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The Shadow of Sandy Hook: School Security

Registered Architect, 40 years experience, State Agency Architect overseeing public school construction & recognized security specialist.

Those Lost at Sandy Hook


Review of the Previous Parts

There will always be events that will have such a strong impact on our lives that we will always remember exactly where we were and what we were doing the very moment we got that news. December 14, 2012, is indelibly marked in our memories as 20 young lives, and six adults were taken in Newtown, Connecticut, at Sandy Hook Elementary School.

At that time a national debate was reborn as memories of other past school shootings were drudged up. What could we learn from such a tragedy and past ones? What solutions are there? “Run, Hide, Fight”, ALICE, SRP, SRM, and many others offer preparedness solutions. Of those, which is best? What else could be done? What options are there?

“Bulletproof” windows do not exist, bullet resistive is the only obtainable alternative, which means that all glass will be breeched at some point. Windows can be reinforced to help provide an impedance for such potential perpetrators with hurricane films. An inexpensive alternative to “bulletproof” glass and helps defeats the active shooter’s greatest two allies, surprise and speed. Leaving the questions like, where is a safe haven, and how do we protect our children while they learn?

The Sandy Hook shooter forced his way into the school, something that generally does not occur in school campus active shooter events. The shooter used surprise and speed to create a high numbered body count to create his wanted infamy. The shooter did not go very deep into the school building, staying largely near his entrance point. The shooter passed up some rooms, while entering others.

One event cannot yield any patterned information in which a stable enough model can be developed to create a response plan, however multiple cases may yield just such insights. Are there other cases that can bring such revelations? A possible positive answer to that question just might be found by looking at the other two mass school shootings in U.S. history, Columbine and Virginia Tech University.

Columbine was the first mass shooting on a non-post-secondary campus in U.S. history. While apparently planned for some time by the shooters, it helped re-define law enforcement’s response to active shooting events. Columbine materials have been in the possession of other school shooters at the time of their events. There do appear to be some shadows of commonality with other shooting events.

Virginia Tech University proved to be very methodical in planning and in execution of the plan, yielding to date still, the largest number of victims on a school campus shooting. Doors were not lockable adding to the ease of access by the shooter to classrooms and victims. First responders again, encouraged to enter immediately to neutralize threat as a priority directive. Survivors helped their own survivability by their own actions, e.g. playing dead, barricading, and escaping.

The Events as Teachers?

The ability to break down from a forensic point of view is the key to solving catastrophic events. As an Architect or Engineer, being able to collect and analyze the data becomes the key into avoiding replication. This becomes a focal point when we look at the collapse of the Hyatt Regency in 1981, a case I have written a five-part series on. Skilled forensic study is the key to avoiding repeated situations. I believe there is an adage that goes something like this, “the definition of stupid is doing the same thing over, expecting different results.” Forensic study helps us avoid applying that definition because it provides us with the tools to avoid the repetition.

Before we begin, I want to place on the table that the following observations are not intended to be the end all of this discussion, only a starting point or launching platform for the discussion. People who are much more specialized than I may have other ideas and they should be welcomed into this discussion. The first step in this forensic analysis is gathering the data to see if there is a repetition or something repeatable. So, let’s begin there. The first thing that jumped out to me is that all three events saw the shooters stay in one general area, not straying from that initial point much. I am not sure that a specific distance can be framed around the data, at least not by me anyway, but I do think there is something that needs more review, study, and discussion. However, it does seem to fit the patterns.

Other than Sandy Hook, the shooters were not “intruders” per se; they were individuals that “belonged” on the campus. The greatest allies to these shooters were surprise and speed. There was no prior notice that the shooters were coming or their intentions, and once on the campus, movement was planned to be swift, especially post-Columbine. Impedance to progression through the facility was avoided by the shooters in most cases. There was no propensity to breech locked doors. In fact, such an impedance may have even been a point of frustration that resulted in aborting that potential target for a less protected target by the shooters. Even if the area was breeched previously, upon return to the space, the shooters showed frustration by additional impedance.

The shooters’ tendency to partially penetrate some areas might lend itself to a thought there may have been hesitance based on a potential (real or not) fear of becoming trapped in a confined space deep within the building. When taken into a condition that might have been unforeseen by the shooters in the planning stages of the event, it appeared to lead the shooters into an indecisive mood, slowing their reaction to the new conditions. Finally, many of these shooters seemed to lack an exit plan, almost possibly indicating their intention not to survive the particular event.

