4 cautions for school attack planning
How can we avoid the most common planning errors in anticipation of the unthinkable?
As schools start their fall schedules the threat of attack is on the minds of law enforcement, school administrators, teachers and many parents. Schools continue to be a very safe place statistically but experience teaches us that failing to prepare for an effective response to violence is plain malfeasance. Not everyone will agree with the assertions of this article, but disagreements on strategy, planning and training must be made known among response partners so that everyone involved has a consensus on basic expectations.
As old fighters and generals know, no battle plan survives the first contact with the enemy. How can we avoid the most common planning errors in anticipation of the unthinkable?
1. Recognize training limitations
- Your event isn’t going to be just like the ones you’ve seen or read about, so running through a scenario template without considering variables and individual officers’ need for flexibility, or assuming a certain pattern of the attacker(s) may cause officers to train for the wrong event.
- Live exercises, while school is in session, are a proven no-go. Getting your troops to know the school layout in a real-time scenario is good, scaring the bejeebers out of kids and staff can do more harm than good.
- Training and policy should address the concern about false reports, known as “swatting.” How can the response be safely deactivated and the call assessed or verified?
- Train from the alarm to the response, don’t just start the exercise from the parking lot. A lot of the logistics of managing an active situation can take place outside of the attack center.
- Train appropriate response from off-duty officers who are called in or self-deploy – no showing up in flip-flops and T-shirts.
- If your attack doctrine is that the first arriving officer enters solo, train that way. If your agency is training only on a team entry but not on a single officer attack, that lone officer may be ineffective.
While it’s tempting to jump right to a live exercise, get with experienced training planners schooled in exercise design, or visit the FEMA course list on introduction to exercise design. The final product of a live exercise is at its best when it is the culmination of a variety of skills learned and demonstrated. Exercises are to test pre-existing skills and to determine training needs, not to see how officers will react spontaneously. Can officers find the tactical or mutual aid channels without looking at their radio? Do they know how to effectively use breaching tools? Can they effectively access and deploy their patrol rifles under stress?
2. Prioritize protecting in place
It may be difficult to convince school officials that protecting in place is statistically far better than evacuation in an active harmer situation. Analysis of years of shooting events shows very clearly that the safest place for a student to be during an attack is with the attacker outside the locked classroom door. This also means dissuading faculty from using the fire alarm as an active shooter alert or bomb threat signal – active attacker responses are contrary to a fire evacuation strategy. Remaining in a secure classroom is not only the safest strategy but can facilitate evidence security, reunification and attendance-taking unless there is a compelling reason for relocating the students.
3. Expect multiple agencies
Even in rural areas the number and variety of law enforcement and first responder personnel who show up will be amazing. With or without official agency permission they’ll cross jurisdictional lines, literally come out of the woods, off the highways and from their homes. The potential for an unproductive cluster is real.
Knowing ahead of time where a staging area and incident command will be can avoid having to back out of a hot zone to make a hasty re-organization. First responding officers and commanders should know where those areas are and what the backup plan is if the primary site is unavailable. Check with nearby businesses or landowners for advance permission if their space is likely to be used. Prepare for lots of parking for emergency vehicles and where to direct waiting parents who are sure to arrive as soon as the news breaks.
School attacks are usually over in minutes, but longer operations are a possibility, and the post-attack activities will last for a long time.
4. Coordinate pre-planning with school personnel
This sounds like a no-brainer, but how many school officials will know what to expect? Is it just the principal? Who has the keys to the doors? Who else has them? Have you included the maintenance staff in assessing plans? Few people know more about exits, entrances and hiding places than the custodians. Law enforcement has an important role in school threat assessment teams. Don’t leave everything up to the School Resource Officer if the school has one. Engaging school staff will assist in establishing a culture of safety that can overcome the “it can’t happen here” mentality.
We don’t plan to fail, we just fail to plan, with potentially tragic results.
Topics for discussion
1. How does your department plan to coordinate with other agencies in the event of a school attack, and what measures are in place to avoid confusion and maintain effective communication?
2. What specific training does your department provide to officers to ensure they can respond effectively to an active shooter situation? How often is this training updated or refreshed?
3. In the event of a false report or "swatting," what procedures does your department follow to safely deactivate the response and verify the call?
4. How does your department plan to handle off-duty officers who may respond to a school attack? What guidelines or expectations are in place for these officers?
5. How does your department ensure that first-responding officers and commanders know where to set up staging areas and incident commands during a school attack?
6. In terms of planning and preparation, how does your department collaborate with school personnel? What steps are taken to ensure that key school staff, such as principals and maintenance staff, are included in the planning process?
7. How does your department work to maintain a balance between effective training exercises and minimizing potential distress or harm to students and school staff during these exercises?
8. How are your officers trained to manage the post-attack activities that may last for a long time even if the attack itself is over quickly?
9. How does your department plan to manage the inevitable influx of parents and media following a school attack?
10. What measures does your department have in place to ensure that officers can effectively use their equipment, such as breaching tools and patrol rifles, under the stress of an active shooter situation?
Police1 is using generative AI to create some content that is edited and fact-checked by our editors.
Police1 resources on school safety
- Prevention, disruption & response: The strategies communities must deploy to stop school shootings
- On-demand webinar: Building safer schools
- On-demand webinar: Developing effective strategies to prevent and respond to school shootings
- How can we stop school shootings in America?
- Building a multi-disciplinary school threat assessment team
- How a threat assessment team tracks students of concern
- An 8-step plan to stop school shootings
- Reflecting on a year since Uvalde: Improving incident response and school safety