Confusion in the Chaos of School Emergencies

Confusion in the Chaos of School Emergencies

By Chief Joel F. Shults, Ed.D

After the apparent lack of swift response to the school shooter in Uvalde, Texas, parents can panic over what might seem to be inaction on the part of the law enforcement response to emergencies in their own neighborhoods.

There are two things the public, and law enforcement leaders, must recognize about school attacks. One is that response strategies are still evolving, and the other is that the chaos of these tragic events is never the same as the last one or the next one. For all the planning and threat assessment that can be done, the uniqueness of each attack and each attacker.

One common misconception is the benefit of evacuation. Some have advocated pulling the fire alarm in cases of school attacks or bomb threats. This would be a mistaken tactic that can put students at higher risk. Statistics from decades of studies on school shootings show that the safest place for students is behind a locked classroom door. As of the date of this writing, there have been no fatalities of a K-12 student with a locked classroom door between them and the attacker. Putting students in hallways or streaming outside of the school building exposes them to unpredictable hazards.

Many think that evacuation should be the first option in cases of bomb threats as well. The best practice advises otherwise. Generally, protecting in place is the safest option. This is not because most bomb threats are false although allowing the disruption can feed into the caller’s motive. Just like safety from attack is found in the walls of a classroom, so too can safety from explosives be found behind those same walls.

When the image of an explosion comes to mind, it is likely that something like the collapse of the Murrah building in the Oklahoma City bombing. The kind of explosive device that might be used around a school is more likely to be a relatively small one, and more likely to be designed to maim than to destroy a building. These anti-personnel devices can be seeded with objects that create shrapnel rather than the power to take out walls. Such a device would likely be outside the classroom, either in a hallway or someplace commonly accessible, or outside near where persons might be exposed to a detonation. Best practice is to assess the credibility of a threat and conduct a search of areas by persons who know what would look “normal” or out of place.

Imagine if the Oklahoma City bomber had called in a bomb threat and the building had been evacuated into the parking lot where the truck full of explosive material ignited! Evacuation can result in a more dangerous exposure than the relative safety of the classroom.

With attacks on schools often completed within just a few minutes and usually essentially over by the time law enforcement arrives, the most current philosophy is that the first officers on the scene make an immediate entry to stop the attacker. Parents and observers, who may arrive sooner than law enforcement or soon after the police have deployed, can wonder why there are police still outside the building. In some instances, parents have rushed past the police to get into the building. The terrible memory of hundreds of officers in Uvalde, Texas waiting to enter the kill zone, as well as the apparent hesitancy of the school resource officer at the 2018 Parkland, Florida massacre has eroded trust in law enforcement response.

A first arriving officer might know that other officers are arriving soon and wait in order to create an effective ad hoc entry team, as happened with great effect in the Covenant School shooting in Nashville. Taking time to coordinate information and communication with the variety of agencies that will respond to this type of call is an important investment in a good outcome. Having many individual officers making uncoordinated plans and decisions can create confusion that may hamper an effective rescue and response. Officers may be setting up appropriate perimeters and observation points while observers wonder why they aren’t inside the school hunting for suspects.

Asking terrified parents for patience as they wait for word on their children is a big request, but in most cases letting the police do their job first is the safest for all.