January 9, 2019


As more and more school districts toy with the idea of arming teachers and staff to defend against active shooter incidents, they are coming face-to-face with a harsh reality: Arming educators is an emerging risk that many insurance companies will not insure against. In fact, some insurance analysts have warned that if the practice of arming teachers becomes more common and leads to more injuries, school districts may find it increasingly difficult to afford proper insurance.

This realization has led to some unfortunate and unwise decisions by some school officials across the country. Instead of focusing their time and effort on prevention efforts that we know are effective, some schools have squandered their limited resources on workarounds to the threat of losing insurance coverage. Instead of arming teachers and staff with firearms, these schools are investing in the illusion of security by purchasing everything from rocks to baseball bats.

In Michigan, for example, a university chief of police chose to hand out hockey pucks to students and staff as a last resort to fight back against an active shooter. In a story posted on Campus Safety Magazine, the chief called it “kind of a spur-of-the-moment idea that seemed to have some merit.” That spur-of-the-moment flash of genius led to the purchase of 3,500 hockey pucks.

Unfortunately, this Michigan university is not the first educational institution to show just how little critical thinking has gone into addressing the very real and present danger of targeted acts of violence. In 2015, for example, a middle school in Alabama instructed parents to send their children to school with canned food to be used to throw at or distract the shooter. Sorry, but if your idea of lessening the threat from an active shooter is to have fourth graders throwing cans of tomato soup and baked beans at the assailant then you might want to reconsider how much you or your advisors really know about security.

The Blue Mountain School District just outside Philadelphia, PA, went old school last year when it decided to equip every classroom with a five-gallon bucket of rocks. That’s a five gallon bucket of river stones for every classroom at three elementary schools, a middle school and a high school. They may throw stones near Philly, but up in Millcreek Township in Erie County they wield mini baseball bats. Five-hundred teachers each got their own bat at the cost of $1,800.

If stones and bats aren’t for you, perhaps you would prefer the approach taken by the Columbiana Exempted Village School District in Ohio, where school officials spent $25,000 on threat extinguishers that shoot pepper spray up to 30 feet. The system also reportedly calls and texts authorities with location data whenever the extinguisher is removed from its electronic stand. This sounds great, but as the Parkland, Florida shooter demonstrated, some of today’s assailants come equipped with their own smoke grenades and gas masks.

Perhaps the worst example of a knee-jerk reaction to addressing the threat of school shootings comes from Saint Cornelius Catholic School in Chadds Ford, PA., where eighth graders and teachers were issued bullet-resistant Kevlar plates to put in their backpacks. Nothing says we have no idea what to do about targeted acts of school violence like handing out military-grade body armor to kids.

Let’s be honest: The vast majority of technology solutions being marketed to K-12 schools today (particularly the items discussed in this column) are tacit admissions of failure.  What we don’t do on a large enough scale is think about prevention.

Perpetrators of violent crimes, whether terrorists, sexual predators or mass shooters do not suddenly “snap” and carry out their acts. They plan their actions, sometimes meticulously down to the last detail. Targeted acts of violence are often preceded by a series of stages, all of which are designed to improve the chances of the attack succeeding. This is critical to our understanding of prevention, because all of these pre-attack/pre-incident activities can be observed and reported by vigilant bystanders.

If we’ve learned anything from the recent spate of school shootings, it is that the vast majority of violent attackers exhibit warning behaviors throughout their individual pathways to violence that are often unusual and alarming to those who observe them. The Police Foundation has built a nationwide database of averted and completed acts of school violence. So far, analysts have studied 51 incidents of averted school violence and preliminary results have found that the vast majority of plots were discovered and reported by the school attacker’s peers, followed by school staff.

For example, a few days after the Feb. 14 school shooting in Parkland, Florida, a high school junior in Poughkeepsie, New York, received a series of disturbing text messages from an old friend in Vermont. Something in her gut told her there was cause of concern. So she reported it to her counselor. The information was passed to the Fair Haven, Vermont, police department, and the boy was arrested. In interviews, the boy told officers he had been planning for two years to shoot students and staff at Fair Haven Union High School.

In some cases, there are multiple opportunities to observe suspicious behaviors and report. If we study the 2007 Virginia Tech mass shooting, for example, there were a total of 19 opportunities over a 19 month period to report and potentially disrupt the shooter’s journey to violence. From the very first observation of the shooter’s unprovoked rage and fascination with knives and other weapons, to his obsession with writing about violence, at least one instance of suicidal ideation, and even his pre-attack activities on the day of the shooting, there were ample opportunities for students, teachers and staff to report information that may have ultimately prevented him from carrying out his attack.

At LiveSafe, we know that prevention is possible. Our tip and reporting platform has played a central role in preventing everything from student suicides to sexual assault, harassment, criminal activity and targeted acts of violence. Prevention works, but only the most forward-thinking organizations have chosen to operationalize prevention with a modern technology infrastructure. Those organizations understand the role and value of threat assessment and early warning.

1 – “Lessons Learned from Averted Acts of School Violence,” Campus Safety, July 2, 2018. https://www.campussafetymagazine.com/safety/averted-school-violence/

2 – “Mass Shootings at Virginia Tech, Addendum to the Report of the Review Panel,” November 2009. https://scholar.lib.vt.edu/prevail/docs/April16ReportRev20091204.pdf

Powering Prevention

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 About Dan: Dan Verton is the Content Leader & Strategist at LiveSafe. He is also an award-winning journalist, former military intelligence officer, and author of Left of Boom: The Citizen’s Guide to Detecting and Preventing Terrorist Attacks.

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