By Bill Bond and Luanne Brown
Despite a tragic spate of school shootings, recent statistics show that school violence has decreased. Still, hundreds of guns come into schools every year. Injuries and even deaths can occur on campus, and school leaders must develop strategies for emergency preparedness to prevent school violence—specifically gun violence—from occurring at their schools. Consider the following situation to help you think about the best plan for your school.
On November 8, 2005, a security guard at Campbell County Comprehensive High School (CCCHS) in Jacksboro, TN, got a tip that a freshman boy had a gun. Assistant Principal Jim Pierce decided to get the armed student away from other students and teachers. The boy had come to school late that day so the unarmed guard was sent to bring the student to Pierce’s office to receive a tardy slip. Principal Gary Seale and Assistant Principal Ken Bruce met them there.
Pierce confronted the student about bringing a gun to school. Principal Seale reached for the student’s pocket. The boy reacted by hitting Seale’s hand, jumping back, and pulling out a gun. He fired at Seale, but missed. He continued to shoot, hitting all three men. Seale and Pierce continued to subdue the student, even after they were critically wounded. As they struggled to take the weapon away, it discharged again, nicking the shooter’s hand. Ultimately, the administrators were able to take control of the pistol and the student, and hold him down until teachers arrived to help.
Although Seale was shot in the lower abdomen, he managed to call a lockdown and start dismissing students safely. Sadly, Ken Bruce died within minutes. Pierce was transported to Knoxville and was in critical condition for two days with a bullet just inches from his heart. He and Seale recovered and returned to their roles as school leaders of CCCHS.
A primary concern for all principals is student safety. They prepare for crises by running drills for lockdowns, bomb threats, storm sheltering, and evacuations. But they seldom run drills specifically for a gun threat. They expect their schools to be gun-free. Yet nearly every day, a principal somewhere in America disarms a student. How can administrators ensure that no one is ever shot or killed at school?
One way is to develop a planned response to a student with a weapon. If an armed student presents a potentially life-or-death situation, administrators have minutes—even seconds— to resolve it. In a time of crisis, it helps to have a plan in place.
Every school is different and presents unique challenges. What follows is not a how-to manual but rather suggestions to get you thinking about the possibility of an armed student, and important considerations for establishing a plan of action that’s right for your school.
First, you need to consider what you want to accomplish. If you learn that a student has a gun on campus, the ultimate goal is to disarm him without incident. What do you do first?
- Gather information. Get all the information within minutes. If you were not the initial contact, talk directly to the source. How does the tipster know about the gun? Listen carefully, and verify what you heard. Try to determine the exact location of the weapon. Does the student have the gun on him? And if so, where is it—his backpack, pants pocket, socks, or coat? Could it be in his gym locker or hall locker? Where is the armed student? How long will he be there? These small details will help you determine how to respond.
- Evaluate your resources and liabilities. Is the school resource officer on campus? If not, how long will it take for him or her to get there? Is there a metal detector on hand? Are there people trained in handling intensive crisis situations? Is the student in a controlled setting? Is he at lunch or a passing period? Is there easy access/egress to where the student is? What type of classroom is he in? Are there nearby hallways? Be prepared to provide this information when you call for help.
- Call for help. First, call your school resource officer. If he’s not available, call your local law enforcement agency. They are trained and equipped to handle gun threats. They have protective vests, tools that can stop an armed student, and they understand the principles of defensive tactics.
- Act. Every second counts. Bring together the appropriate school administrators or staff. Brief them on the situation and delegate tasks. Assign someone to watch the armed student, and someone to contact family members to see if he had access to a gun. Determine who has the best rapport with him. Who is best able to use reasonable physical force, if needed? Who will check his locker? Who should remain with the student who made the original report? Who can list the names of the armed student’s closest friends?
- Continue to watch the student closely until help arrives. Monitor his classroom door to ensure he stays inside, discretely follow him down the hall, or stay nearby if he is in a common area. Security cameras can assist with observation but they are limited because they don’t provide an opportunity for physical redirection, intervention, or control.
From here, there are two ways to go. Either act on your own or wait for help from law enforcement officers. If you decide to proceed on your own, some steps along the way might include surveillance, interception, and isolation of the student.
If the situation absolutely can’t wait for law enforcement officers to arrive, consider the following tactics:
- If the student is in a classroom, two staff members should go there. One should remain outside the room to provide communications (via radio or cell phone) and back-up support. The other should enter the room to assess the student. If the student is circulating with other students in a common area, two of you go to that area to locate and monitor him. One person should maintain surveillance and the other should help make notifications and provide support. The armed student should never be out of sight, not even to use the restroom. All it takes is a few seconds to hide or retrieve a weapon.
- Assess the armed student. If he does not appear imminently dangerous, consider approaching him—in a way that is neither challenging nor accusatory—and ask him to accompany you to a nonthreatening location. You must keep the student from feeling cornered or “disrespected.” He must not feel that his hand is being forced or that there is only one way—a violent way—for him to save face. Your action must not precipitate his reaction. If he does appear potentially dangerous, an emergency assessment is imperative. In those seconds, you must decide whether you can empty the room or clear the area without provoking him. Can the teacher be sent on an errand along with several students? Should you begin a negotiation process? What nearby objects offer protection? What are the areas of greatest exposure? Who would get away fastest and how? What is his apparent intent and potential for violence? When the situation inside is tense, the accompanying staff member becomes the crucial resource for obtaining additional help or ordering a lockdown or evacuation. Ultimately, the goal is to get the armed student to leave with you before he hurts someone. 3. Watch him carefully. In tense situations, body language can scream messages. His eyes and hands will likely betray him. Does he look at you or at the door? Often, people look at or touch the parts of their clothing or possessions that are of concern to them, thereby showing you the areas that need your attention. Watch him closely while escorting him, and check him as soon as possible. Watch his posture— does he stiffen, or take a running or fighting stance? Does his head drop and his shoulders suddenly sag? All of these are unintentional signals that will help you determine whether you should prepare to grapple, chase, or escort.