Response Limitations

The very nature of life, all choices come with a price. I discussed that concept in a prior article, referring to it as “Economics 101”. In my Economics 101 class many years ago, it was said that “there’s no such thing as a free lunch.” Even if you do not pay for lunch, the cost is you gave up time from doing something else, so there is a cost always. When it comes to school security, there is usually more than one element to balance. For instance, how to provide prison-type security without a prison-like environment? How to balance the cost between less security and a little more security? How do we balance the associated sense of safety and security that the occupants possess and the available funding to provide that safety and security? These become the skeletal framework from which we work to provide security on school campuses.

I would submit that this is the very basis for the discussion of school security. These are the real pressures facility people face with each decision. The cost of securing each door opening to the level of metal detectors is by far more expensive than securing the main entry doors, but both could be seen as adequate solutions to the question of security.

The Incursion Area

So, using this framework, I would submit a concept of an “incursion area”. This comes from the concept that the active shooter will tend to stay nearby the entrance where the breech (forced or unforced) first occurred. This could be defined as the place where a weapon was first drawn / fired. Many school shootings, especially the small ones, tend to exhibit this characteristic. This maybe comes from the shooter’s need for speed and surprise, as longer travel times allow other areas to be forewarned of the shooter’s presence and approach.

This response would be a concept where a certain distance from an exterior entrance of a building be “hardened” against a specific level or type of attack. This methodology would allow a certain cost containment procedure as a means of eliminating “sticker shock” for the program’s complete implementation campus wide. This is not a means of avoiding expenditures, only a means of deferring costs or spreading costs over a longer period of time. Remember, all deferred costs carry their own penalties, for instance they become costlier than if you did them at first. Now is a good time to state this fact, when it comes to construction costs, the least expensive anything will be in the future is today. Under this deferred expenditure approach, if the school needs lockable door sets in classrooms everywhere on the campus, the incursion area approach could be used as a starting point to limit today’s expenditures. The downside, the cost for those very same locksets for outside that incursion area will cost more when they are purchased as time will be extended past today’s cost. The other potential downside is that if there is a significant time delay between the two purchases, a newer technology could be introduced, making the locksets in the incursion area out of date. All these are risks that would need to be balanced against the cost and budget issues.

A very high number of school shootings see this limited movement pattern, especially the small shootings, making this a very strong potential to reduce initial security system costs. This by no means is to be implied that an active shooter will not move greater distances, only that a number of the events did not have that type of wider movement.

I have heard it said many times that once an active shooter event begins, the shooting ends in one of two ways: the shooter stops shooting on their own, or the shooter is forced to stop shooting. The odds are that neither will occur because of law enforcement, but because of some other intervention. No matter the event, law enforcement takes time to arrive, impedance of shooter’s movement will assist in that type of intervention, but it will have the greatest impact on reducing loss of life and injury. Reducing the shooter’s advantage of surprise by making breeching of the facility more difficult will reduce the impacts of the event. According to the video in the first part of this series it took three seconds to enter like the Sandy Hook shooter verses 58 seconds with the hurricane film. At Sandy Hook, the first police officer was on scene four minutes after the first shot. How different would the event turned out if it took the shooter a minute or more to gain entrance into the school?

Surprise and speed are the active shooter’s allies. Remove them and change the game for the shooter’s plan. Maybe because these are the shooter’s allies, making the targets closest to the entrance point more difficult will force a change in the shooter’s plan, an audible if you will, and the shooter may not be able to adapt and impact the losses and outcome from the shooter’s original plan.

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Other Factors

The best protection for campus occupants against the active shooter is entrance prohibition. However most of these shooters were supposed to be on the campus, i.e. student, staff, etc. So, entrance prohibition becomes almost impossible to achieve. How do you bar entrance to someone that is supposed to be on the campus?

A School Resource Officer (SRO) program needs complete implementation. This “complete implementation” MUST also include psychologists and counselors as well. There should never be a focus on one over the other as this is a three-legged stool, and we all know what happens if one leg fails.

