Ever since two teenagers went on a killing spree at a Colorado high school in 1999, police officials have been refining their tactics on combating an active shooter. But that responsibility, local law enforcement officials and national school safety experts say, also falls on schools, universities and other educational institutions, which must change how they will respond.
“We don’t want the schools to be doing nothing and waiting for us to come and save the day,” said Yakima County Sheriff Brian Winter, who has worked with school districts for more than 20 years on active-shooter training.
In the crucial moments after an active shooter situation is identified, it’s the actions of school officials, teachers and students that arguably can have a bigger life-saving impact on outcomes than police.
Statistically, if you look at those crises, the damage is done in the first five to seven minutes. Law enforcement is not going to be there on time.
East Valley Superintendent John Schieche
In the Yakima Valley, several school districts have worked with Winter on heeding the call, and at least one, East Valley, has taken steps to make it harder for an intruder to get inside a school building.
“Statistically, if you look at those crises, the damage is done in the first five to seven minutes,” said East Valley Superintendent John Schieche. “Law enforcement is not going to be there on time.”
Any time, anywhere
The FBI defines an active-shooter incident as one where someone is actively trying to kill people in “a confined and populated space.”
From 2000 to 2015, the FBI has identified 200 such incidents. Some of them are notorious, such as the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut; Fort Hood; the movie theater in Aurora, Colo.; and Umpqua Community College in Oregon.
In Washington, the FBI listed nine active-shooting incidents in the same time period. The most recent on the list was the shooting at Marysville-Pilchuck High School in October 2014, where four students were killed and three wounded by another student.
None of the incidents occurred in Central or Eastern Washington.
Yakima police Capt. Gary Jones described active-shooter incidents as a “low-occurrence, high-risk” situation, as opposed to the more common but relatively less risky encounters officers deal with on a daily basis.
The FBI defines an active-shooter incident as one where someone is actively trying to kill people in ‘a confined and populated space.’
While it’s rare, Jones and Winter say they train for it as though it could happen any time, anywhere in the area.
How police respond to an active shooter has changed through the years, both men said.
At Columbine, Colo., officers waited outside for a heavily armed SWAT team to storm the building and take out the shooters. But that tactic was criticized as prolonging the killing spree.
That, police say, led to a change in tactics, with the first responding officers forming a three-person squad to go in and take on the shooter.
Now, officers are told to take a “lone wolf” approach, where the first officer on the scene enters to put an end to the incident as quickly as possible.
Jones said neither tactic is completely right or wrong. It depends upon the situation.
“When someone is dying in front of you, you don’t want to wait,” Jones said. “But an officer who puts himself in a vulnerable situation may not be able to help anyone.”
Winter said the only time a SWAT team should be called is in the case of a hostage situation. Otherwise, he said the rule is for the first responding officers to go in, either as a small team or alone if backup is taking too long to get there.
But even as police tactics change, they cannot alter the fact law enforcement will take time to arrive.
While it may take several minutes for police to respond to a scene in Yakima, Winter said in more remote areas of the county, an officer could take 30 minutes to arrive, even driving with lights and sirens.
Just as police have changed tactics, schools — and by extension the public — need to change their approaches as well.
One change schools can make, Winter said, is to make it harder for a gunman to get in, and also to have a plan for what would happen if one should get inside.
Winter noted East Valley School District took that approach when it built the new Terrace Heights Elementary School, which opened in 2014. Instead of visitors entering the school’s main hallway directly, they have to pass through an “airlock” like vestibule, Winter said, with visitors having to wait to be buzzed in by staff — only after their identification has been run against an law-enforcement database.
Schieche, the East Valley superintendent, said district officials added the security features in the wake of the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut in 2012. There, a gunman shot his way into the school and killed 20 children and six teachers before taking his own life.
“When we first designed the school, the main entrance was just a doorway going into the school,” Schieche said.
In addition to the secure vestibule, the school also keeps other entrances locked, and the entire school can be locked down with the push of a button, which also alerts law enforcement, Schieche said.
Today, the district office and all East Valley schools except the high school have secured vestibules. Schieche said since the high school will be rebuilt, the district decided to wait until then to install the secure entrance.
The systems, Schieche said, run about $120,000 per school for all the hardware. The district spent $408,000 in 2015 to upgrade the other buildings.
Ron Stephens, executive director of the California-based National School Safety Center, said other school districts around the country are considering ways to limit access to a school building for security reasons.
“I would say it hasn’t been codified as a national standard, but each district will have to evaluate its designs,” Stephens said. Sprawling campus-type schools, he said, would be harder to secure than one where the school is contained to a single building and the number of entrances can be limited.
Before help arrives
Along with securing school buildings, Stephens said another lesson of Sandy Hook was to train people on what to do while the police are on the way.
“(School staff) are the first responders,” Stephens said. Some districts are having active-shooter drills the same way they did fire drills a generation ago, he noted.
Winter has been working with school districts for more than 20 years teaching staff how to respond in the event of a shooting.
“We teach three basics: You have to have a plan, good situational awareness and communications,” Winter said.
Some districts are having active-shooter drills the same way they did fire drills a generation ago.
Ideally, Winter said school officials should call if they see someone suspicious at the fence line.
But if a shooter gets inside, Winter and Jones said survival comes down to three basic tactics: escape, barricade and fight.
Escape, Winter said, may mean breaking out a window and climbing to safety, or going through staff or service areas of the building.
If escape is not an option, Winter and Jones said people should look for a secure place to barricade themselves. A shooter, Winter said, is going to look for easy targets and typically will bypass locked doors.
In the worst-case scenario, people may have to fight the shooter themselves, with whatever is on hand. Winter said items as bats or fire extinguishers can be effective weapons in stopping a gunman.
Fire extinguishers, which are common in schools, can be used either to bludgeon an attacker, or discharged in their face, Winter said, blinding and distracting a person long enough for others to either escape or overpower the attacker.
At Seattle Pacific University in June 2014, a student was able to stop a shooter by spraying him with pepper spray and tackling him as he reloaded his gun after killing one and wounding three.
East Valley district staff have all gone through active-shooter response training, Schieche said, which covers those areas.
Guns also are an option — if people have the training to use them, experts say. And, one area school district has moved in that direction.
In 2014, Toppenish School District allowed school employees to receive training to carry firearms on campus and be available to respond in the event of an active-shooter incident.
Superintendent John Cerna was inspired to implement the policy by the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings.
For Cerna, the takeaway from Sandy Hook was that there’s no time to wait for police to come to the rescue.
“I don’t mind giving my life if I have a fighting chance,” Cerna said in a 2014 interview about his decision to be trained to respond to a school shooting.
Winter supports the Toppenish effort, noting administrators who volunteer are given the same firearms training as police officers.
Jones said the decision to take on an armed attacker is one people have to make for themselves, especially if they have a firearm, and the training to use it effectively.
But Jones said such tactics also cause problems for arriving officers, who may just be told there’s someone with a gun inside. Sorting out armed “friendly” people from threats can be difficult, he said.
Winter said he has worked with Toppenish’s district to ensure police know who is on their side in such a situation. If someone does shoot an attacker, Winter said the best thing to do is put down the gun and follow officers’ instructions.
Arming administrators is not something East Valley is considering at this time, Schieche said.