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Keeping Your School Safe from an Active Shooter

Is it possible people have gotten in the way of protecting the most vulnerable group of America’s population? School violence is not a new trend. Between 1900 and 2008 there have been 272 documented incidents of intentional gun violence on school campuses (Birnhaum, 2013). Considering these incidents, there is no clear articulable profile to indicate who is committing these acts of violence. This article will focus on keeping your school safe from an active shooter.

We things we should consider is how violent behavior is reported and addressed, the environmental design of the campus, and the pulse of community surrounding the school. Security in schools is contingent on the threat, the environment surrounding security, and the effectiveness of security enhancing products.

Empty School hallway lined with lockers

Before anyone can decide on how to protect against a threat, the threat must first be identified. According to Mulvey and Cauffman (2001) the ability to identify a behavior associated with school violence is difficult without creating a series of problems that can have negative effects on a student. This includes reporting procedures and intrusive inquiries. As the threshold for what type of violence to be predicted changes, so do the associated variables. This is largely due to the rarity of violence on school property. A threat can fall into four categories, direct, indirect, veiled, and conditional (Surface, 2011). Direct threats are clear in intention and method. Indirect threats may relay intention but are vague. Veiled threats lack specificity and leave deciphering the message to interpretation. Conditional threats carry an “If this, then” format. Schools can address threats with a two-step process, inquiry and investigation (Surface, 2011). This requires a significant amount of resources to vet every threat that occurs on a school campus. It also requires an ability to report the threats and feel safe in doing so. While Rappaport (2004) indicated that the Federal Bureau of Investigations provides guidelines for questioning a student’s capacity for violence, the answers to these questions do not provide absolutes.

Feeling safe and being safe are different

There is a delicate balance between being safe and feeling safe, as well as how much of one a school is prepared to risk for the other. In the wake of a mass casualty violence on a school campus, emotions are typically at their peak. The solutions for prevention range from arming teachers to increased gun control. Despite the emotions behind these events, schools remain safer environments for children than other public and private locations such as the street or home (Rappaport, 2004). Hawkes and Twemlow (2015) revealed that feeling safe and being safe are different. People find themselves in unsafe situations all the time. It is not until they are made to feel unsafe that the lack of safety becomes evident. Pointing to studies on security measures in schools, Cornell (2015) pointed out that increased security measures in schools make people feel less safe while on campus. Feeling unsafe is equivalent to fear. Fear degrades the overall quality of the learning environment by adding stress to students and faculty. The result is the institution for learning has become a prohibitive environment for education.

School officials could add metal detectors, armed guards, specialty locks, and fences to their campuses, but that does not guarantee safety. The violent event at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Connecticut shows how physical barriers are not enough to prevent violent actions. This school was secured and locked prior to the arrival of Adam Lanza, the suspect in the murders of twenty-six students and staff. Lanza broke through the physical security barriers to commit his violent crimes. Safety in schools is more than physical security. It includes emotional and intellectual security. The latter two types of safety suggest that students must feel like they can make mistakes and ask questions without ridicule. This includes being able to report potential threats in confidence. Considering these other aspects of safety, metal detectors, police patrolling hallways, and training security procedures are only addressing a small piece of the overall problem (Bucher & Manning, 2005). Looking at school violence, specifically shootings from 1804 to 2015, an overwhelming number of the suspects had a relationship to the school. Not only were the suspects mostly students or former students, but they also had planned the event prior to causing it (Paradice, 2017). This means that the suspects would have first-hand knowledge of the school’s physical security capabilities and would have already planned counter-measures to them. The one thing that seems to be consistent is that the problem is not necessarily the mechanism of destruction, but rather a problem with humanity. How people are treated, how they respond to being treated a certain way, and what protective barriers are put in place for them are more relevant to addressing school violence than a list of items to buy for protection. Locks, detectors, and other deterrence devices are limited in their effectiveness.

School safety is subject to a school’s ability to identify a threat, address it appropriately, and understand effective means to combat violence. Schools must be able to identify a threat before it transforms into a violent act. This must be done without damaging the learning environment on their campus in conjunction with considering a variety of options to mitigate violence on site. What stands out the most is schools are generally safe environments. Although mental health issues and firearm topics invade conversations regarding school violence, it boils down to how people treat each other and how often threats are reported, assessed, and addressed.


Birnbaum, R. (2013). Ready, Fire, Aim: The College Campus Gun Fight. Change: The Magazine of Higher Learning, 45(5), 6-14.

Bucher, K. T., & Manning, M. L. (2005). Creating Safe Schools. Clearing House, 79(1), 55-60.

Cornell, D. (2015). Our schools are safe: Challenging the misperception that schools are dangerous places. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 85(3), 217-220. doi:10.1037/ort0000064

Hawkes, T. E., & Twemlow, S. W. (2015). Threat Level High (School): Curriculum Reform with Violence in Mind. Schools: Studies in Education, 12(2), 161-197.

Mulvey, E. P., & Cauffman, E. (2001). The inherent limits of predicting school violence. American Psychologist, 56(10), 797-802. doi:10.1037/0003-066X.56.10.797

Paradice, D. (2017). An Analysis of US School Shooting Data (1840-2015). Education, 138(2), 135-144.

Rappaport, N. (2004). Survival 101 Assessing Children's and Adolescents' Dangerousness in School Settings. Adolescent Psychiatry, 28157-181.

Surface, J. L. (2011). Not All Threats Are Equal. Clearing House: A Journal of Educational Strategies, Issues and Ideas, 84(4), 150-154.

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