Emergency Response Plans (ERP) should have the major frame work set at the District level, but then MUST be tailored to each campus individually. A one size fits all mentality will not work here. How are the students / staff tracked and accounted for in an event? The Standard Response Protocol (SRP, I Love You Guys, Foundation) is a great starting point. The ERP must be for more than just the active shooter events. ERP’s should include hazardous material spills, natural disasters, fires, and the like. Do not attempt to program out every situation / event. As I look in my schools, if the ERP is in a four-inch ring binder with dust on it, there are many problems with it. No one will have time to grab a book off the shelf and look at it during an event. That time will never exist. Every situation should be captured on a few pages. Then train on it and practice it. All the policies in the world are meaningless if they are not adhered to by the staff, remember the VTU policy on bomb threats. That would have alerted police many minutes before the shooting began. The ERP key is: plan it, know it, practice it!!! Operations have as great an impact as the facility design.

ERP’s need to address who is in charge, Principal or Superintendent. When / If control is transferred? In the case of an event, where on the site is the command center? The media center? Reunification area? How will reunification occur? The Standard Reunification Method (SRM, I Love You Guys Foundation) is a very good approach. How do you control to keep track of every student and to whom the student gets released to? Consideration must be given in implementing an agreement with a place maybe as far as a mile away for the media center to be located for the duration of the event. You do not want a microphone and camera stuck in the face of a 10-year-old traumatized child.

Mass notification systems, with regional campus notification is potentially very powerful tool on a campus. Broadcasting a notification in one part of the campus may just help secure occupants better. An integrated District wide notification system can be just as useful. Locking down or notifying adjacent schools can also provide added security and protection.

These are learning environments, not prisons. The design MUST balance the security risk. A threat assessment for each site may just help prioritize these issues and concerns. Stakeholder buy-in is imperative. This includes students, teachers, staff, parents, and community. When all buy-in, a powerful solution is right behind.

Identified Security Components

Before we begin discussing potential components of school security, I want to go over what a basic approach could be. When I first started studying the topic, right after the Sandy Hook shootings, I heard someone use an analogy that I find very vivid and easily grasped. It was conveyed to me that security should be like an onion, that is layer upon layer upon layer. As an Architect that was an incredible word picture. I could envision what was being portrayed very handily. What it boiled down to for me is the first “layer” of security exists at the edge of the property. The next “layer” would be around the building as a whole. The next layer would be the buildings themselves, individually. Followed by the interior of the buildings. This method also carries with it a means of prioritizing the components, as no budget will ever allow for “everything” to be done, whatever “everything” is.

Set next to this layered mindset should be a threat assessment. This assessment has to be tailored to each school campus individually as so many factors impact these risks. I have not found any District so homogenous that the threat risks were the exact same on all campuses throughout the District. Campuses that are only a short distance apart may see some factor changed drastically. That is why the threat assessment should be campus centric. A District wide overview may help bring some common variables to the campus threat assessment, but each campus really needs to be viewed independently and in isolation.

To begin, like Sandy Hook, once the first bell rings in the morning, all entrances to the campus MUST be through a single-entry point, with controlled access. That can be as little as an electric strike on the door, to video surveillance. A vision limiting “sally port” entrance should also coincide with that entrance. This means a two-door entry into the school. One from the exterior to a waiting area or “sally port”. This area need minimal furniture and windows, a couple of chairs, a door into the school and a window from the control point. The locking (control door) should be the door going into the school. Someone coming to the school with bad intentions may become more heightened and intense if the exterior door is the control door, and that may escalate an already agitated person. No windows should be looking into the school from this controlled enter or sally port. It may not be a bad thing if the walls around this space are mass type walls (concrete or masonry).

Panic buttons should be in at least a couple positions behind the window. These systems can be directly tied to a monitoring line, and might even be tied to an active lock down system that might lock a third door or gate leading into the school behind the controlled door in the entry / sally port.

Cameras work best as a forensic tool, and may have a mild deterrent effect on some misdemeanor types of actions. CPTED (Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design) can have great impact as well, i.e. natural access control, natural surveillance, territorial reinforcement. Lockable (from the inside) classroom doors will help keep students and staff safer in an event. Configuration of restrooms with the lavatories (sinks) outside the main restrooms will help avoid bullying (yes, another component of school security).

