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Shedding Light On Sandy Hook

The shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, on December 14, 2012, was the country's deadliest shooting at a primary school. The question of why someone would perpetrate such a brutal attack still looms large for school security professionals, who must prepare for possible active shooter events. In an attempt to shed light on these difficult issues, the Connecticut State Attorney’s Office released a report in November detailing the findings from an ongoing investigation of the shooting.

The document contains information from law enforcement and witnesses, as well as photos related to the investigation, including images of the bedroom of 20-year-old shooter Adam Lanza. While the report concludes that there is “no clear indication” of a motive behind the horrific massacre that killed 20 first graders and seven adults, the materials reveal more about Lanza’s personal life and how he lived in isolation in his mother’s Newtown home.

“The obvious question that remains is: ‘Why did the shooter murder 27 people, including 20 children?’” reads the report. “Unfortunately, that question may never be answered conclusively, despite the collection of extensive background information on the shooter through a multitude of interviews and other sources. The evidence clearly shows that the shooter planned his actions, including the taking of his own life, but there is no clear indication why he did so, or why he targeted Sandy Hook Elementary School.”

The document also details some of the violent paraphernalia Lanza kept in his room. “He had a familiarity with and access to firearms and ammunition and an obsession with mass murders, in particular the April 1999 shootings at Columbine High School in Colorado,” states the report. “Investigators, however, have not discovered any evidence that the shooter voiced or gave any indication to others that he intended to commit such a crime himself.”

Mental health. According to the report, the shooter had extensive mental health issues that “affected his ability to live a normal life and to interact with others, even those to whom he should have been close,” such as his mother. For example, despite living under the same roof, Lanza only communicated with his mother by e-mail. “As an adult he did not recognize or help himself deal with those issues. What contribution this made to the shootings, if any, is unknown as those mental health professionals who saw him did not see anything that would have predicted his future behavior,” says the report.

Dr. Amy Klinger, the director of programs at the Educator’s School Safety Network, an institute that trains educators in security issues, says that the lack of a support network for Lanza is a key takeaway. “The issue that makes Sandy Hook particularly tragic is that when he left high school, all of those supports fell away,” she tells Security Management, citing the fact that Lanza had dropped out of high school at age 16 and began taking college-level classes. “From reading what’s there in the report, it would appear that the isolation became much more severe and some of the behaviors were unaddressed and were accelerated when he wasn’t in school and didn’t have any other contact or support.”

Klinger cites the similarity to the Virginia Tech shooting in April 2007, in which mental health records of gunman Seung-Hui Cho had notes written by his counselors that cited isolation and lack of relationships. “The support falls away, and the isolation begins, and the behaviors accelerate, and the family becomes very isolated because they don’t know how to handle it,” notes Klinger.

She adds that a possible motivation for Lanza’s actions may have been a desire to strike back at the community as a whole, as has been the case in prior school shootings. “The school is the face of the community, which is a really good thing, but it also unfortunately may draw an attacker, as that’s the place to strike back at the society at large,” she says.

Teachers and students from Sandy Hook would not have been able to see any indications of Lanza’s propensity to violence because he never attended the school. But Paul Timm, PSP, president of RETA Security, notes that generating awareness among students and staff about behavioral warning signs is a lesson from any school shooting.

“Awareness becomes a big deal, and it can never begin in a vacuum, you have to have a collaborative approach,” he says, noting that involvement from multiple aspects of the school body is key. “If we’re going to have a collaborative approach, we’re going to include somebody who might be a social worker or a counselor of some kind. We’re going to include an administrator, maybe we’re going to include a student or two but we’re going to begin to get a much more well-rounded view rather than just a single angle of how security should be improved.”

Lessons learned. School security experts say there are several lessons from Sandy Hook that can help schools train their teachers and students to be better prepared for any type of emergency.

“We think the best place to start is having a comprehensive assessment,” says Timm. “That will tell you what measures you already have in place, and sometimes schools don’t even know [about them],” noting that some schools have discovered accordion gates that aren’t in use, or alarms that simply need new batteries.

Timm adds that an assessment helps schools identify where their vulnerabilities exist. After an assessment is taken, a document is written outlining recommended steps and what security measures the school should prioritize.

Timm identifies access control and communications as two extremely important factors. “People love to buy cameras, I love cameras too, but really the chief value is in forensics. People always have a burglar alarm system. I think that’s nice but the burglar alarm really isn’t protecting people,” he says. “But in the Sandy Hook case, it just appears to me that communications and access control were excellent,” says Timm, pointing out that the school did so many things right in terms of security. “So it’s just such a sad situation.”

Klinger emphasizes that training personnel should be part of any security plan. “The important thing going through the Sandy Hook report is the notion of buzzer systems. We have a lot of schools that have purchased a buzzer system and say, ‘Oh good, now we’re safe.’ Well you saw in the photos and in the report how easily [Lanza] breached that buzzer system. So if you don’t have a second and third line of defense, the buzzer system is essentially worthless,” she notes.

Klinger says the second line of defense is adequately training staff in how to screen individuals coming through the building. “We see thousands of times where you walk up, push the button and they let you in. They don’t screen to ask a visitor, ‘what can I help you with,’ or ‘what are you doing here,’ or even to find out what your demeanor is like, if you’re acting suspiciously, so there your first line is getting people who are trained to screen visitors.”

Some aspects of Sandy Hook, however, leave little to be learned for schools, such as the fact that the shooter used heavy weaponry to shoot through a glass entrance. “It’s very unsettling to think about the prospect of somebody forcing their way in like this. It’s an anomaly, we don’t have those incidents, or at least a pattern of those incidents,” says Timm, who points out that schools cannot barricade themselves against every possible type of weapon that might be used by an attacker.