for School Attacks
by Richard Fairburn and David Grossman
For those in the emergency response community who
thought school attacks were a thing of the past, the recent
active shooter incident in Montreal, Canada, and disrupted
attack in Green Bay, Wisconsin signaled a loud wake-up
call. Just a few days later, hostages were taken in a school
in Bailey, Colorado with tragic results and a principle
was killed by a student in a Sauk County, Wisconsin high
school. The Bailey, Colorado incident was horribly ironic
in that a SWAT team from neighboring Jefferson County (the
agency in charge of the Columbine response) was called
upon to make the hostage rescue assault.
school children are at risk from both angry students
and determined terrorists. After the Columbine high school
attack of 1999, many police agencies adopted and trained
some form of “Rapid Deployment” tactic for
responding to an active shooter. But, with lack of use
and the memory fade induced by time, many departments have
allowed their “edge” to become dull. We must
program school protection permanently onto our emergency
response hard drives.
Understand the Problem
At the end of the 20th Century, the United States suffered
a number of high-profile school attacks perpetrated by
students. The Columbine attack made the most national news,
but was only one of a significant string of violent assaults
that continue today.
The police response to a school attack committed by a
student or students is a daunting task. Confusion and panic
are rampant at these events and merely identifying and
locating the attacker(s) can be a huge problem. However,
few of these attackers are hardened killers. In several
cases they were brought under control, putting a stop to
the killing, with nothing more than verbal commands from
an authority figure. The boys at Columbine had trained
themselves well enough to exchange gunfire with the police
and even clear a malfunctioning weapon to get back in the
fight. But, most school and workplace shooters are seeking
easy targets, not a gunfight.
The world watched what happened September 1, 2004, at
Beslan, Russia with stunned disbelief, but it has happened
in many other nations. Turkey has had over 300 schools
destroyed by terrorist attacks. Pakistan, Algeria, and
many other nations, in addition to Russia, have experienced
brutal school massacres committed by terrorist groups.
The groups perpetrating these attacks shared common motivations
... the same motivations that brought us the attacks of
September 11, 2001.
One of the most tragic and devastating terrorist acts
in Israel was the Ma'alot school massacre in 1974 in which
21 Israeli children were murdered in a brutal terrorist
act that set the stage for many subsequent attacks on schools.
As a result of this incident, Israel has lived for thirty
years with armed security in every school, armed guards
on every field trip and sporting event, armored busses
and armed security on those busses. Can anyone comprehend
what it would cost the United States to have that kind
of security for every school, every field trip and every
bus in America? You think your school, city, state or nation
has budget problems now?
Grossman (one of the authors of this article) co-authored
an article published in the Harvard Journal of Law and
Public Policy, which stated that if a series of active
shooter terrorist attacks happened in the US, as they have
in Israel, we will arm our selves and get on with life – just
like Israel. But, you can't arm the kids! Even Israel can't
arm its children. If a major terrorist attack on a school
is successful, the terrorists can impact every family and
every school in America, disrupting our economy and way
of life unlike any other conventional attack. It is our
job to prevent that and to protect our kids.
A police response to a terrorist attack may need to be
very different from what would work with a incident committed
by students. In an August 2002 Pakistani incident, one
armed guard drove off four armed terrorists attacking a
Christian school. On the contrary, the attackers at Beslan
in 2004, were heavily armed and determined to achieve a
huge body count ... which they accomplished. One well armed
responder might drive off or delay a small-scale terrorist
attack, but a well prepared terrorist team could overwhelm
all but a military-level response team. The possibility
of terrorists in the United States assembling 30 armed
attackers without detection is very remote, but even this
remote possibility must be taken into consideration.
sky is NOT falling. This is only one of many things terrorists
could do to us. If we over react; if we change
our way of life because of the threat of school massacres,
then we give way to fear and the terrorists get the victory
they desire without having to fire a shot. So, we must
strike a balance between preparing for an unthinkable horror
without giving way to unreasoned fear. We must respond
with a balanced and reasoned "all hazards" approach
to this threat. The odds of a school attack in your community
are admittedly low. The odds of any given police officer
being shot making a traffic stop today are also low, yet
we train for that eventuality on a regular basis. If the
risk is high, we must train and prepare, no matter the
likelihood. To ignore the threat is to live in denial.
Consider these “Five D’s:”
In order to avoid falling victim to DENIAL:
- DETER -
Have alert, visible and armed security on site. Train
and equip response teams to a high standard
and make their capabilities known (though the details of
response techniques should remain classified). Convince
the potential attacker they won’t succeed in killing
innocent targets if they come to your locale.
- DETECT -
Like Detectives, be ever vigilant for “clues.” Virtually
every school attacker, student or terrorist, conducts extensive
reconnaissance of their target. They will analyze the availability
of ingress and egress points. Questions will be asked about
the site’s security preparations. They may photograph
and/or sketch the area. Both human and video surveillance
can help you pattern these recon missions.
- DELAY - Harden
the target with security checkpoints and random security
patrols. Drill lockdown procedures to
remove easy targets from their potential kill zone. Make
sure the lock-down procedure includes the means to lock
the doors to areas of refuge. Avoid the urge to evacuate
into an area not proven to be safe from potential snipers
- DESTROY -
If they still choose your site as their target ... you
must respond quickly and forcefully. An
analysis of active shooter incidents by co-Author Richard
suggests that even a Rapid Deployment team is unlikely
to assemble in time to save lives.(1) In most incidents,
chance available to save lives is an instant response by
on-scene personnel or the first arriving officer. At this
point we are not just seeking to defeat the attackers.