Sidelights at doors and vision panels in doors should be reinforced with hurricane film and be minimized to allow greater hiding areas within the classrooms. Perimeter fencing with 8’-0” high security chain link fencing in place of 6’-0” high wrought iron or decorative fence, which will cost the same (about $70 / foot). The 8’-0” high fence adds the benefit that an intruder will not be able to grab the top of the fence and hoist their body over. The security fabric will not provide a foothold for climbing. Two-way communication from classroom to office is essential. Each of these adds to the security of the campus.

After joining, as an observer, with the State SWAT trainer for a day of active shooter training with his cadets, I am convinced that any plan of arming any teacher, staff, or administrator on a school is just pure foolishness. These responders are trained to neutralize a threat and they do not have time to take names. If a person is holding a weapon of any type, that is the one that needs to be neutralized as these team approach an area, room, or space. These officers will react to that threat, and I think that will lead to a greater problem. The shooting of an innocent in such an event. I have come to believe that with an active shooter on campus, the only one that should be armed is the one that should be shot. After all, many of them have no desire to come out alive, as attested to by the number of suicides by these shooters. So why not help them off the campus, in a body bag?

Out of the Box Solutions

It has to be clear at this point that there is not going to be an “answer” to this problem. An answer is absolute, for example, no matter how you express it, one plus one will never be anything but two. That is an answer, absolute and without variance. School security will never be that simple to solve. The sheer number of variables eliminates any means to simplify it in the terms on an “answer”. So, what should be sought to these problems are “solutions”. By its very nature a “solution” implies that there is more than one way to achieve the goals. So, each individual that participates in this process must remember to respect other’s ideas. I may not hold the end all in an idea, so I have the responsibility to hear out other views and proceed with discourse to vet any and all ideas.

This section is dedicated to that principle. We are going to look at just some of the alternatives that have been put forward. An incredible story started at Orchard Gardens School back in 2010 in Roxbury, Massachusetts, almost three years before the Sandy Hook shootings. This is a school where 90% of the students come from low-income families. A new young Principal came to this school, Andrew Bott, that was in a very rough part of town. His impact made this school a “turnaround school” in Boston. The school had metal detectors and very much a prison type of feel. The halls were barren having nothing on them. As I recall hearing the security budget for the school was $100,000 a year. This was found unacceptable by this new young Principal, and he set out on a course to make a change, and a change he made. With stakeholders buy in, he got rid of all the security measures, keeping only one or two security guards, diverted the savings into the arts, and brought the arts back to the school that was taken away because of budget issues a long time before that. By the time of the shootings at Sandy Hook, Orchard Gardens had been transformed. Projects covered the wall, and this school was now one of the top performing school in the region. Who said that a low-income student populated school could not perform well? How out of the box was this thinking? Author’s note: I think the instilling of this pride into the students, staff, and community, went a long way to correct the past issues and problems. I think that much of the issues went away because the students took ownership of the facilities and school and peer pressure eliminated the vandalism and graffiti that plagued so many of our inner-city, low income, schools.

Now let us look at another school, Oak Hills High School in Ohio, near Cincinnati. Oak Hills in 2013 was one of the first schools in the region to get a “school protection dog”, see the report here. As we all know, police K-9 dogs are some of the highest training animals anywhere. The downside, they are not the most social dogs. Most only seem to like only their handlers. I have heard of two programs that take K-9 candidate puppies and searching out the more “social” pups for a training program that intends on inserting these matured, trained K-9 dogs on school campuses. At that time in 2013, an eight-month old, 60-pound, Dutch Shepard, Atticus, joined the staff at Oak Hills High School. Atticus has been trained to sniff out drugs and guns, and will attack a person firing a gun. Atticus goes home every night with the Principal, John Stoddard. This is certainly an out of the box response to the shootings at Sandy Hook. Some have seen this as a very successful response approach to the Sandy Hook tragedy.

A company out of Texas, GEOS Safety Solutions, has devised a system where smart phones are turned into listening / communication devices in the case of an emergency event, active shooter in particular. Once activated, a trained person monitors what is being picked up by the phone and relays that intel to first responders. The personnel do not speak to the caller until the caller responds first. Does this sound like something straight from the VTU shootings discussed in the last part of this series?

In a report from February 2014, Broward County Public School took a broader approach to School Resource Officers (SRO) going beyond the most common law enforcement representation, and added more counselors to the District SRO contingency. Superintendent, Robert Runice turned the District’s discipline policies upside down and started to focus on an intervention approach to enhance the safety of the schools in the District. This move saw suspensions drop 66%, expulsions drop by 55% and arrests down 45%. This of course increased the graduation rates. What an incredible approach to school security. This is certainly not the common approach we hear being discussed in public.

