There have been hundreds of school shootings in the United States in the last 20 years, and a study by the Secret Service’s National Threat Assessment Center suggests they’re largely preventable. There is no question of the need to train for this increasingly prevalent scenario, and not just for SWAT teams to react after the incident has happened.
The first people with the ability to prevent and protect are those in the schools—faculty and resource officers, and often the students themselves. But preparing for an active attack when you have no law enforcement or tactical training requires a different and more strategic approach.
Training for stress inoculation serves an important role in preparing law enforcement for the realities of their job, but it’s counter to the training needs in a school setting, where teachers are asked to be emotionally available, empathic, and attuned to the emotions of their students. Stress inoculation potentially puts those skills at risk by creating empathic distress and moral trauma. And stress inoculation when teachers are already burdened from enduring pandemic requirements and low staffing is adding insult to injury.
Instead, teachers and faculty need common sense protocols that mitigate active events before they begin and prompt them to act quickly and calmly if these events occur. One way to help them prepare is with an understanding of the “Pathway to Violence”—a fairly linear understanding of the psychology and behaviors shared by most school shooters. Training to keep an eye out for the following indicators of potential school shooters on the pathway to violence can help faculty work with resource officers to stay vigilant, and stay safe:
Student expresses a grievance. School shooters often have an avenger mindset: the belief that they have been wronged. When holding these beliefs, they often broadcast their plans in subtle and not-so-subtle ways. This is where the “see something/say something” training is so critical for staff and students alike. School shooters may take advantage of a moment, but they are rarely impulsive; these active attacks are deliberate, planned, and often broadcast.
Student has an ideation of violence. Ideation is a powerful emotional response, and it takes an intuitive and trusted adult to recognize the signs of violent ideation and swiftly intervene, so that the student doesn’t progress further down the pathway. Indications of the idea that violence corrects wrongdoings may be indirect and appear in other settings, so those closest to the student are best positions to recognize them.
Student has a plan. According to research by the Department of Education, 93% of school shooters planned the attack in advance; FBI research determined that 77% of school shooters spent “a week or longer” planning the attack.
Student begins to prepare. They build the skill and the will, while also preparing for the how. They stockpile weapons and ammunition, they practice scenarios, and they envision their results.
Student engages in breach-probing behaviors. They check entry points, escape points, and weaknesses within the school building and safety protocols. They research which doors are unlocked, which cameras are unmanned, and when the biggest impact can occur.
If a potential school shooter has progressed this far down the Pathway to Violence, the next step is the implementation of their plan and the attack. At this point, it’s too late to intervene, and now the school must call 911 and engage in disaster response. With the average response time for law enforcement being 3 minutes, teachers need to react calmly to keep themselves and their students safe. The next step in training for active shooter response is to help teachers understand the “3 States of Disaster Response,” while law enforcement trains to move swiftly as soon as they arrive on the scene.
The “3 States of Disaster Response” are denial, deliberation, and decisive action.
Denial is the very human belief that this can’t be happening. Often, the first instinct when hearing a gunshot is to explain it away: a car backfiring outside, a student prank in the bathroom, a door slamming. It’s important to act, even when in denial. Training teachers to keep doors locked and immediately act to assess the situation and calm the students in the room is critical. Ignoring these moments and failing to act can burn crucial seconds that can keep everyone in the room safe. Just like the concept of see something/say something, “hear something/do something” is a fundamental step in training that can help keep teachers and students safe. This can be done in simulation without the need to show potentially traumatizing violence by simply placing them in the virtual classroom and practicing response with various audio clips included in the MILO interface library.
Deliberation is the scripting and practicing of what to do in an active shooter scenario. Once it is established that there is violence occurring, teachers and faculty must act immediately. Deliberate scripting and practicing active protocols can save lives. MILO simulations are equipped to facilitate the use of locally filmed footage, allowing law enforcement to run drills in simulation within the school setting; cutting down on response time with the development of familiarity into the long-term memory banks.
Decisive Action: If immediate action has been taken and doors are locked, the decisive moment will hopefully never need to happen. But if it does, having a simple plan of action at the ready is best practice and can ensure safety.
While law enforcement officers put their active shooter training into action, teachers and school staff can work to assess the situation.
MILO training and MILO Range simulators can help law enforcement prepare to enter the building, navigate hallways, and know how to best approach the situation to neutralize the threat. They can also be used to prepare teachers and students, so that they can help school resource officers and law enforcement that are on the scene.
Active shooter training in schools cannot be the same for school faculty as it is for law enforcement, but it can—and should—be complementary. While law enforcement agencies are looking to inoculate against stress responses that will slow officer reaction time, teachers and faculty are looking to build sensible protocols that can stop a school shooting before it begins: MILO simulation training and safety protocols can be implemented with both.
This blog was reviewed for accuracy by MILO Cognitive Advisory Board members including Dr. Joy VerPlanck, who received her doctorate in educational technology from Central Michigan University and works with the NeuroLeadership Institute to combine brain science with MILO’s immersive simulation training.