6 lessons from the Saugus High School shooting

The first armed responders to arrive at the shooting were three off-duty officers, a reminder that it’s crucial to carry your firearm off duty

What Happened: At approximately 7:30 am on November 14, 2019, a 16-year-old student at Saugus High School in Santa Clarita, California, shot 5 students, killing 2, with a handgun. He then shot himself in the head with the last round in the pistol. The killer later died from his self-inflicted wound.

I’m saddened to have to report on another senseless killing in our schools, but law enforcement has to take advantage of the opportunity to learn from this event, in the hopes of preventing the next.

As with all active shooter incidents, the killings at Saugus High School highlight and reinforce valuable lessons, if we’re paying attention. Some of these include:

Parents wait to reunite with their children after a shooting at Saugus High School in Santa Clarita, Calif., Thursday, Nov. 14, 2019.
Parents wait to reunite with their children after a shooting at Saugus High School in Santa Clarita, Calif., Thursday, Nov. 14, 2019. (AP Photo/Ringo H.W. Chiu)

1. Engagement and awareness is necessary

Predictably, there has been a chorus of voices declaring the killer as a "bright, quiet, normal kid" who "showed no signs" of emotional distress or danger before the shooting. Fellow students knew him as an athlete and Boy Scout, and expressed their shock that he would commit this atrocity "without warning.”

We see these kinds of self-soothing statements after every shooting and they’re almost always discredited when we learn more about the killer. These horrific crimes don’t happen in vacuums, and well-adjusted, healthy, happy people don’t suddenly snap and kill their classmates. There are ALWAYS signs of looming trouble, but the problem is, most people are oblivious to them. They simply don’t pick up on the danger cues that are there to see.

Without exception, active killers ALWAYS display signs of trouble and give warnings before these attacks. We have to be engaged and aware enough to detect them, however. We must pay attention to the people around us, what they're doing and what they're saying. We cannot be afraid to seek help for people in an apparent crisis. I can all but guarantee that someone in this killer’s life was concerned about something he said or did in the days, weeks, months and years leading up to this attack ‒ perhaps a friend, teacher, coach, relative, or fellow student ‒ and there were signs that his emotional and mental health were failing.

It is notable that this killer's father died suddenly, less than two years before the attack, and reportedly had a history of multiple driving under the influence offenses. Additionally, it's reported that he had previously been booked on domestic violence charges. These are the kinds of “negative home life” and “history of bullying” factors identified in a recent United States Secret Service report on school violence, which were common to nearly every attacker in their study of 41 incidents between 2008-2017.

Somebody knew or should have known, that this young man was in crisis. If we want to prevent similar school attacks in the future, we need to educate teachers, administrators, staff, students and the public about the things to watch for, encourage them to be alert for these signs, and create a culture where it’s OK to seek help for someone who needs it.

2. Gun control does not work

In the wake of the shooting, Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva identified gun control as a solution “that’s just hanging out there and we need to work on.” He suggested cracking down on the “prevalence of guns” is the key to solving the problem of school shootings.

This is nonsense. The 16-year-old killer in this incident obtained his firearm illegally, and wouldn’t have been stopped by any gun control measure. There is no background check, registration scheme, waiting list, capacity restriction, or ban that could have stopped this killer from getting a weapon. Any effort spent on curbing the rights of law-abiding citizens in the hope it will change the behavior of criminals, is stupid and wasteful. It would be far better to spend our limited resources on more constructive solutions that don’t violate individual liberties.

3. School Resource Officers might work

Many school districts have added School Resource Officers (SROs) as a means of combatting this kind of violence, but they’re only part of the solution, not the complete answer. At Saugus High School, the SRO was still driving to work when the attack occurred and was not on campus yet. Furthermore, according to the school district's policy, the SRO was unarmed and would have been severely limited in his ability to respond, even if he had been on campus.

An armed SRO is an important element of a school’s security posture, and more schools should adopt them, but they cannot be the only layer of defense. We’ve seen instances where SROs decisively stopped attacks in progress, but they simply cannot be there 100% of the time. At some point, they'll be absent due to sick leave, vacation, a court date, transporting a prisoner, or because they're dealing with another situation on campus. Even if they're on campus and immediately available, the killing might be over before they get there, and there’s always the possibility that an SRO could become the first casualty of an attack, making the SRO unavailable from the outset.

We cannot put all of our eggs in one basket. There must be additional layers of armed protection in our schools beyond a single SRO (such as additional SROs, and/or lawfully armed teachers, staff and parents), and any school or district that fails to provide these additional layers is negligent. Furthermore, any school or district that expressly forbids their SROs from being armed is delusional and reckless. Unarmed “security” is no security at all in the face of an armed attacker.

4. Off-duty carry works

The first armed responders to arrive at the shooting were three off-duty officers who were dropping off their children at school. The 16-second spasm of violence was over before they got on campus, but these self-deployers were the first armed officers on scene, arriving just minutes after the shooting began.

This is another important reminder to officers that it’s crucial to carry your firearm off duty because you don't know when you'll need it to defend innocent life. If this killer had not shot himself and continued his violence, these officers would have been the only armed defense available to the school.

Shamefully, there are many places in America where off-duty and retired officers, and lawfully armed citizens, are prohibited from being armed on school grounds. At Saugus High School, recent changes in California's laws prohibited lawfully armed parents, teachers and staff from carrying on school grounds, and in states like Connecticut, even off-duty officers are prohibited by law from doing the same. The federal Law Enforcement Officers Safety Act (LEOSA) does not permit retired, visiting, or off-duty officers to carry in so-called “Gun Free Zones” (including schools) either. We must correct these deficiencies in the law to ensure that good citizens with guns, badges and permits aren’t blocked from providing lifesaving help in the critical minutes before uniformed responders arrive.

5. Escape, lockdown and barricade works

Reporting from Saugus High School indicates that students, teachers and staff did a good job of evading the threat once the violence began. Many students fled or remained off campus, and others did a good job of barricading in classrooms (using desks and tables to block doors) and arming themselves with makeshift weapons (fire extinguishers and scissors were specifically mentioned). One of the three self-deploying officers who entered the campus moments after the shooting began, reported that the campus was "nearly deserted" when they got on scene because nearly everyone had fled or locked down already.

This is good news because an immediate response like this will save lives. While we still have lots of work to do in getting schools and districts to embrace their other security responsibilities, the strong response at Saugus High School indicates that this area of active shooter education and preparation is on track.

6. Tactical Emergency Casualty Care (TECC) works

A choir teacher at the school treated a gunshot victim inside a barricaded classroom, using an available first aid kit and knowledge obtained from watching a video just months before at a staff meeting. She wrapped a torso wound and applied direct pressure to a shoulder wound, helping to save the life of the student. The three off-duty officers also provided aid to the casualties of the shooting, using a first aid kit that an administrator retrieved at their urging.

These events highlight the importance of having suitable training and equipment to handle traumatic injuries, like gunshot wounds, in our schools. We no longer live in a world where a minimally trained health technician with a thermometer, some ice packs and a box of Band-Aids is sufficient preparation for medical emergencies. Teachers and staff must be trained in the basics of TECC and have supplies available in every classroom to treat traumatic injuries. Schools cannot limit this training to a few individuals (such as the “school nurse”) or restrict these supplies to a central location (such as the school office) ‒ they must ensure the widest dissemination of this critical knowledge and these critical lifesaving aids.

Get to work

We know what works and what doesn't, and we also know where there's work to be done. Now is the time to take that knowledge and put it into action, to harden our schools and improve their response to these terrible attacks.

So, let’s get busy, and as always, be safe out there.

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