Loose Canons

Preventing School Massacres

Are there ways to defend the defenseless?

By 12.17.12

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It’s three days since the horrific Newtown, Connecticut school massacre, and talking about it isn’t getting any easier. Like every event on the list of mass murders it joins, the Newtown murder spree has evoked another round of debate on gun control. But like the shootings at Columbine high school, the Aurora movie theater, and recently at an Oregon shopping mall, the Newtown massacre hasn’t resulted in anyone talking about what else we can do to stop these things from happening or, at a minimum, reduce the bloodshed.

Politicians and media are preoccupied with the idea that gun control is the only answer to these murders and that nothing else is worth discussion. But the inconvenient facts include that the Oregon mall shooter used a stolen weapon. Adam Lanza, the Newtown murderer, used weapons stolen from his mother who had them legally and registered them under Connecticut law. He reportedly shot his way into a locked school. The time and political energy that’s being wasted on gun control could be put to better use. That’s our job, so let’s get to it.

There are two ways to prevent or at least reduce the number of deaths in mass murders by gun. In the 1960s and early 1970s, our society made the decision to essentially prohibit the mentally ill from being committed involuntarily. All of the killers -- from Columbine to Virginia Tech to Newtown -- were insane. We need to change the way we deal with the mentally ill who are dangerous to society.

Psychiatrists have a professional duty to define clearly the criteria by which those with dangerous mental illnesses can be identified. States have the duty to change their laws and lock these people up for as long as they are dangerous. As a Wall Street Journal editorial asked Saturday, “Specifically, what protections from people in the grip of uncontrolled mental illness or evil derangement is the broader society entitled to?” The answer is, a lot more than we are getting.

The second way to deal with these murder sprees is to look at where they occur and craft a strategic response. Killers attack children in school and people in shopping malls because they are defenseless.

Schools are a tougher problem than shopping malls. They shouldn’t be armed camps, and though many have “school resource officers” who function like the shopping mall rent-a-cops, our children are essentially undefended. Teachers are unarmed -- and should remain so -- but more importantly they are also untrained. They’re not aware of what they should do, and when the school is “in lockdown”: they only know to huddle in a corner with the kids. Which only makes a denser target for what the police call an “active shooter.”

If you post an armed guard in every school, they’ll be the first targets of the killers. Why buy or steal a gun when you may be able to overcome the inadequately trained guard and take his weapon? States don’t want to spend enough money to post a SWAT-trained cop at every school or hire well-trained guards. Even if they were we’d be back to the armed camp idea. So what’s the answer?

The practical solution is to provide school teachers and personnel with the training and the assets necessary to protecting the children -- defending them -- for the minutes it takes for police to respond to a call about a shooting in progress.

My friend Dale McClellan is the president of a company called Special Tactical Services. A former SEAL, McClellan has devoted his life to thinking through problems like this and crafting solutions. His company trains elite military and police units on the skills and tactics needed to use all sorts of lethal and non-lethal weapons in all sorts of situations, including the “active shooter” school situation. He called me Friday night about the Newtown shootings.

Dale has kids the age of some who were killed. He’s outraged, and properly so, that we can’t rely on school personnel to defend our kids for even a minute. He has a plan to deal with these situations that could save countless lives.

“The first part of the problem,” McClellan said, “is that teachers and school administrators aren’t trained. They need to have training beginning with situational awareness.” That means understanding their surroundings, what signals indicate a potential problem and how to properly react in those situations. “The whole idea is to have the teachers and principals do what’s necessary to buy time -- it may be two minutes or twenty -- for the cops to arrive and deal with the active shooter.”

So what should they do, and how should they be equipped? McClellan said, “There’s a lot they can do. First and foremost, school rooms could have ballistic doors with magnetic locks which would prevent most shooters from getting into the rooms.”

When there’s a shooter roaming the school the teachers can do more than sit in a corner with their children and wait for the police. “The next thing schools should have -- in every classroom -- are what we call ballistic blankets. They’re made of Kevlar or other ballistic material and can stop most handgun rounds and most high velocity fragmentation rounds. Why not have the teachers get the kids into a corner and cover them with ballistic blankets? Sure, it’d be scary. But if you have fire drills kids get used to, they can get used to proper lockdown drills. Kids would learn to cooperate and communicate, and that’s another condition of buying the time you need to protect the kids until the police roll in.”

“I’m not in favor of arming teachers with guns,” McClellan added. “It would probably cause more problems than keeping them unarmed.”

Is there anything more the teachers and school administrators can do? “Sure,” McClellan told me. “But it’s a big bite you have to chew carefully. It requires training and education and of course the money to install the equipment, but is there really any cost you wouldn’t spend to secure your child’s safety? For example: provide the teachers and school administrators with controlled access to a non-lethal means to defend themselves and the children under their care. The school, properly secured during lockdown combined with a controlled access system to these capabilities, would possess a significant deterrent and, moreover, provide a last resort tool to mitigate the threat if the innocent adults were cornered with no escape available.

“So if you’re trained to aim and fire the TASER, and if you’re confronted with a shooter like the Newtown principal and some teachers were, if you can get to the TASER you may be able to stop the incident right there.”

So is that it? “That’s as far as we can go now. If we had trained teachers, ballistic doors with mag locks, ballistic blankets to protect the kids and maybe even some TASERs, the teachers could make schools a much tougher target and a lot of kids’ lives might be saved.”

Newtown school principal Dawn Hochsprung and school psychologist Mary Sherlach confronted shooter Adam Lanza, and were killed trying to stop him. Had they a TASER, perhaps the killing would have ended, and without their lives being taken. Twenty-seven year old teacher Victoria Soto gave her life standing between Lanza and her students. What if she had had a TASER and the training to use it?

McClellan said, “Those ideas are aimed at minimizing expense and the disruption to the teachers’ jobs. If you want to spend a lot more money you can do more. Build ‘safe rooms,’ hire highly-trained unarmed tactical officers to patrol schools. There’s always more to do. But I don’t want my kids scared to go to school. Schools need to teach in an atmosphere that’s most conducive to education but still provides better security for our children.”

There’s so much common sense crammed into McClellan’s plan, it’ll probably not get the attention it deserves. It does deserve serious consideration, and action, by every school district in the nation.

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About the Author
Jed Babbin served as a Deputy Undersecretary of Defense under George H.W. Bush. He is the author of several bestselling books including Inside the Asylum and In the Words of Our Enemies. You can follow him on Twitter @jedbabbin.