Are your schools ready for an active shooter?

By Sgt. Cathy Riggs  |   Oct 2, 2019

A down & dirty security assessment.

One of my departmental responsibilities is to help prepare area schools for an active shooter event. Before my team and I teach prevention and response strategies at a school, we like to do a walk-through of the campus, in plain clothes, to assess the general level of security and preparedness of the facility and the staff.

Here is what we look for.

Ease of entry. How easy is it to enter the school? Some private schools have security on-site, usually at the entrance where people drive-in. I like it when they ask for identification and write down my name. This is a good sign. If there is no security, I look to see where the entrance is and whether I can get in without going through the office. I walk around the perimeter of the school looking for easy ways to enter; open gates, no fencing or low or easy-to-scale fencing like chain link. Unfortunately, for schools lacking appropriate fencing, there is no easy or cheap solution but fencing solutions should be considered.

High ground. Is there a high vantage point on the school property? Before entering the school, I look around to see if there is high ground nearby and whether there are physical barriers between that location and where the kids play. I really wish we didn’t have to even think this way, but incidents in both Dallas and Las Vegas where shooters took high positions demonstrated that we do.

Visibility. When the children are at recess are they visible/accessible from outside the school grounds? If the play area is visible to someone who is outside the school’s fencing, ideally a new fencing solution should be considered.

Speed of contact. When I get to the front office, am I immediately acknowledged or ignored for a time? Any bad guy will tell you that crimes are easier to commit when you are invisible. Retail stores can prevent shoplifting with the easy tactic of greeting customers as they walk in. School staff show authority when they immediately greet visitors and inquire about the visitor’s purpose in calling on the school. Visitors who are allowed on campus during school hours should have to sign in and if the school staff doesn’t know them, provide identification.

“Front” office location. Speaking of the front office, is it truly in the front of the school? Some schools I’ve visited have an office that is in the middle or rear of the campus, providing very little security and allowing for unchecked access when people visit the school during school hours. I always recommend that if there is any way for the school to move the office to whatever building or room is at the front entrance of the school they should do so.

Two questions: Keys and communication. Once my team and I make contact with the principal or designee, we walk through the interior of the school, asking questions as we go. There are two questions I ask the principal that usually get a different answer when I ask a teacher:

Question: Who has keys to get out of the gate at the back of the school?

Principal’s answer: Everyone and they carry the keys on them at all times.

Teacher’s answer: I have a key, but it doesn’t actually open the gate. I usually keep the key in my desk. OR: I never got a key. OR: I have a key and it works but I don’t carry it with me.

The key question is important because bad guys don’t always wait until class is in session to do bad things. Sometimes they strike at lunchtime or recess. Kids who are out of the classrooms might not be able to run to the relative safety of a classroom because the bad guy is between them and the building. They might have to run off-campus, and if there is a locked gate between the kids and safety, someone has to open the gate or the kids will need to scale a fence.

Question: Who knows how to use your paging system?

Principal’s answer: Everyone. We covered it in a staff meeting last week.

Teacher’s answer: I’ve never used the paging system and I’m not sure how to do it.

The paging system question is important because in most schools if a bad guy enters one end of the school, the people at the other end of the school have no idea what is going on until they hear the page. School campuses are pretty big places, even elementary school campuses. You can’t just yell and think everyone will hear you. They won’t. Paging systems are vital.

I also ask what areas of the school the paging system does NOT reach. Many schools are using a telephone-based paging system and since there are typically no telephones in restrooms, outdoor areas, cafeterias, etc., mass notifications go unheard by anyone in these areas.

Lockdowns. Should there be a threat to the school, such as an active shooter on campus, most schools go to lockdown first. During our walkthrough, we look at the ease and safety of locking down in various parts of the campus. We ask to see a few “typical” classrooms. (Typical is in quotes because most schools have a few distinct types of rooms.) Some classrooms might be in temporary buildings. Some are on the interior of the school. Some have multiple entrance and exit points. Recommendations for lockdown and evacuation depend a lot on the physical layout of the classroom.

We ask to see the classrooms because, during a training session, we like to break out into various workspaces and practice locking down. If there are three different types of rooms, I know to bring three instructors so we can take staff into each type.

Best lockdown scenario. The easiest room to lock down and the safest overall has one door and no windows (yeah, I know, not fun to teach in a room with no windows). The door locks from the inside with a press of a button or flick of a switch, not a key. This is best because people lose fine motor skills during stressful situations, including the ability to quickly put a key into a keyhole. The walls are solid cinderblock or some other material that bullets won’t pass through. The door is also solid and bullet resistant. The room has a bathroom attached and the teacher has food and water for all the students to last up to eight hours. There is a first aid kit in the room stocked with current supplies, including a tourniquet. The teacher has a way to communicate with people on the outside, such as a computer or a phone. The teacher knows basic first aid and has been trained in CPR and how to “Stop the Bleed.” There is a fire extinguisher in the room. Something to note is the fact that in addition to helping put out fires, fire extinguishers also make great improvised weapons. Just make sure your teachers know how to use one. Your local fire department may be able to provide training.

Worst lockdown scenario. The most difficult room to lockdown is one in a temporary building with thin, flimsy walls. The building has lots of windows with no coverings and several doors that lock from the outside with a key only. There is no food, water, toileting supplies, or first aid kit in the room. There is no fire extinguisher. The teacher does not know CPR or first aid. There are no hiding spots and no good place to put the children. If this room sounds familiar, consider evacuation to a safer location as a first resort.

Most classrooms are somewhere in between these two extremes. The quickest way to deny access to a room is to lock the door, so this is the first thing we look at. We test the door lock to see how easy it is to engage and whether the door appears sturdy.

Window coverings are next. We test these, too. Occasionally we find blinds that don’t close or curtains that leave a large gap. If there is a window in the classroom door, there should ideally be a cover for it. If you don’t have a covering, a piece of construction paper or heavy cloth can be pre-cut to fit the window and then attached to the door next to or below the window with Velcro. The paper or cloth is then moved into place to quickly cover the window in an emergency.

We look for emergency supplies, food, and water in the classroom and where they’re located. Supplies kept in a storage container at the back of the school don’t do anyone any good if they can’t be accessed.

Finally, we figure out the best place to put the children. The “best place” varies by classroom, but the principle is the same for every room; the kids should be out of sight and there should be solid, bullet-resistant barriers between the kids and the doors/windows/walls of the room. If a bad guy shoots through the door, window or wall, we want the bullets to strike furniture, not kids. Sometimes this means piling up furniture up or stacking it in a row to create a barrier.

Know that this is not a comprehensive list of everything we look for and all the questions we ask, but it contains some of the more important ones. Just about anyone can use this technique to assess the overall security at their school.