Active Shooter Response
No Easy Answers
A school safety expert cautions insurers to closely examine the types of training programs their insureds are using to prepare and respond to active shooter incidents.
- Lori Chordas
- April 2019
- Taking Aim: Hundreds of students and staff have died from mass school shootings in recent years; however, such shootings remain one of the rarest threats to schools.
- On Target: Options-based training programs have become widely adopted by schools and businesses in recent years, yet some fear the programs are controversial and cause more harm than good.
- Counterattack: Insurers need to assess the types of training programs used by insureds when underwriting schools and businesses.
On Feb. 14, 2018, a former student at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida opened fire in the school, killing 17 students and staff and injuring 17 others.
Lawmakers in the state marked the first anniversary of what has now become the deadliest shooting at a U.S. high school by pushing forward a new bill that would allow teachers with a concealed carry weapons permit to bring their guns to school.
The only stipulation is that the teachers receive more than 100 hours of firearms training from a local sheriff's department.
Programs like that, along with national options-based training programs such as Alert, Lockdown, Inform, Counter and Evacuate (ALICE) and the federal Homeland Security Department's Run, Hide, Fight, are now part of the preparation and response tactics of many schools.
But are they enough to help educators respond and abate active shooter incidents and leave insurers comfortable with insuring those risks?
Michael Dorn, executive director of Safe Havens International, a private, for-profit national school safety consulting firm based in Cleveland, Ohio, isn't so sure.
Dorn, an author of 27 books on school safety, heads up a global nonprofit school safety center that provides prevention, mitigation, preparation, and response and recovery strategies for K-12 and higher education schools.
While he's an advocate for approaches such as traditional lockdowns, scenario-based training and school staff being physically resistant in certain situations, Dorn believes current options-based training programs often fail to work and can lead to ineffective response caused by hasty decision-making.
Boiling down training into a 10-minute video or a two-hour program is like trying to teach someone how to be an emergency medical technician in just two hours.
Safe Havens International
Put Into Question
Schools and colleges have been adopting options-based training programs that move away from the traditional lockdown-only approach and allow school staff to make more independent decisions about how to protect students based on evolving circumstances.
In 2000, two Texas law enforcement officers created ALICE following the Columbine High School shooting in Colorado. The training method teaches strategic response protocols that are designed to help counter violent actions.
Following the deadly shooting at an Aurora, Colorado movie theater in July 2012, Houston used federal grants to produce a “Run, Hide, Fight” video that teaches people how to respond during a workplace shooting. The approach suggests victims evacuate if possible, hide silently in a safe place and take action to disrupt or incapacitate a shooter.
Despite the popularity of those programs, Dorn is concerned that they often cause more harm than good.
“I've never seen so many emotionally-based, dangerous and untested approaches as are being used in schools today,” said Dorn, based on his recent analysis that examined if options-based training programs are meeting their desired outcomes.
Dorn and his team assessed the training protocols and procedures of more than 7,800 schools. Staff members in 45 states were asked to verbally respond to more than 8,000 controlled video and audio simulations in 30 seconds—the typical time it takes for a life-saving action.
The study found that individuals trained in options-based programs consistently perform worse than those with no training.
Teachers and administrators who had undergone options-based active shooter training were more likely to attack or throw objects at a gunman rather than taking action steps outlined in their school's policies and procedures, Dorn said.
“We're seeing some bizarre and risky response behaviors by trained school employees during an active shooting event. They're forgetting to call 911, aren't pulling the fire alarm or are failing to alert school administrators to lock down the premises. And there are indications that some deaths have even resulted because of those training programs,” said Dorn, who has provided post-incident assistance for 17 active shooter and targeted school shootings in North America.
The problem with options-based training programs, he said, is often the language that instructors use and the limited hours of training given to school personnel.
“Boiling down training into a 10-minute video or a two-hour program is like trying to teach someone how to become an emergency medical technician in just two hours,” Dorn said.
In 1980, he received 80 hours of active shooter training from Vietnam combat veterans who were black belts in karate. “That's much more stringent than what school educators get today,” Dorn said.
Lack of training and other concerns are raising a red flag for insurers, “and they need to proceed cautiously before insuring schools or businesses using options-based training approaches,” he said.
Those programs have over the years resulted in a number of injuries. In one instance, a school employee became permanently disabled after his arm was crushed during a training exercise. Also, some school personnel have required hospitalization and surgery for injuries caused by options-based training programs and drills.
A national property/casualty insurer based in the midwestern United States recently paid out more than $1 million in medical costs to school employees for injuries sustained during a 22-month period for one popular active shooter training program, Dorn said.
“The problem with many of these programs is the lack or limited amount of evidence to validate them as effective. Some of the testing is based on inaccurate information, so that's also why we're not as effective as we could be in preparing and preventing these attacks,” Dorn said.
Up in Arms
Instead of relying on options-based training programs or ticking off pass/fail items on a checklist, Dorn suggests schools and businesses develop a “customized blend” of preparation and response strategies to ward off active shooters.
