A graphic that appeared on CNN today shows that school shootings and gun scares are no longer the rarity they once were:
- Monday: Widener University – Student shot
- Tuesday: Purdue University- Teaching assistant shot to death
- Wednesday: University of Oklahoma – False alarm
- Thursday: Columbine High School – Campus lockdown
- Friday> South Carolina State University – Student shot to death
I teach five days a week at Michigan State University, so I am concerned that more could and should be done to keep students, faculty and staff safe. An unofficial survey of my peers this past week shows that many of us want more information on what to do if we find ourselves facing a shooter – and we also want more help in identifying and dealing with troubled students before violence erupts.
Communication, training and technology
As the former associate director of the National Center for Community Policing, I have worked on community violence prevention nationwide. After the horrific shooting at Columbine High School, I hosted workshops with folks at Central Michigan University’s Residence Life on school violence. School shootings lend themselves to a community policing approach involving key stakeholders in developing plans tailored to their unique environment and circumstances.
There was a flurry of positive activity at MSU after Seung-Hui Cho killed 32 and wounded 17 at Virginia Tech in 2007. Dean Charles Salmon of the College of Communication Arts & Sciences responded immediately by holding a college-wide meeting outlining basic protocols, with promises of more training to come.
However, since then, I have never received any personal communication about what to do in a shooting emergency. I have never been offered any training, and I have never heard of any drills or simulations on dealing with someone who has a gun.
Over the years, I have tried to keep track of advice for teachers. But I regularly teach a large class of 260 students, and all the scenarios appear to focus on classes of no more than 40 students. With so many lives to protect, what should I do to improve their odds of survival?
When I learned a former colleague was involved in creating the MSU emergency response plan for shootings, I invited him to join me for coffee to express my concerns and my ideas. I wanted to make sure that the MSU emergency plan explored issues related to teaching large classes.
I would be delighted if MSU would install a silent alarm on the professor’s tech cart in every large lecture hall. If I find myself confronted by a student who pulls out a gun, I want to be able to hit an unobtrusive button that would immediately send an alarm to campus police that an active shooter is present and provide the location.
My friend listened politely, but months have gone by and still no email on the MSU plan and my ideas. So this week I searched the MSU website for advice on security issues. Two young police cadets pointed me to the link for a PDF called Safety Guidelines for an Active Shooter Situation on the MSU Police home page (please see the first Scribd embed below).
The MSU plan appears to draw substantially from Homeland Security materials (please see the second Scribd embed below). Yet those materials make it clear that a handout is of limited value without hands-on training over time.
Developing a comprehensive approach
An unofficial survey of fellow faculty I conducted after the Purdue University shooting this week showed that only one professor knew about the “active shooter” handout. She received an email from Thomas F. Wolff, associate dean in the College of Engineering, on Wednesday. A Purdue graduate himself, Wolff sent faculty and staff in the college a personal email directing them to a link to the handout and urging them to share and discuss the advice with their students.
This article in the Purdue student newspaper notes that professors who ignored students pleas to lock the doors and shut off the lights were soundly criticized for failing to follow the active shooter protocol. Posting a handout is an important first step, but it will take much more to ensure the advice is followed. A fellow professor who had read the handout still said, “I feel that I am completely unprepared for such an event.”
An additional issue is the need to keep updating the protocols. We are constantly learning better ways to handle these emergencies, and there is no way to know whether the advice in this handout is a consultant’s best guess or that the suggestions are based on sound research.
After Columbine, police SWAT teams dramatically changed their response plans after it became clear that waiting to set up a perimeter before hunting down the shooter or shooters could cost lives.
The advice in the handouts below urge instructors to shelter in place. But based on what happened at Sandy Hook, it might make better sense to urge people to flee whenever they can. However, would that make sense in a large classroom? There is one emergency exit door behind me, but would it be wise or foolhardy to try to shepherd my students through it? What does the research show?
Identifying and dealing with troubled students
I also think colleges and universities need to become more proactive. We need information and support for intervening with troubled students before one becomes an “active shooter.”
Students today are under more pressure than ever before, as rising school debt and fears about finding a good job after graduation add to the stress of studying and exams. Also new is that 40 percent of the students who seek counseling services either are or will be put on some form of psychotropic drug. The good news is that this allows more young people to earn degrees, but we also know that some school shooters erupted during times when they were experiencing issues with their medication.
I feel fortunate that our faculty pulls together to support students who are struggling or who exhibit worrisome behavior. However, changes in the FERPA privacy laws make it more difficult for faculty and staff to exchange information about an individual student. The law also prohibits sharing information with parents.
Perhaps the university could invest in training designated faculty who could then coach us on preventing and dealing with school violence effectively, legally and ethically. There is much more that MSU and other colleges and universities could do to make our campuses safer. And I still want that silent alarm.
Resources on dealing with an active shooter
From the Department of Homeland Security (below)