Life tests our character and we are both the ant and grasshopper from Aesop’s fable. We both prepare and we procrastinate. We face a similar choice when it comes to protecting our children at school. Some of us planned and prepared ahead of time to protect our children, and some of us put that off for another day. What is worse is that some unprepared adults will blame the next mass murder at school on the citizens who took steps to protect their children from harm. Fortunately for all of us, we know how to stop mass murder in our schools. That wasn’t always true. Defending our children at school was both a discovery and an invention. I’ve studied school safety for the last decade and this is some of what we’ve learned.
Mass murder is designed to shock us, yet most of us ignore why these murderers kill our kids. Fewer of us act to take away the murderer’s motivation. Only a few of us work to put an effective defense in our schools. Mass murder strikes at all of our hearts, but a dedicated handful of people worked for years to make our children safer. It was hard work. It remains hard work.
Comparing mass murder to a natural disaster, it is easier to write detailed fire codes and seismic requirements for our schools than to admit that some people who look like us will deliberately hurt our children. Mass murder makes us feel helpless. We have to look evil in the face and not flinch. The good news is that we know exactly what to do to stop the next mass murderer in his tracks.
Murder is an ancient problem. We have laws against taking an innocent life but those laws are ineffective against someone who doesn’t care if they get killed. In the past, killing innocent victims was usually motivated by politics and religion and resulted in terrorist attacks. Planning your own suicide to include the death of a number of unrelated innocent parties is relatively new. We had to make a new name for it. This celebrity-murder was spawned by the news media that turned the murderer into an overnight sensation.
As peculiar as celebrity-murder sounds, we’ve seen similar behavior. We saw teenagers kill themselves so that they would be talked about on the local television news and in local newspapers. Teen suicides would cluster as one depressed teen wanted the attention given to the previous suicide. These troubled kids would rather be dead than live with the feeling of being ignored. We learned to keep these teens alive by not mentioning the name or showing the picture of the teenager who took his own life.
We reduced teen celebrity-suicide when we denied the teenagers the notoriety they were dying to get.
We can trace the growth celebrity-murders back to the attacks in Dunblane, Scotland and then to Port Arthur, Australia. It was 1999 when we saw celebrity-murder jump to the US with the attack at the high school in Columbine, Colorado. Old investigative reports found over 80 copycat attempts following the attack at Columbine. I’m sure the number of copycats is far higher by now.
If you doubt that celebrity-murder is real, then remember how the media idolized the two terrorists who set off a pressure-cooker bomb at the 2013 Boston Marathon. The media gave the murders a public relations campaign worth tens-of-millions-of-dollars. In response, thousands of attentions-starved teens wondered what they would have to do so it would be their face on the news.
The solution to stop celebrity-murder should be as easy as repeating what we did to radically reduce teen celebrity-suicide. What makes the solution harder is that few politicians will scold the press and hold them accountable for sensationalizing the mass murderer. The politician depends on the news media for campaign coverage.. and the press feeds the politician’s ego. I think that is why so few politicians will promote legislation to punish the news media when the press creates celebrity murderers.
Given our flawed political and media climate, we might think that the situation is hopeless if we want to stop someone who wants to kill others and then kill themselves. Threatening the murderer with punishment certainly doesn’t work. That means increased criminal penalties are ineffective. The murderers will study and plan for years. That means those mandatory waiting periods for firearms don’t work either. We’ve seen these murderers kill their family members to get a gun. We’ve seen mass murderers lie to school counselors and psychiatrists, so the murderer is not looking for help with their personal problems. That limits the therapeutic model of stopping mass murderers. In fact, many of the murderers feel superior to the rest of us because of their skill in deception and in manipulating others. A firearms background check looks backward, and mass murder is simply not a long-term career choice.
We discovered the solution to stop mass murders in schools almost by accident, but the discovery wasn’t simple. Fortunately, we had lots of people looking for a solution. The obvious place to turn for expertise in protecting our children was to ask the people who carried guns at school every day as part of their job. The process of discovery started when we asked school resource officers what they could do to stop mass murder in our schools.
There is a strong strain of professionalism in law enforcement when it comes to learning from the experience of other agencies. Administrators studied what worked and what failed. Someone asked the organization that studied school resource officers to see if an SRO could stop a mass murderer. The answer offered a ray of hope.
Yes, the SRO is an effective deterrent. Unfortunately, he is in uniform so he is easily identified. All the attacker had to do was wait for the SRO to go to lunch or until the SRO was at the opposite end of campus. The multiple attackers at Columbine, Colorado drove the single uniformed officer off-campus with their gunfire. These researchers determined that time was the critical factor in stopping an attack. Whatever solution would stop the attacker had to be inside the building before the first shot was fired. Every other solution took too long and left too many of our children dead or injured.
After the attack in Sandy Hook, Connecticut, we had tens of thousands of school boards and school principals calling their local sheriff or their police chief. They asked for armed officers in every school. Time is so critical that the school officials wanted an armed officer in every building.
