What to do if the unthinkable happens
By Mary Lou Rosien
I remember when we got the call: my children’s school was on lockdown due to a credible threat of a gunman heading there. We live in a tiny town with one traffic light, and “parent night” is really a school reunion because all the current students’ parents went to school together. This kind of thing isn’t supposed to happen here, but it did.
We were blessed—the threat was contained without incident. I wanted to live in that comfortable denial that nothing bad could or would happen. However, the reality is sobering: “The FBI found that education environments were the second-largest location grouping for active shooters, totaling 39 incidents at K-12 and institutes of higher education from 2000 to 2013,” according to an article in the Washington Post.
We also remember that almost 200 children were killed in the Breslan school hostage crisis when armed terrorists stormed a Russian school. It is hard to imagine such a thing happening here, but after the attack at the Pulse Nightclub in Florida, the threat has moved closer to our homes and our hearts.
“School threats are a fast-growing problem. They send fear and panic through a community,” says Ken Trump, president of National School Safety and Security Services, who directed a national study of school-shooting and bomb threats across the country.
Ken Trump further reported that there were “812 school-shooting and bomb threats targeting preK-12 schools collected primarily from news reports during the first five months of the 2014–15 school year (August–December 2014).”
When we examine the implications of the current threats of terrorism as they relate to religion, the threat against Catholic schools can’t be ignored. Consider the statement by William Kilpatrick in his article “Catholicism, Terrorism and Responsibility” in Catholic World Report. “Schools, hospitals, churches, synagogues, concert halls, theaters, buses, trains, subways, parks, and sports stadiums: The terrorists will have hundreds of soft targets to choose from.” This is backed up by other recent statistics. “The National Church Shooting Database recorded a total of 139 shootings in churches between 1980 and 2005. In all, 185 people died, including 36 children,” stated Francie Diep in an article entitled “Church Shootings Happen Often Enough That There’s a National Church Shooting Database” in the Pacific Stanford.
So, another day, another shooting, another school. Are we prepared to protect our students and ourselves? In this day of
terrorism and random threats of violence, we must face the fact that our classrooms can become targets. We have two choices: To ignore the threats or to be educated and prepared to handle that challenge should it arrive. Simple steps can lead to increased preparedness and safety for our classrooms.
Dr. Anthony Cook III, the Diocese of Rochester, New York, school superintendent reminds us, “Young children are God’s most treasured gift to their families and our diocese. It is a blessing and our immense responsibility to do everything
we can to protect them.”
1. Prayer. Never underestimate the power of praying protection over your classrooms each day. Consider starting the school day with the “Prayer to St. Michael the Archangel” during the announcements or in individual classrooms.
2. Identify threats early. Threats can come from disgruntled students or employees, terrorists, or random sources. If teachers are aware that someone is acting “odd” or making threats, they must take them seriously and report them. In an article in OSV Weekly, “A Road Map for Catholic Schools and Bullying,” Patti Maguire Armstrong states, “In modern times, bullying has evolved from schoolyards to the Internet, and from punching and name-calling to suicide and school shootings. In some cases, Catholic school parents have reacted by suing schools for failing to provide a safe environment.” If Catholic teachers intervene early, threats may be averted altogether.
3. Know your surroundings well. Michael Brock, University of Rochester Department of Public Safety, recommends studying every hiding place, corner, and exit route in your school building and classroom. Imagine having to get to or through those places while under stress or in the dark.
4. Control access to your buildings and classrooms. Many schools now keep doors to the buildings locked, and visitors are required to “buzz in.” Schools in our area require picture identification that is then put into a computer. This triggers an automatic search through a database of threats, and, when it’s cleared, the visitors are given a sticker ID with their picture on it. Dr. Cook agrees with these guidelines: “All of our Catholic schools follow and practice NYS Education Department (NYSED) regulations and guidelines for all emergency procedures and evacuations. We also use the DOR protocols for each of the potential emergency situations. All of our schools have secure entrances with admission by intercom only.”
