Solutions to the problem of school shooters seem to come in two varieties: short-term efforts to make schools hard targets (arming teachers, hiring more resource officers) and long-term efforts to address the root causes of violence (access to guns, aggrieved entitlement, toxic masculinity, better mental health supports for students, reductions in bullying, and an end to violence against women).
In both theory and practice, hardening schools doesn’t work. (There’s a lot to say here, but the primary point is that school shooters don’t typically care about making it out of the situation alive. They often expect to die by suicide or police fire, so arming teachers or hiring more SROs doesn’t deter them.)
In contrast, in both theory and practice, softening schools–creating a culture of peace and collaboration and kindness–shows a lot of promise. It’s a shift that requires leadership from politicians, though, including gun laws that hold gun owners accountable for their weapons, serious efforts to address family violence, and support for teachers and public education. But all of this is harder to achieve quickly.
In the short-term, as you work to change school cultures and US law, what can you do?
- Demand that all classroom doors are equipped with a door lock that operates in two ways: when it is turned one direction, the door can be opened from the outside, and when it is turned the other, it cannot (though it can always be opened from the inside). Teach teachers to keep these “entrance function” locks in the “locked” position and to close all doors when students are not actively using them. They do present a risk that, should a shooter gain entrance to a classroom, he could lock rescuers outside as they seek a key to gain entry. However, the alternative is that he can simply enter the classroom, which seems, to me, to be worse.
- Install a second lock on each classroom door, at the top or bottom of the door. School shooters are typically seeking high numbers of deaths, not to kill any person in particular. Knowing that they have only minutes to move through the building, they are easily deterred by locked doors. However, they can also shoot through the windows in or next to doors, then reach around to unlock the door. Make that harder by installing a second lock, about their heads, that a teacher can quickly deploy in an emergency. Such locks likely violate local codes because they are out of reach for people with disabilities. For this reason, you may have to first revise local code and achieve buy-in from people with disabilities on the matter (including being open to other alternatives). Such locks can be things that aren’t permanently in place but are only used when an intruder is in the building. Again, they will make it difficult for rescuers to reach a classroom. (Note that better locks means that you are basically condemning the kids in the next classroom that’s unlocked to death. So it’s important that these strategies are utilized school-wide.)
- Supply each classroom with a fire extinguisher. I bring my own for each classroom where I teach. Your goal in an active shooter situation is that everyone gets out of the building. If that’s not possible, then lockdown. The worst case is a breach of the door by a gunman. A fire extinguisher allows a teacher to distract a gunman from a distance and with little need to control aim. Again, it won’t disable a gunman permanently, but it may provide sufficient distraction to knock a weapon from his hand or knock him to the ground with a desk.
- Supply each classroom with a gunshot wound kit (or more than one) and make sure teachers know how to use it. Consider making advanced first aid part of health class, and embed gunshot wound care in the context of other kinds of emergency aid.
- Ask your school leaders to talk about gun security frequently. Most homes that have both children and guns have unsecured guns that children can access. Train your school guidance counselor to talk to parents about guns. Ask your principal to make gun safety part of his back-to-school community night speech. Find funding to bring gun locks to the event so that parents can pick them up. (In fact, advertise that gun locks will be available so more parents come.) Instead of raffling off a gun for your fundraiser, raffle off gun safes.
These strategies don’t reduce the trauma that happens with an intruder in a school. They may save lives of people who would otherwise have died. And they are cheap–and also not as effective as other, harder options. The better solutions–both in physically designing safer schools and in socially creating them–are more expensive and harder. What I propose here isn’t a replacement for the more important work of ending school violence. They’re just the things I do as a teacher.
These are things you can do as a community member or parent. Hold a PTA fundraiser for new locks on the doors. Host a fire safety event with the local fire department and use it as an occasion to give every teacher a fire extinguisher–with no need to explain to the public that the primary concern isn’t fires in the math classroom but intruders. Advocate for mandatory first aid classes as part of the curriculum. None of these things have to look like obvious attempts to reduce deaths in cases of school shootings, but they are things that matter.