Consider the problem of providing an armed officer at school. Not only do you need an armed officer only seconds away from each student, but you have to be there whenever students are present. The defenders have to be on campus early to protect the music and sports activities that take place before class starts. The defenders have to stay late for the sports and drama activities that happen after school. Then we can add in the weekend sports and music activities. Now include the kids riding on the school bus and the sports teams riding to an away game. The magnitude of the problem seems overwhelming. The solution was staring some sheriffs in the face every day.
About one-in-a-dozen adults legally carry concealed in public. In some states, the sheriff issues concealed carry permits. Sheriffs knew that many school staff legally carried a concealed firearm in public. These school staff members carried all the time, except when they were at work.
Some states didn’t have that problem since they never disarmed parents and school staff. After seeing school attacks in other states, more of these school staff simply got more training and carried a concealed firearm at work more often. If that shocks you, then hold on to your seat for what we discovered next.
We have the perception that teachers are politically liberal. That is certainly true of their labor union, but less true of individual teachers. Teachers are our neighbors. Teachers were polled to see if they would be willing to carry a concealed firearm at work as part of a recognized school safety program. Like the population at large, most teachers said no. What was surprising was that a much larger fraction of them said “yes” than the fraction of adults in the general population who have their carry permits. We don’t know the opinions of the rest of the adults at school, people like bus drivers, janitors, and cafeteria workers. We learned that school staff may not like guns but many were willing to carry a gun to protect “their kids.”
The sheriffs who knew which citizens were legally armed in public put together the blind date between the school staff and the school boards. That solved part of the problem. Luckily, the next part of the solution was waiting to be discovered.
The law enforcement brain-trust that set the curriculum for school resource officers looked at the skills required to stop a mass murderer. Only a tiny part of law enforcement training was useful to defend a school. These law enforcement trainers considered if they could prepare civilians to stop a mass murderer. It would take only a few days of instruction rather than the months required for a law enforcement officer at a police academy. For one thing, these ordinary citizens already knew how to carry a concealed firearm because they did it every day.
Again, I think we were lucky. The psychological temptation is to add more and more qualifications on armed school staff. That ignores that each restrictive requirement means another disarmed staff member at school. Quantity has a quality of its own when time is critically important. The perfect solution is the dangerous enemy of good enough. As an aside, the shooting qualifications for school staff are more demanding than the scores required to become a law enforcement officer.
Putting teachers and instructors together was a monumental achievement. The program started small and grew year to year. The organizers were civilian volunteers who cared about saving our kids. They had the vision, raised the money from private donations, and fought the political battles to let school boards do what the boards thought was best. Civic volunteerism on this scale is uniquely American.
We’ve talked about the defenders and their training. The last critical part of the solution to save our kids was provided by the attackers themselves. The murderers are not afraid of dying but they are deeply afraid of failure. They needed to murder a lot of people and nothing less will do. In their eyes, killing a hundred kids makes them a phenomenon while killing a few kids proves that they were really a failure all along. That turns out to be vitally important.
The murderers feared nameless mediocrity more than they feared death.
While the attacker may plan to murder unarmed students, they fear that they won’t see the little old lunch lady who pops out a back door of the school cafeteria and shoots them in the back. We don’t need a perfect defense but we do need a credible defense that sows doubt in the mind of the attacker. Mass murderers want a sure bet and armed school staff creates significant uncertainty in the attackers’ plans. Mass murderers turned away from schools and looked for other helpless targets in “gun-free” zones.
I have a fairly good imagination and we can imagine all kinds of problems that might exist with armed school staff. Before our imagination runs wild, consider that we already have several thousand man-years of experience with armed staff in schools. We wouldn’t notice that because concealed firearms are concealed. I have been in the training classes with school staff who volunteered to go armed on campus. The teachers and SROs talked to me after class. They were exactly the levelheaded people we want protecting our children. They would stop a bullet with their body to protect their kids.
Now we’ve given them a chance to save our children and a chance to go home alive. The greatest threat our children face is a politician and a journalist who can tell a biased story and leave the kids unprotected. That is another story for another time, but we have more challenges to face.
Let me leave you with this perspective. Our fantasies are not reality. Please consider this before you get overconfident because you play video games and think you could defeat a few elementary school teachers. In exercises on campus, the school staff I saw beat the police officers who tried to attack the schools. Our children are in good hands.
I respect both the SROs and the armed school staff. I’m glad they’re on our side defending our children. I wrote this so that more of us would be on their side.
List of school attacks — https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_school_massacres_by_death_toll
Faculty Administrator Safety Training and Emergency Response — https://fastersaveslives.org/
Faculty Administrator Safety Training and Emergency Response Colorado — https://i2i.org/faster-training/
Articles about FASTER at the SlowFacts blog — https://slowfacts.wordpress.com/category/faster/
Articles about public violence at the SlowFacts blog — https://slowfacts.wordpress.com/category/public-violence/