Category School Crisis Issues
Title Lessons Hard Learned and Not Soon Forgotton: A School Mass Shooting Examined
Author/s Philip Scott, Esq.
Preview A School Mass Shooting Examined
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Lessons Hard Learned and Not Soon Forgotten: A School Mass Shooting Examined

 By Philip Scott, Esq.

While there are funding challenges and some laws, rules or regulations may be impediments to better “hardened” schools, our schools’ greatest vulnerabilities exist because of voids in basic security policies and strategies—such as effective Code Red policies, communications/notification systems, locked doors, limited access to campuses and designated hard corners or safe areas within student occupied spaces—that will mitigate harm. Before considering more advanced prevention-based target-hardening school safety strategies through additional funding and/or law changes, which we support, schools must ensure basic harm mitigation procedures and safeguards are in place immediately. [i]  MSDHSPSC Report, 83. (Emphasis added) 

In early 2019 the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Commission (MSDHSPSC) released its initial report on the attack by former student Nickolas Cruz that resulted in the 2018 Valentine’s Day deaths of 17 students and teachers and the wounding of 17 others. These are the hard-learned lessons every Christian school needs to glean from this event.

Missed Opportunities: How the Shooting Unfolded

In the weeks, months and even years leading up to the shooting at least 30 people had knowledge of Cruz’s problematic behavior, including specific threats to shoot up a school, and either did nothing or did share their concerns with authorities but the information was never acted upon.  Some of those individuals notified local law enforcement, others the FBI and at least six shared their concern Cruz may be a potential school shooter with the school’s administration.  Cruz also made many social media posts that foreshadowed his actions, indicated concern about his behavior and his potential for violence.  Those also went unnoticed until the day of the shooting.     

February 14, 2018, Nickolas Cruz entered Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School’s campus at 2:19pm through a pedestrian gate that had been unlocked and opened, that afternoon, for school dismissal.  Likely something Cruz was expecting since he had attended the school.  The gate was not monitored so Cruz, who was dropped off by an Uber, walked onto campus carrying a rifle bag unnoticed until he reached academic Building #12.

Several staff either witnessed Cruz carrying a rifle bag, and identified it as a rifle bag, or were made aware Cruz had a rifle by others; including one staff member who was also aware the school had previously identified Cruz as a potential school shooter.  None of these staff initiated a “Code Red”[ii]. The first signs of trouble for students and teachers in Building #12 was the sound of gunfire.

As a result of gunfire, the fire alarm was triggered introducing confusion and causing some teachers and students to evacuate instead of entering lockdown; still no Code Red had been initiated.  The Code Red was eventually called 3 minutes and 16 seconds after Cruz opened fire.  By that time Cruz had already gone through all three floors and was done shooting individuals in Building #12. 

When teachers and staff were later interviewed, they were generally confused on what criteria there was for a Code Red, who could call one and when it could be initiated.  The investigators found there was no policy, little training, and no drills on the use of a Code Red.  Teachers further shared resistance to making themselves targets by leaving their cover and moving to where communication equipment in the classrooms were to initiate a Code Red.  Consequently, teachers did not lockdown classrooms or the building and some attempted to evacuate when the fire alarm went off putting themselves in further harm. Even if the Code Red has been timely initiated some in or around Building #12 would have still been unaware of the threat.  There were no external speakers to alert those outside of classrooms and outside of the building to a threat.

Classroom doors only locked from the outside requiring a teacher to exit their classroom to lock the door with a key and re-enter from the hallway which many were reluctant to do.  The school had windows in classroom doors but no pre-planned method of covering windows to prevent viewing inside classrooms in an active shooter situation.  Further, of the 30 classrooms only two had identified “Hard Corners”[iii].  Most classrooms had furniture and desk obscuring Hard Corners from being used and consequently some students were visible to Cruz through classroom door windows from the hallway.  The investigators indicate Cruz never entered a classroom but only shot into classrooms at those he could visually see.  Those students who were forced to hide in plain sight became targets.  

By the time area law enforcement was notified there was a shooter on campus, from the initial 911 call, 23 people had already been shot. From the time of the 911 call to the time law enforcement were notified was 69 seconds.  The school did have a Broward County Sherriff’s Deputy, Scot Peterson, posted as a School Resource Officer (SRO) on campus.

Deputy Peterson responded to the area of Building 12 within approximately 1 minute 39 seconds after the first shots were fired. Prior to his arrival 21 victims had already been shot, nine of whom were fatally wounded. This makes clear that seconds matter and that SROs cannot be relied upon as the only protection for schools. Even if there is a rapid response by an SRO, it is insufficient in and of itself to safeguard students and teachers. MSDHSPSC Report, 97.

Once law enforcement arrived at the school, they tried to access the school’s security system without success.  Available school staff did not have knowledge of the camera system and were not able to assist law enforcement in its use. The inability to access and use the system hampered rescue efforts of the wounded and prolonged law enforcement’s concern that the shooter may still be in the building.

At the end of the day, 34 had been shot and 17 of those had died or would succumb to their wounds.

Schools MUST Get BASIC School Security Right

There were multiple failures at nearly all levels that had they not occurred, might have either prevented the shooting altogether or mitigated the amount of harm done. The report outlines recommendations around the context of harm mitigation. The most relevant of those recommendations for Christian schools:

Harm Mitigation Framework:  

Step 1. Identifying the threat at the first possible moment;
Step 2. Immediately notifying others;
Step 3. Everyone immediately reacting to the threat by implementing the appropriate response plans.

