Active shooters in schools: The enemy is denial

Preventing juvenile mass murder in American schools is the job of police officers, school teachers, and concerned parents


“How many kids have been killed by school fire in all of North America in the past 50 years? Kids killed... school fire... North America... 50 years... How many? Zero. That’s right. Not one single kid has been killed by school fire anywhere in North America in the past half a century. Now, how many kids have been killed by school violence?”

So began an extraordinary daylong seminar presented by Lt. Col. Dave Grossman, a Pulitzer Prize-nominated author, West Point psychology professor, and without a doubt the world’s foremost expert on human aggression and violence. The event, hosted by the California Peace Officers Association, was held in the auditorium of a very large community church about 30 miles from San Francisco, and was attended by more than 250 police officers from around the region.

Grossman’s talk spanned myriad topics of vital importance to law enforcement — the use of autogenic breathing, surviving gunshot wounds, dealing with survivor guilt following a gun battle, and others — but violence among and against children was how the day began, and so I'll focus on that issue here.

Lt. Col. Dave Grossman, pictured with Doug Wyllie, spoke before a crowd of more than 250 police officers in an event hosted by the California Peace Officers Association.
Lt. Col. Dave Grossman, pictured with Doug Wyllie, spoke before a crowd of more than 250 police officers in an event hosted by the California Peace Officers Association. (Police1 Image)

Johnny Firefighter, A+ Student

“In 1999,” Grossman said, “school violence claimed what at the time was an all-time record number of kids’ lives. In that year there were 35 dead and a quarter of a million serious injuries due to violence in the school. How many killed by a fire that year? Zero. But we hear people say, ‘That’s the year Columbine happened, that’s an anomaly.’ Well, in 2004 we had a new all-time record — 48 dead in the schools from violence. How many killed by a fire that year? Zero. Let’s assign some grades. Put your teacher hat on and give out some grades. What kind of grade do you give the firefighter for keeping kids safe? An ‘A,’ right? Reluctantly, reluctantly, the cops give the firefighters an ‘A,’ right? Danged firefighters, they sleep ‘till they’re hungry and eat ‘till they’re tired. What grade do we get for keeping the kids safe from violence? Come on, what’s our grade? Needs improvement, right?”

Grossman went on, “Why can’t we be like little Johnny Firefighter?” Grossman asked as he prowled the stage. “He’s our A+ student!”

He paused, briefly, and answered with a voice that blew through the hall like thunder, “Denial, denial, denial!”

Grossman commanded, “Look up at the ceiling! See all those sprinklers up there? They’re hard to spot — they’re painted black — but they’re there. While you’re looking, look at the material the ceiling is made of. You know that that stuff was selected because it’s fire-retardant. Hooah? Now look over there above the door — you see that fire exit sign? That’s not just any fire exit sign — that’s a ‘battery-backup-when-the-world-ends-it-will-still-be-lit’ fire exit sign. Hooah?”

Walking from the stage toward a nearby fire exit and exterior wall, Grossman slammed the palm of his hand against the wall and exclaimed, “Look at these wallboards! They were chosen because they’re what?! Fireproof or fire retardant, hooah? There is not one stinking thing in this room that will burn!”

Pointing around the room as he spoke, Grossman continued, “But you’ve still got those fire sprinklers, those fire exit signs, fire hydrants outside, and fire trucks nearby! Are these fire guys crazy? Are these fire guys paranoid? No! This fire guy is our A+ student! Because this fire guy has redundant, overlapping layers of protection, not a single kid has been killed by school fire in the last 50 years!

“But you try to prepare for violence — the thing much more likely to kill our kids in schools, the thing hundreds of times more likely to kill our kids in schools — and people think you’re paranoid. They think you’re crazy. ...They’re in denial.”

Teaching the Teachers

The challenge for law enforcement agencies and officers, then, is to overcome not only the attacks taking place in schools, but to first overcome the denial in the minds of mayors, city councils, school administrators, and parents. Grossman said that agencies and officers, although facing an uphill slog against the denial of the general public, must diligently work toward increasing understanding among the sheep that the wolves are coming for their children. Police officers must train and drill with teachers, not only so responding officers are intimately familiar with the facilities, but so that teachers know what they can do in the event of an attack.