As we finish looking at some of these out of the box ideas, I want to propose a re-work on an old adage I know. The adage: “security perceived is security achieved”. I work at the State Capitol, and as an Architect and observer, I just really love reflecting on the sub-conscience ideas we place into the minds of the visitors that come to the Capitol. Think about it, in the deepest level of one’s mind, what do we tell people when they go through such invasive screening? Do we not subconsciously implant an idea that this building may not be that safe, otherwise why would we need such measures? Is that the thought we want to implant as our students enter the learning environment?

Programs like these out of the box programs just discussed show that there are certainly alternative approaches other than arming staff and teachers at schools. Do not get me wrong. I do believe in the second amendment. I have had my own firearm and have enjoyed shooting them myself. That is not the issue. After being with the live fire active shooter training of law enforcement, I am left with only one thought. When first responders enter to neutralize an active shooter threat, they do not have time to find out who is a “good guy” and who is a “bad guy”. Their recognition of threat extends the immediate recognition of a fire arm, that constitutes a “bad guy” that must be neutralized. There is a lot going on in that moment, and I for one do not wish to potentially complicate it by having an innocent shot by mistake. The only one(s) with guns in this type of event, should be the ones transported out in a body bag. Save the victims the trauma of a trial, as most of these shooters do not have an escape plan anyway. This also saves the taxpayers money too. Harsh, I know, but isn’t society’s first responsibility to protect those that cannot protect themselves? After all, wouldn’t all those who are unarmed in the active shooter event be in the category of those that cannot protect themselves?

Wrap Up

After the shooting in Las Vegas just a week ago, I saw how one of the guitarist that was at the festival had a “change of mind” on guns. A fervent second amendment supporter yet he and his bandmates were pinned down and had no way to get to their bus and retrieve their firearms. I am not saying taking guns away is the solution, but I am not sure mandating their ownership is either. I remember the story of two towns, one that banned guns and one that required gun ownership for all. After the initial years, the crime stats did what you would expect, one went up, the other down. Some 15 or 20 years later, the amazing thing, crime leveled out to be about the same in both towns. I am not sure what that means, other than man is broken by nature, but that is a discussion for another venue and another time.

Gun control is an issue that has been a thorn in the American side for a very long time. I want to draw everyone’s attention back to a small Arizona town, Tombstone. On October 26, 1881, the Earp brothers, with Doc Holiday, and the Clanton-McLaury gang engaged in one of the most famous gun fights at the OK Corral. In 30 seconds, 30 rounds were fired, three lay dead, and three injured. The point I want to make is that Tombstone had a town ordinance that forbid guns in the town. Not to initiate an argument, I just wanted to make the observation. I think the evidence is clear, a solution on the extreme (either side) does not appear to be viable, so it should be in the middle we look.

What I do know for a fact is that until we, as a society, start to see mental health differently, we may never get headed down a path that will control active shooter events. The Monday after the Las Vegas shooting in our Agency’s weekly staff meeting, I had commented that I believe that even though the shooter sat outside the profile of a typical active shooter I was convinced that a mental health issue would work its way out. By week’s end, the shooter’s girlfriend was telling some stories of potential issues.

Society does not look down on someone taking medicine for heart disease, or diabetes, or glaucoma, or any other physical aliment, but if the medicine is for depression the ballgame changes. Why? Depression is just a biochemical imbalance just as if it were for thyroid or something else. It makes no sense to me that our health insurance does not cover mental health, eye sight, or dental. Are those not seen as part of the “health” of a person? Enough of my soap box.

This issue is very complex and will require many more brains to set up a systematic approach, but that will be achieved when we check our egos at the door before entering this discussion. No one individual will be able to solve this, but I am confident that through open, honest, and solid discourse that is respectful of others ideas, we can devise some response. After all isn’t that what Americans have always done?

© 2017 Dan Demland


Dan Demland (author) from Phoenix, AZ on October 08, 2017:

CJ, thanks for the kind words. I am glad you enjoyed it.

CJ Kelly from the PNW on October 08, 2017:

This was a great series. Thanks very much. Well written.

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