 Harm Mitigation Strategies:

  • School security is the function of all school personnel and students.
    • All staff should have clearly established roles and responsibilities that are outlined in a written policy and procedure manual provided to all personnel.
    • The school security staff and/or “safety team” should regularly meet and train on proper protocols and procedures in emergency situations and coordinate with law enforcement.
  • All school campus gates must remain closed and locked, and when opened for ingress and egress they should be staffed to prevent unauthorized campus access.
  • Doors leading to instructional classrooms or student-occupied space and for ingress/egress to campus or a specific building should remain locked during school hours, and if they are open, they should be staffed.
    • All teachers should be able to lock doors from within the classroom, and keys should always be on their person.
  • Every school should have a written, unambiguous Code Red or similar active assailant response policy that is well known to all school personnel, parents and students.
    • The policy must make unequivocally clear that all personnel are empowered to activate emergency active assailant response procedures and that those procedures are to be immediately implemented upon notification.
  • Every school must have an effective communication system through which everyone on campus can see and/or hear—and immediately react to—a called Code Red or similar active assailant response notification.
  • Classrooms should establish safety measures, such as hard corners or other safe areas, and teachers should have the ability to cover door windows quickly.
  • Every school must have a well–developed, written, distributed, and trained upon active assailant response policy.
    • All school personnel must be held accountable for knowing and following the policy, and it should unambiguously, and in an understandable manner, clearly establish the roles and responsibilities and actions of all persons on campus to identify threats, notify others of threats and respond to threats.
    • The policy should specific addresses the idiosyncrasies and unique characteristics of the school and its population.
  • It is extremely important that people report concerning behavior that they see and hear, and, in order to do so, reporting platforms must be easily accessible and anonymous.
    • ACSI would also emphasize schools’ need to review and take appropriate action in response to each report. An appropriate response my mean seeking help for the person instead of a punitive focused response viewpoint.  Your school community should be aware of this viewpoint.    
  • Schools should provide law enforcement with adequate training to access and operate the camera system if the school has one.
    • ACSI would suggest everyone on your security team know how to access and control your security systems so they can assist authorities if needed.
    • ACSI would suggest the larger point still stands that schools should generally work closely with law enforcement on its security plan prior to an event occurring.
  • These measures may not in and of themselves stop the assailant; however, they represent the best and most immediate methods to slow the attacker until police or other personnel can stop the attack.

Now What?

As I read through the report, I was reminded of two central themes.

First, spending tens of thousands, or more, on security measures and staffing will not compensate for neglecting the free/cheap and necessary steps of doing the fundamentals as outlined in the report’s recommendations above. Stated another way, the fundamentals of school security saves lives, not expenditures. You risk your own peril by neglecting the no-cost-to-low-cost basics. 

  • Do you have an active shooter plan for your school?
  • Does your plan integrate the Harm Mitigation Framework above?
  • When was the last time you ran a drill?
  • Do staff know how to secure their classrooms in all the ways identified above?
  • How do you know what you think you know? Would your staff admit confusion on what to do if interviewed after an incident at your school?

Second, one area Christians should have much to add to this conversation is in the spiritual and mental health of our communities.  Most mass school shootings, including this one, have been perpetrated by someone the school had a current or prior relationship with.  Whether the school was the cause of that person’s angst that led to their lashing out or not we as communities of faith should seek to help bring healing and care to those suffering.  People are messy things and we have been called into this messy work which regularly transcends the boundaries of imparting book knowledge.  You may or may not have a potential school shooter in your school, but you do have a school full of scarred and hurting individuals.  How can we help these parents, students and staff, and how does our faith inform our work in these areas?  

There are no quick fixes or easy solutions to school mass violence concerns; however, there are some universal truths.  Psalms 127: 1 tells us, “Unless the Lord watches over the city, the guards stand watch in vain.” Yes, we need to be prudent and work towards reasonable ways of preparing, protecting and caring for our communities, but ultimately God is our healer, protector and our refuge.  Let’s not forget, nor forgo, that reality as our strongest defense is prayer and fasting.

Additional school safety resources including a webinar, template plans and additional articles can be found at https://www.acsi.org/schoolcrisis

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[i] Factual statements and recommendations are taken directly from the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Commission’s report and reproduced, quoted, paraphrased and referenced in this article.  The full report can be found at https://www.acsi.org/schoolcrisis.

[ii] “Code Red” is the school’s alert warning to students and staff that there is an attacker on campus and to go into lockdown.

To clarify, the staff who saw or were informed this was happening did notify others on campus, but they did not alert Building #12 to the threat.

[iii] ” Hard Corners” are a part of the classroom that cannot be observed from outside the room when the door is locked.  These may not provide “cover” (protection from bullets) but would provide “concealment” (protection from being seen).

LLU 29.3

Notice: This article is designed to provide accurate and authoritative information in regard to the subject matter covered. It has been provided to member schools with the understanding that ACSI is not engaged in rendering legal, accounting, tax, or other professional services. If legal advice or other expert assistance is required, the services of a competent professional should be sought. Laws vary by jurisdiction, and the specific application of laws to particular facts requires the advice of an attorney.

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