The saying that the best defense is a good offense is not necessarily a strategy most wish would be applied to schools.
But as the issue of school safety stemming from school shootings continues, some lawmakers and schools are looking at offensive measures to help protect students.
One such measure is a bill in the state Senate Education Committee that would allow school employees to carry guns on school property. The bill was introduced as another option for protecting students, especially those in rural areas that rely on often-distant state troopers for police protection, The Associated Press reported.
That measure, however, does not sit well with everyone — even those who back offensive defense training for school staff.
After the Columbine shooting, former law enforcement officer Greg Crane co-founded the ALICE Training Institute with his wife, an elementary school principal. The two designed a training regimen for schools across the country that would allow staff to take action if confronted with an intruder.
Though a number of states allow teachers to carry guns on school property, Crane said he has not included weapons in the training program and does not believe they are a good idea.
“It’s actually not at all the same for people using weapons for self-defense as it is to use it (offensively),” Crane said. “(Arming teachers) is asking too much of teachers to be ... the security force. If there’s a shooting in the cafeteria, what are the teachers supposed to do? Are they supposed to leave their students alone to respond?”
Mike Hurley, co-founder and president of Cumberland County Safe Schools Association, said there has been discussion locally on arming school staff after the Newtown, Connecticut, shooting, but the association has no position on the matter.
“There was a lot of discussion, there was a lot of different opinions, a lot of pros and cons that have to be looked at, and I think that’s something each school district has to look at with their own community,” he said.
Crane said there is a danger in adding more guns to an intruder scenario. He used the attempted assassination of Ronald Reagan as an example, saying the Secret Service members present were all armed but they did not fire their weapons — they used their numbers to tackle the shooter.
“They did not shoot back, but subdued him in three seconds,” Crane said. “They did it with overwhelming numbers. In that environment, there was a lot of friendlies standing around, and it’s unacceptable to put other people at risk.”
Although using guns is not an option as a defensive measure in Pennsylvania, what is being taught is a way for teachers and staff to verbally or physically intervene when confronted with a violent and armed intruder.
Since its founding after Columbine, the ALICE Training Institute has trained teachers in 49 states and reached students in kindergarten through 12th grade. Crane said they are branching out to training staff in the private sector of education.
Crane said the training itself is not so much physical as it is retraining the policies with which the schools follow in intruder incidents.
“It’s not something out of a manual,” Crane said. “We don’t want you fighting a gunman, but you may have to mitigate his chances of hurting someone.”
The point of the training is to follow what Crane believes is the better instinct to flee instead of instituting the sole method of a lockdown.
“I don’t understand why in a fire everyone gets out of the building, but you stay in the building when an intruder is on the loose,” Crane said. “At Sandy Hook, the children who ran out of the classroom survived. Why didn’t we evacuate if it is possible?
“We don’t dismiss lockdowns as strategy, but we dismiss lockdowns as policy,” he added.
The training isn’t too involved because Crane said it can’t be.
“It really is very simple — it had to be very, very simple,” he explained. “In (a confrontation), people are not going to come up with fine motor skills and complicated (orders). But it is also very, very effective.”
Hurley said the county association adopted the “run, hide or fight” concept for training staff to handle an intruder situation in the wake of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting on Dec. 14, 2012.
Hurley said all nine school districts have taken steps to implement the concept into their school safety plans, although there are variations in the training they provide to staff.
For local schools, “run, hide or fight” means that running away should be the first option if confronted with an intruder, hiding should be the second option, and fighting should be considered a last result if the first two options are not possible. Hurley did not provide details about training due to operational security concerns, but said the fight option includes a range of verbal and physical techniques.
“Obviously, all of those options are dependent on the situation itself ... there’s not just one straight plan that says, ‘OK, this is going to work in every event,’” he said.
Factors which could determine appropriate action include what weapon the intruder is wielding and whether there are one or multiple intruders, he said. Teachers are taught to make sure they know the specific situation before they act.
“Anybody could use that and should be familiar with the concept,” he said.
Push for training
The reasoning behind the training is the same that some people are using to allow teachers to carry guns on school property.
Crane said it may take law enforcement five to six minutes to get to the scene of an incident — enough time for an intruder to hurt many students and staff.
Megan Silverstrim, spokeswoman for the Cumberland County Department of Public Safety, said that in the event of an intruder, “everyone’s going to respond as fast as they possibly can.”
She noted, however, that the event is often over by the time first responders arrive.
“To me, you’re on your own until someone gets there ... it’s your fight for your life. You need to make the decision of what you’re going to do,” she said. “Every situation is going to be different, and we can’t give people a script of exactly how an assailant is going to act and how they should react. So if you have options, you can say, ‘What is the best option for me right now.’
“It’s big to have options, because, again, if that exit door is right beside you, take it,” Silverstrim said.
Crane argued that the need for violent intruder training stems from policies that forced teachers to lock doors and stay in the same location.
“Why are so many people killed in the shootings, and why are they able to shoot so many targets?” Crane asked, noting that even trained individuals miss a high percentage of mobile targets. “Our major focus is to move people away from being passive.”
Mechanicsburg Police Chief David Spotts, criminal justice planning specialist for the South Central Task Force, agreed that more options needed to be on the table for students and staff.
“There’s a realization that hiding is just not enough ... up until a few years ago, that was the only thing that was being discussed, was hide,” he said. “The more time you can buy or the more distance you can keep between you and the attacker, obviously, you’re chances of surviving to go up.
“Action beats inaction,” he added. “We’d rather have you do something than nothing.”
Crane said there was initial resistance to the idea of providing intruder training to teachers, but that has since diminished over the years.
“We can’t guarantee no casualties,” Crane said. “It’s initial training to take them from then to now.”
For Hurley, the local teaching staff seem to embrace learning how to make sure students are safe.
“I think in general, the teaching staffs and the support staffs are encouraged that they have some options. ... You have to make sure they’re well-prepared. You need to familiarize them with as many potentials as you can,” he said.
There are still others who prefer methods that target preventing such incidents instead of arming or training teachers to react.
Jeffrey Daniels, department chairman of psychology and counseling at West Virginia University, studied school violence, looking at incidents where schools thwarted shooting incidents and where a person held someone captive inside the school. Daniels concluded that the best way to prevent violence in schools was to create a trusting relationship among students.
“Another common finding across schools where there has been a shooting is a code of silence,” Daniels said. “I think it’s somewhere between 70 and 75 percent of school shootings (that) someone knew about it in advance but didn’t say anything. In the schools that we went to, they made specific efforts to break that code of silence. This is usually done by creating trusting relationships with students, so that if someone was concerned about an individual student, they would feel comfortable going to talk to a teacher or a principal or a guidance counselor.”
Daniels said he isn’t personally comfortable with the idea of teachers being armed in the classroom, though he noted that armed school resource officers have been an option that could create a safer environment for students. However, it’s important that the officer is trained with more than just how to fire a weapon properly.
“It really depends on the personality of the school resource officer,” Daniels said. “In one study, it was reported that students felt safer with a SRO ... but in other situations where the SRO was not adequately trained to really connect with youth and not be there as a law enforcement officer but rather a peace officer, students do not feel connected or safe. It’s really about the ability to connect with youth.”
That emotional effect on students and staff has districts proceeding cautiously with its intruder training.
“You have to be careful when you do that, because it can affect us all from an emotional standpoint,” Hurley said.
However, Hurley said, school districts are keeping abreast of how best to protect students in unpredictable situations.
“I think schools have tried to, particularly in the last five to six years, maintain a much more stable level of concern,” he said.