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NM school district’s new active shooter training goes beyond lockdown

2012 massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary has forced school safety experts to rethink their approach

By Robert Nott
The Santa Fe New Mexican

SANTA FE — When Ortiz Middle School Principal Steve Baca ordered a lockdown after a security guard found a gun in a student’s backpack earlier this month, English teacher Alexandra Robertson knew exactly what to do. She locked her classroom door, got her kids to help barricade it and said she was ready to use books, staplers and any other blunt objects she could find to fend off anyone who might try to enter.

Robertson’s response was far from fear-driven. It was part of a new approach to dealing with on-campus threats from outsiders called Run, Hide and Fight.

For years many schools relied on a basic lockdown approach of sealing off doors, turning off lights, shuttering windows, and silencing cellphones and other technological devices as a way to deal with an outside threat. But the 2012 massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., that left six adults and 20 first-graders dead — as well as a raft of other school shootings in recent years — have forced school safety experts to rethink their approach.

The newest thinking advises escaping if possible, using all means to block the door and — as a last resort — doing everything you can to stop an armed assailant, including throwing a three-hole punch at the shooter.

The idea has added to a continuing debate over how schools should respond to armed assailants on campus. Some of the ideas overlap, with proponents of Run, Hide and Fight advising the “fight” part as a last resort and opponents agreeing that if need be, fighting back is better than acting as a stationary target.

Brad Spicer, president of Safe Plans, a Missouri-based security firm that offers training and advice for implementing security measures to organizations — including school districts — around the county, is an advocate of Run, Hide and Fight. He added that it is not realistic to expect teachers and students to be trained in responding quickly to an armed assailant and that running does not guarantee safety. But he thinks the odds are better for those who plan an escape route.

“We have to get people away from the lockdown response, the idea that hiding under the desk or in the closet makes you safe,” he said.

Not all safety experts agree. Michael Horn, president of Safe Havens International, a campus safety and security firm based in Georgia, said lockdown, if implemented quickly and correctly, will work. He said Run, Hide and Fight can induce panic and is not a good idea when classes of students jam the hallways in an effort to escape someone who might be in that hallway with a weapon.

Expecting educators to plan a counterattack against an armed intruder is unrealistic, he added.

“Cops don’t think like teachers, and teachers don’t think like cops,” he said.

Horn’s organization put out a recent report on causes of death in K-12 schools in the United States that uses data from various national groups -- including the National Center for Education Statistics -- from 1998 to 2012. That report shows that active-shooter cases only account for 4 percent of all deaths in that time period. Rates for homicides (33 percent), school transportation accidents (36 percent) and suicides (9 percent) are much higher.

The Santa Fe school district has begun teaching the new model to schools. The night before the Oct. 9 incident at Ortiz, the Santa Fe Police Department had given a presentation to parents and teachers at the school.

“You have children who are counting on you getting them out of there alive,” Santa Fe police Sgt. Ben Valdez told the assembly of about 50 educators that evening. Active shooters, he said, “are looking for the path of least resistance.” And they know law enforcement officers are coming for them, so they are racing against the clock to inflict damage fast, Valdez said.

Anything educators and students can do to distract or slow down a shooter’s efforts buys emergency response personnel more time, Valdez said. He said previous active shooter tragedies show that, overall, students and teachers who either ran or blocked entrances to their classrooms survived.

Valdez said running is an option if you feel confident that the shooter is far away on another part of campus and if you are not in charge of young children or special-education students. Likewise, escaping out of ground-floor windows is advised, whereas a jump from a second-story window can result in more injuries and more vulnerable targets.

“If they can get out, then we’d like them to get out,” Valdez said.

At both the Virginia Tech shootings of 2007 and the Sandy Hook shootings of 2012, some teachers and students who locked themselves in under traditional lockdown methods did survive or at least bought others more time to escape. Valdez noted that at Virginia Tech, shooter Seung-Hui Cho inflicted the most damage in open classrooms where teachers and students did not always have time to barricade doors.

But he also killed some people who attempted to block doors.

Both Spicer and Horn agree that having an armed officer on a school campus is a deterrent. Earlier this month, the school board unanimously approved placing two Santa Fe Police Department officers at the city’s two main high school campuses. However, the Santa Fe City Council last week delayed the move after councilors said the plan wasn’t fully vetted.

Copyright 2014 The Santa Fe New Mexican