“Come with me to the library at Columbine High School,” Grossman said. “The teacher in the library at Columbine High School spent her professional lifetime preparing for a fire, and we can all agree if there had been a fire in that library, that teacher would have instinctively, reflexively known what to do.

"But the thing most likely to kill her kids — the thing hundreds of times more likely to kill her kids, the teacher didn’t have a clue what to do. She should have put those kids in the librarian’s office but she didn’t know that. So she did the worst thing possible — she tried to secure her kids in an un-securable location. She told the kids to hide in the library — a library that has plate glass windows for walls. It’s an aquarium, it’s a fish bowl. She told the kids to hide in a fishbowl. What did those killers see? They saw targets. They saw fish in a fish bowl.”

Grossman said that if the school administrators at Columbine had spent a fraction of the money they’d spent preparing for fire doing lockdown drills and talking with local law enforcers about the violent dangers they face, the outcome that day may have been different.

Rhetorically he asked the assembled cops, “If somebody had spent five minutes  telling that teacher what to do, do you think lives would have been saved at Columbine?”

Arming Campus Cops is Elementary

Nearly two years ago, I wrote an article called Arming campus cops is elementary. Not surprisingly, Grossman agrees with that hypothesis.

“Never call an unarmed man ‘security’,” Grossman said.

“Call him ‘run-like-hell-when-the-man-with-the-gun-shows-up’ but never call an unarmed man security.

"Imagine if someone said, ‘I want a trained fire professional on-site. I want a fire hat, I want a fire uniform, I want a fire badge. But! No fire extinguishers in this building. No fire hoses. The hat, the badge, the uniform — that will keep us safe — but we have no need for fire extinguishers.’ Well, that would be insane. It is equally insane, delusional, legally liable, to say, ‘I want a trained security professional on-site. I want a security hat, I want a security uniform, and I want a security badge, but I don’t want a gun.’ It’s not the hat, the uniform, or the badge. It’s the tools in the hands of a trained professional that keeps us safe.

“Our problem is not money,” said Grossman.  “It is denial.”

Grossman said that many of the most important things we can do to protect our kids would cost us nothing or next-to-nothing.

Grossman’s Five D’s

Let’s contemplate the following outline and summary of Dave Grossman’s “Five D’s.” 

  1. Denial — Denial is the enemy and it has no survival value, said Grossman.
  2. Deter — Put police officers in schools, because with just one officer assigned to a school, the probability of mass murder in that school drops to almost zero
  3. Detect — We’re talking about plain old-fashioned police work here. The ultimate achievement for law enforcement is the crime that didn’t happen, so giving teachers and administrators regular access to cops is paramount.
  4. Delay — Various simple mechanisms can be used by teachers and cops to put time and distance between the killers and the kids.

    a. Ensure that the school/classroom has just a single point of entry. Simply locking the back door helps create a hard target.

    b. Conduct your active shooter drills within (and in partnership with) the schools in your city so teachers know how to respond, and know what it looks like when you do your response.
  5. Destroy — Police officers and agencies should consider the following:

    a. Carry off duty. No one would tell a firefighter who has a fire extinguisher in his trunk that he’s crazy or paranoid.

    b. Equip every cop in America with a patrol rifle. One chief of police, upon getting rifles for all his officers once said, “If an active killer strikes in my town, the response time will be measured in feet per second.”

    c. Put smoke grenades in the trunk of every cop car in America. Any infantryman who needs to attack across open terrain or perform a rescue under fire deploys a smoke grenade. A fire extinguisher will do a decent job in some cases, but a smoke grenade is designed to perform the function.

    d. Have a “go-to-war bag” filled with lots of loaded magazines and supplies for tactical combat casualty care.

    e. Use helicopters. Somewhere in your county you probably have one or more of the following: medevac, media, private, national guard, coast guard rotors.

    f. Armed citizens can help. Think United 93. Whatever your personal take on gun control, it is all but certain that a killer set on killing is more likely to attack a target where the citizens are unarmed, rather than one where they are likely to encounter an armed citizen response.

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