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Teachers briefed on protocol for dealing with school intruder

Teachers briefed on protocol for dealing with school intruder

"Locked down is not enough'

January 18th, 2014 in News

Candace Mitchell and Julie Lueckenhoff, both teachers at Blair Oaks High School, pull on a cord used to hold a door closed. This was part of the intruder training teachers and staff from all three Blair Oaks schools received over the course of the day Friday in the exercise held in the middle school.

Four days after a Roswell, N.M., boy with a sawed-off shotgun seriously wounded two peers in a middle school gymnasium and the same day two students were shot in a Philadelphia school gym, the Blair Oaks' faculty spent Friday learning new ways to respond to dangerous intruders.

Brad Spicer - who serves on the Blair Oaks Board of Education and who is president and CEO of SafePlans, a company that specializes in security and emergency preparedness - led the half-day training, which also was attended by staff from nearby parochial schools.

Using case studies from some of the most-infamous school shootings in the nation - Columbine, Sandy Hook, Virginia Tech - Spicer talked about the techniques that teachers can use to harden their classrooms, defeat intruders, diminish the number of dead and stay alive.

But he noted it's likely that teachers and principals - not law enforcement - will be the first to confront a shooter. And he warned the lockdown procedures that emergency planners have been advising for years are no longer considered the best practices.

"Lockdown, alone, will not give people the maximum ability to survive," he said. "It takes eight to nine minutes for an officer to get here. While police officers will come as fast as they can, you will be the first line of defense."

Spicer said the massacre at Virginia Tech in 2007 - in which a disaffected college student named Seung-Hui Cho chained shut the doors of an academic hall in order to kill 30 people - compelled a change in his thinking.

"That's when I realized we have to change our recommendations," he said. "Locked down is not enough."

Spicer noted the passive response employed at Sandy Hook Elementary - where Adam Lanza gained entry by shooting out a glass window next to a locked front door - is not a "realistic" approach for saving lives. Spicer said Lanza murdered 26 people in a 4.5-minute attack. At Sandy Hook, the school's plan failed not only because the principal was killed before she could warn teachers, but also because teachers had to step into the hallways to lock their doors.

Spicer said instead of hiding from intruders, teachers need to be able to actively come up with a plan to protect their charges.

"Passive targets are easy pickings," he lamented.

Teachers have three choices, he said. They can run. They can hide. Or they can fight.

Whichever they choose depends on their circumstances. And it's up to them - not authorities - to make the quick call. "There's no way you can develop an emergency plan for every possible scenario. Your location is going to determine what you do first," he cautioned.

Instead Spicer wants teachers to: observe what's going on; orient themselves to their options; decide on the best response and carry out the plan to the best of their abilities.

On Friday, teachers practiced barricading themselves in their rooms with piles of desks. They felt what it was like to use a belt or a cord to tie an unlocked door shut so a shooter couldn't enter easily. They contemplated the possibility of using a heavy microscope like a brick to break a glass window. They talked about distracting a shooter by throwing things at him.

"You're not going to let him just walk into the classroom," Spicer said.

He noted teachers have to be clear and loud in their commands. For example, if students are told to evacuate the cafeteria, they'll probably, out of habit, use the same entrance/exit they always use, even if it's not the safest route.

Submissive behavior is a response to extreme stress.

"Kids are more likely to listen to you than ever before," he said.

That is, if students can even hear the directions. He noted that loss of hearing - the inability to make sense of words - is also a reaction to an adrenaline rush. "It's normal but it's counterproductive to survival," he said. "But we don't want you to experience submissive behavior."

He said it's likely the teachers, themselves, will be experiencing the "mental processes of combat." He said vasoconstriction is going to cause their hands to shake and fumble. Time will feel like it's passing in slow motion. It will be harder to think clearly and communicate.

But when people know what to expect, it's easier to overcome those sensations and act.

"Breathe. Stay calm," he advised.

He noted training sessions are important because "very little innovative thinking happens under combat conditions."

Spicer said it's OK to talk to middle and high school students about running and hiding, but he discouraged school personnel from discussing the need to fight back.

"Kids think they are bullet-proof. We want them to live long and learn that they are not," he said. "Elementary kids can't fight, but they can run."

He also told teachers that when law enforcement arrives on campus, their first order of business is to stop the shooter, not attend to injuries.

And he emphasized that predicting violent behavior - in order to prevent it - is the best course of action.

"If you cannot imagine a crime, you cannot prevent it," he said.

He noted killers don't "just snap." Instead they typically exhibit a history of telltale signs - inappropriate remarks, a fascination with weapons, threats, suicidal writings, fantasies of destruction - that often go ignored until it is too late. Prior to most incidents, the attacker told someone about his ideas and plans.

"Almost always, this was another student," he lamented. Spicer encouraged the teachers to foster a school climate of trust, so teens feel comfortable coming forward.

But Spicer also said there's no one accurate, useful profile. (For example, one shooter was an Eagle Scout and cross country athlete.)

And he said, when a questionable incident does happen, it's incumbent on school personnel to find out what's going on. He said it makes sense to have someone who has a rapport with the student question him or her. "The goal is not to make a criminal case, but to see who really poses a threat," he said. "Discipline and threat-assessment are two different processes."

At the training session, teachers took the message seriously.

Corey Wood, a social studies teacher and basketball coach, said the advice given to teachers has changed since he started teaching.

He's more vigilant these days during morning bus duty, making a point to observe who is approaching the school. And he also thinks about what he would do if something bad happened during a sporting event.

"I really think about putting myself in these situations," Wood said.

First-grade teacher Beth Isenberg said the training session has compelled her to think through scenarios for her own classroom.

"It hit home with Sandy Hook," Isenberg said, noting she was moved by the plight of the helpless first-graders killed in that attack. "That caught my attention."