5. Disrupt the attacker. If someone does pose a threat, do the unexpected! Most of these events are meticulously planned out (some for years), so any unexpected change can upset an intruder’s plans, providing fight-or-flight time to those in danger. Flicking lights, movements the perpetrator doesn’t expect, or even extreme calm in a stressful situation can interrupt plans. Mr. Brock gave specific examples of people throwing a book or turning on a light suddenly that caused disorientation of the attacker. These actions saved lives.
6. Have a plan; make new plans. Trying to make decisions in a moment of duress, much less communicating those instructions to students, can be the difference between panic and calm—maybe even life or death. Mr. Brock emphasized that readiness increases your chances of a positive outcome. Ideally we should be as prepared for intruder type of emergencies as we are for fires. Drills and practice scenarios can help. Catholic Schools in Rochester prepare this way, according to Dr. Cook: “Our principals regularly practice fire drills and lockdown/lockout drills. Records of these drills are kept and forwarded to our office. Each principal also maintains regular communications with their local municipalities and they utilize law enforcement to further review their emergency plans and building layouts.” In a real-life threat situation, once you have your students in a safe area, make a secondary plan of what to do should the danger follow you. Many people fail to figure out what to do next, losing valuable time by texting or talking rather than planning. Lock doors, hide children, turn off lights, grab something to defend yourself with if necessary. The motto must be: “Do whatever it takes!” Fr. Tom Simonds, associate professor and associate chair of education at Creighton University, is an expert in school-safety preparedness. His research leads him to believe that Catholic school violence is underreported. He also has definite ideas about the safest place for students during an active shooter incident:
Recently there has been discussion about whether sheltering in classrooms in the best scenario. Some people are advocating getting the kids out of the building. I do not support this position, and I just read an editorial in Campus Safety Magazine that also confirms that “hardened” classrooms are the safest place to wait out an active shooter situation in a school.
7. When contacting law enforcement, use precise language. Police and security officers instruct 911 callers to use the term “active shooter” when a gunman is the hazard. They further instruct us to text 911 if calling can increase the risk to anyone. Provide as much information as possible: Location, number of people involved, and how long the situation has been in play. Specifics can save time and lives.
8. Be ready for law enforcement to arrive. Mr. Brock reminds those attending his talks that they must know what to do after the police arrive on the scene: Put down anything in your hands (including cell phones), raise hands and spread fingers, and always keep hands visible. Instruct students to do the same. Have your students ready to follow directions as soon as they are given. Michael Brock reiterated that the most important thing to remember is to “run, hide, and fight”—not necessarily in that order. He recommends a video that can be viewed at ReadyHoustonTX.gov for additional ideas. Our willingness to face this difficult topic can ultimately help us to protect students in our care.
Get your students and yourself to a safe place
OPTION ONE: A classroom with a solid door, upgraded door lock that locks from the inside, and windows of tempered laminate that will not shatter if shot at or hit.
OPTION TWO: Any room with a lockable door and either no windows or tempered laminate windows.
OPTION THREE: Any place that puts space and a barrier between you, your students, and the threatening person; for example, a closet, a storage room, an athletic field shed, a maintenance building, or a predetermined safe place close to the school campus.
“Three clear recommendations for school policy and practice in threat assessment and management …”
• Schools need to have threat assessment teams, training, and protocols with first responders.
• School leaders should have plans on how to heighten security while ongoing investigations are being conducted on threats made to the school.
• Schools must have crisis communications and social media plans to communicate more effectively with students, staff, parents, and the community to counter misinformation and reduce anxiety. (Ken Trump, National School Safety and Security Services)
Mary Lou Rosien is a former English teacher and current substitute teacher, confirmation teacher, Pre-Cana instructor, and RCIA coordinator/teacher. This article originally appeared in the print edition of Today’s Catholic Teacher, Winter 2016.