One of the lessons of the 2004 Russain school massacre,
in John Giduck's excellent book, "Terror at Beslan" is
that we must attack immediately, with maximum violence,
and no intention of pulling back or giving up ground. Attack
the enemy hard and fast and DESTROY them before they destroy
Make a Plan
very little innovative thinking occurs under combat conditions,
we must plan and train for the next fight before
we’re in it. Rapid Deployment tactics are a prime example.
Some have criticized the actions of the police responders
at Columbine, yet no police agency in the country had ever
anticipated a school attack of that magnitude ... until it
happened. The responders at Columbine reacted as they had
been trained and, quite frankly, the complications of that
incident might not have allowed a significantly different
response irregardless of their training.
schools and response agencies now strongly recommend a
policy of “lockdown.” When we consider how
both fire alarms and bomb threats have been used to evacuate
victims into the “kill zone” of a prepared outside
ambush, perhaps a lockdown is the best initial response to
any school threat. Lockdown drills, like fire drills, are
now mandated for schools in some states.
Pre-plan your site. Staging Areas, Command Post locations
and Reunification Sites should be pre-determined. All resources
scheduled to respond to your school should be part of periodic
drills ... actual hands-on drills, not tabletop exercises.
and Train your People Well
security in your school will go far to deter an attack,
but if an attack comes, these officers may be the first to
be targeted. So, we need a certain type of officer as a School
Resource Officer (SRO). At the risk of insulting some, we
must state a fact. Some officers are assigned to schools
because they are ineffective on the street. Choose your best
officers to protect your most valuable property ... your
children. SROs must be intelligent, alert, inquisitive and
congenial, yet be ready to shift into “combat mode” in
an instant. We need “sheepdogs” to protect our “lambs.” Warriors,
not wimps guarding our children.
Train your SROs to respond effectively to a threat either
alone or as a two-officer team, joining up with the first
arriving patrol officer. Consider the controversial option
of pre-positioning protective gear and a carbine for these
officers in a secure on-site location. We owe these guardians
the best survival odds we can provide.
Train Rapid Deployment techniques to the rest of your department.
This training should be as stressful and realistic as possible
including difficult surroundings, live role players and paintball-type
gunfight simulations. Team training must be refreshed at
least annually to maintain these perishable skills.
your first-line supervisors to quickly take command at
a school violence incident. The supervisor’s first
duty is to conduct a rapid problem assessment and sort through
the confusing flood of initial intelligence. Their quick
analysis of the situation will drive a hasty risk assessment
to determine if a response by a single officer or Rapid Deployment
team has a chance to reach and neutralize an active shooter.
In most cases, we must take immediate action to stop the
killing. However, if the on-scene commander identifies a
situation like Beslan, with numerous, heavily armed attackers,
a delaying action may be the best he can achieve with limited
resources. Adding responder bodies to the pile in a noble,
yet futile gesture may make the problem even worse.
you scale up your school security preparations and response
plans, keep them current. Motivate your people to
stay sharp and be alert. School attacks, like other violent
crimes, tend to ebb and flow in their frequency. We are all
shocked back to a high state of awareness after an attack
occurs, but the calm periods may require even more vigilance.
Our enemies use the lulls to conduct reconnaissance and plan
their moves. Remember the DETER and DETECT aspects of our
The situation is very much like fire protection. The probability
of a student being killed or seriously injured by violence
is significantly greater than the probability of being killed
or seriously injured by fire. No child has been killed by
school fire in North America in over a quarter of a century,
but in the 2004/2005 school year, 48 people were murdered
in American schools. These are usually random acts of violence,
or shootings by students as opposed to acts of terrorism,
but the defense against terrorist attacks in our schools,
as outlined in this article, is largely the same as the defense
against school shootings.
Thus, our children are dozens of times more likely to be
killed by violence than fire, and thousands of times more
likely to be seriously injured by violence as compared to
fire. Yet, in any school you can look around and see fire
sprinklers, smoke alarms, fire exits, and fire extinguishers.
If we can spend all that money and time preparing for fire
(and we should, since every life is precious) shouldn't we
spend time and money preparing for the thing that is far
more likely to kill or injure a child?
The most negligent, unprofessional, obscene words anyone
can ever say are: "It will never happen here." When
someone asks, "Do you really think there will be a
terrorist act or a school shooting here?" Just point
to the fire exit and say, "Do you really think there
will be a fire here?” No, we don't think there will
ever be a fire here. But we would be morally, criminally
negligent if we did not prepare for the possibility. And
the same is far, far truer of school violence."
a month after the 9-11 terrorist attacks Col. Grossman
was training a group of special operations troops who were
headed to Afghanistan. A Special Forces (Green Beret) sergeant
came up during one of the breaks and said, "Colonel,
we're going to Afghanistan, and we're gonna kick their tails.
While we're over there, you tell all those folks you teach,
don't let them come kill our kids."
Our servicemen are over there dying for us every day, trying
to keep the terrorists on the defense, or as one Marine
put it, "To keep it ta hell over there!" The
troops believe in what they are doing, and they only ask
one thing: "Watch my back and do your job ... don't
let them come kill my kids." THAT is what this article
is about, and THAT is what WE should be about.
Every day, millions of parents hug millions of kids, their
most precious possessions, and send those kids to school,
trusting US to keep them alive. So don't just read this article
and the books recommended here(2), apply them! Be like the
firefighter: put the risk in perspective, pray that it will
never happen, know that it COULD happen, and work with all
your heart and soul to prevent it from happening.
It could be YOUR child or grandchild's life that you save.
Report: “Rapid Deployment as a response to an
Active Shooter Incident,” Illinois State Police Academy,
(2) Michael and Chris Dorn's book "Innocent Targets" is
required reading for those who would like more information
on terrorist attacks on schools in many nations. For more
in depth information about the most recent and horrific
school massacre in Beslan, Russia, John Giduck's definitive
book, "Terror at Beslan" is essential reading.