hazards approach because tornadoes and hurricanes occur more frequently than active shooters. Considering the high consequences of this type of low-probability event, however, it is understandable why some schools find it worth a portion of their limited resources.