- Keep in mind that your body language tells him a great deal too. Think about your approach, your spacing, your gestures, and your facial expression. Remain as natural as possible. If you think you may have to physically control him, stay about an arm’s length away. Any closer and you will enter his personal space, and become a threat. If you are much farther away, you will not be able to exert control quickly.
- Listen to his responses. Are they loud and emotional or quiet and calm? Don’t be deceived by a small voice, which can signal desperate resignation as easily as it can signal rational behavior. Don’t be deceived by an outburst, because it may be either a show of bravado or a precursor to a destructive act. What are his exact words? Are his responses evasive or direct?
- Take care with your responses. Be aware of your tone and the words you choose. How will you deflect statements or inquiries that will expose your suspicions? Anything out of the ordinary will be noticed, and your tone and words must remain neutral and non-threatening. Your biggest advantage is that he doesn’t know for sure if you know, but remember if that small advantage is compromised, he’s the one with the gun.
- If the student agrees to walk with you, you should be at his side, with at least one other person a short distance behind. You should be as calming as possible, to ensure the situation does not escalate. Speak quietly, move slowly, wear a sympathetic facial expression, use reassuring words, and do not crowd him. The person following behind must be careful not to throw anything down or make any sudden movements which might indicate he is retrieving the weapon. He is the safety net and should be extremely vigilant, ready to react instantaneously if the student’s level of cooperation deteriorates or the threat level suddenly rises.
- Your destination should be a nearby area that is isolated, controlled, and unpopulated, such as a conference room or empty office. One way to restrict the student’s movement is to place him in a room that locks only from the outside. Once there, the armed student should be constantly monitored.
- Now that he has been removed from the student population and the threat is temporarily minimized, what will you do? Decide when you want him to know why he has been detained. If you want him to know right away, consider using a metal detecting wand as soon as you arrive in the room. If the metal detector signals a possible weapon, never ask him to produce it. That puts the weapon in his hand. If you decide to tell him that you are, for example, looking for something prohibited by school rules, explain that you must retrieve it yourself. If you must search by hand, without benefit of a metal detecting wand, be thorough. Even veteran police officers have missed weapons because of incomplete searches. If you search and don’t find a weapon, don’t send him back to class. Wait for law enforcement officers to arrive so that they can search again.
- In the meantime, begin to interview the student. Law enforcement officers should conduct their own interview. They are trained in interview and interrogation techniques, and they can pick up on cues you may miss. Also, they might have other information that will give a more complete perspective on the situation.
Wait for Police
If you determine that it’s best to wait to take action until law enforcement officers arrive, consider the following tactics:
- Never break your surveillance.
- Once law enforcement officers arrive, the situation becomes theirs to control, and this can be difficult for school officials to accept. Law enforcement tactics during weapons situations may be perceived as too disruptive and dramatic. This does not preclude a collaborative plan of action, especially if the school is properly prepared.
- Expect more than one officer. Weapons incidents are potentially deadly, and standard officer safety practices dictate more than one officer.
- Be prepared to recap the information you have received, provide a photo or description of the armed student, describe the area where he is currently located, and identify nearby areas that would provide a secure location for an immediate search.
- If he is in a classroom and officers choose to meet him there, they will take tactical positions, perhaps on both sides of the door. Hallways must be kept empty at this time. Depending on your notification procedures, you might call for a school lockdown, but that decision must be made carefully. If this procedure would alert the student, it might actually be counterproductive. If the armed student is in a common area surrounded by other students, you may need to point him out. It is crucial that gestures and conversations are discrete. Not only may the student become aware of the officers’ intentions, but other students may panic if they realize it as well. Officers may decide to approach him or delay their actions until he is in a more controlled situation.
- You may be requested to assist by removing the student from a common area or a classroom to help avoid arousing his suspicions or causing panic.
- Once away from the location, officers will likely take charge of him. This could include immediate handcuffing and search.
- Depending on the outcome of the search, officers may want to interview the reporting student and the armed students’ friends. These interviews can occur in a private, uninterrupted setting at school. Sometimes they occur in the law enforcement agency’s headquarters, following parent notification. Other considerations: If the armed student is in a remote location, such as the outer edges of the school parking lot, and there are no other people around, the best option would be surveillance combined with immediate law enforcement notification. A school lockdown should be considered unless it would somehow unnecessarily expose students to danger (for example, a room with large windows that faces the parking lot.) A building evacuation out the opposite side of your campus would be a much less desirable option.
Establish a Plan
Each crisis situation a principal faces is different and should be responded to accordingly, but each plan should include some basic similarities. Form an emergency team, and assign each person a task. Then run practice drills so each person knows what they need to do, and how quickly they can do it. Have floor plans of the school readily accessible with exits clearly marked. Contact local law enforcement officials and get their input on potential scenarios and how the team can best handle them.
Administrators handle dozens of “situations” each week, and it is easy to become complacent about them and our abilities to handle them. But weapons incidents go beyond our areas of expertise. What is true for every situation is the need for a plan. Past school tragedies involving weapons demand that we formulate plans that focus on being able to immediately respond to the unthinkable. These situations erupt quickly— entire episodes may last only minutes—minutes that must be used as efficiently as possible. Effective planning leads to emergency preparedness, which means crucial extra moments when there is a ticking clock.
Bill Bond is the NASSP Resident Practitioner for Safe Schools. Luanne Brown is the Director of Safety &Security at Carbondale Community High School, in Carbondale, IL.