Traditional lockdowns and scenario-based training should remain the foundation of those response plans, along with tactics such as visual weapons screening, anonymous reporting systems, social media monitoring and multidisciplinary threat evaluation and management, he said.
Dorn also suggests schools and businesses conduct fidelity testing to determine whether active shooter and active threat training concepts are being received and understood by faculty and staff.
“During a crisis people often react differently than what they've been trained to do. Fidelity testing a training program can help determine if there are gaps between what the trainer thinks the trainees will do and what actions trainees will take in a real-life event,” Dorn said.
That's information insurers also need to know.
“So it's important that they ask their insureds very specific questions about the training programs they use and the results of their fidelity testing,” Dorn said.
Before underwriting a school, he said insurers also should determine if teachers or personnel are being armed with weapons. “If I were an insurer, I would create a checklist of things that should be done before I would feel comfortable underwriting that risk,” Dorn said.
At least 28 states now have policies in place that allow armed security personnel in schools to carry firearms, according to a 2018 report by the Education Commission of the States. At least eight states, including Texas and Tennessee, allow school employees to carry firearms, while 21 states have policies that allow schools or districts to give individuals permission to carry firearms, according to the report.
An FBI review of 250 active shooter incidents that occurred between 2000 and 2017 found that in only seven cases was a shooter stopped by a civilian with a valid firearms permit.
Unarmed staff attempting to confront someone with a gun on campus can lead to tragic events, Dorn said.
“I'm aware of at least 10 cases where school employees who tried to confront a gunman actually died, and it's unclear if those attempts even saved anyone from harm,” he said.
Just Part of the Problem
Mass shootings are not a new phenomenon.
The first mass school shooting dates back to 1891 when a 70-year-old man shot and injured five students on the playground of St. Mary's Parochial School in Newburgh, New York.
But mass shootings today sometimes can seem to be regular occurrences due to the widespread coverage of incidents by the news media and over social networks.
From 2007 to 2013, the average number of such shootings was 16.4, according to FBI data. The FBI defines active shooters as individuals actively engaged in attempting to kill people in a populated area.
In 2017 in the United States, there were 29 incidents involving active shooters—the most events and the most people killed in any one year since the turn of the century, according to AlertFind.
Last year, according to reports, there were nearly as many U.S. mass shootings as days in the year.
While schools and government facilities are often targets of those attacks, the majority of mass shootings still occur in the workplace, according to AlertFind.
Despite growing media attention, these types of shootings, along with hostage situations, remain two of the rarest types of events with a gun on a K-12 campus, Dorn said.
“It's important for schools to invest in active shooting training but often they forget to train employees and students for other types of threats, such as sexual misconduct, student attacks on teachers, suicide, opioid abuse and natural disasters,” he said.
After the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in December 2012, which claimed the lives of 26 students and staff, “we started seeing a lot of dangerous missteps taken by schools that we've never seen before.
“A quarter of people who have been through an active shooting training program will attack people depicted as taking hostages, but not firing, or a student depicted as threatening suicide with a cocked pistol to their temple and their finger on the trigger, by throwing objects such as a book or desk at the person, which as we have seen in actual incidents can result in a person firing the weapon.
“Instead they need to create an all-hazards approach and learn how to respond to statistically more common scenarios such as a person brandishing but not firing a gun or a student threatening suicide. Those are the kinds of events that don't get reported on CNN or the evening news,” Dorn said.
Spring into Action
While active shooter preparation and response efforts continue to evolve, there's still room for improvement.
“Schools and businesses spend thousands of dollars or more for just eight hours of training but aren't doing web courses or don't have policies in place to investigate if something happens. That's a growing problem that I'm not sure all insurers are picking up on, but it's something they should be concerned about,” Dorn said.
“We don't tell clients to drop the whole approach of options-based training programs but instead focus on 'here's what you need to do with the training to cover what isn't covered in order to prevent tragic outcomes',” he said.
Dorn expects the projected rise in future mass shootings to span the globe.
“And we're going to see a regurgitation of things that have been done before, which is usually shaped by research done by attackers,” Dorn said.
“In one shooting, the attacker's laptop contained 1,000 searches for school shootings. The Sandy Hook gunman had a database of 500 worldwide attacks,” Dorn said.
“Probably sooner than later, and it may have already occurred during some recent events, things will start to be questioned, such as the 'run' part of training. When you condition people to run, we know that slows evacuation in certain situations when too many people try to escape through a door or stairwell. They funnel up and it makes it easier for a gunman to shoot large numbers,” he said.
While it's difficult to predict the likelihood of future attacks, Dorn expects to see “one or more shootings where the number of people killed is beyond anything we've ever seen before. And, unfortunately, options-based training programs may have something to do with that,” he said.
Insurers also expect to see some changes in the future.
“One insurer I spoke to said a lot of private trainers are going to have trouble getting insurance unless they make massive changes and that over time more carriers will start setting up stricter underwriting programs and look more closely at those programs,” Dorn said.
Currently, no proven programs or methods exist to guarantee that active shooter events won't occur, so it's going to take a concerted effort to make preparation and response as effective as possible, he said.