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Schools learn new lessons in emergency response

Federal guidelines issued after Newtown shootings recommend more active response known as “run, hide, fight”

A bookkeeper’s calm demeanor in talking down an armed intruder saved her suburban Atlanta school from experiencing another potential Sandy Hook tragedy on Aug. 20.

Antoinette Tuff used skills she learned from hostile situation training to talk to the intruder in the school’s main office for over 22 minutes while she also was on the line with a 911 operator, finally convincing the attacker to lay his weapon down and lie on the floor to wait for police. The 20-year-old suspect, who carried 500 rounds of ammunition into the Ronald E. McNair Discovery Learning Academy in Decatur, is now in custody.

Tuff’s response demonstrates the critical role of staff training for successful intervention in the event that a gunman enters a school, says Brian Bolden, principal at McNair. The school, part of the DeKalb County School District, runs safety drills at least once a month to prepare staff for emergencies ranging from fires to intruders, empowering them to act quickly in a time of crisis.

“Our philosophy is you have to get comfortable being uncomfortable,” Bolden says. “When a situation actually occurs, you have the reassurance that you’ve done it before.”

If drills are not perfectly executed, they are performed again, Bolden says. He speaks one-on-one with staff who make mistakes during the drills, and holds debriefings to discuss improvements.

Tuff’s response was in line with the district’s de-escalation training, which involves using calm words and turning the focus on the assailant. “It teaches staff to not appear to be the victim—to come across that you’re here to support the person,” Bolden says. “I could not have imagined that she would execute that training so perfectly.”

Administrators need to prepare their staff for emergencies that occur when the principal is out of the building—as Bolden says he was the day the intruder came. “It’s critical to build leadership capacity in your school so individuals are trained to take action and can execute an emergency plan the moment a crisis hits,” he says.

In recently released guidelines, the federal government has addressed active school shooters for the first time in the wake of the Sandy Hook tragedy. Contrary to what Tuff did, the guidelines recommend a more active response known as “run, hide, fight.” If there is a shooter at a school, teachers and students should leave belongings behind and run to a safe location away from the building, the guidelines say. If there is no escape, students and teachers should hide in a room with few windows, lock and barricade the doors, and turn off the lights.

As a last resort, adults in immediate danger should attack the shooter with fists, fire extinguishers, chairs or any other available weapons, the guide states.

The new “Guide for Developing High-Quality School Emergency Operations Plans” replaces a 2007 version, and covers threats ranging from armed intruders to natural disasters. The guide represents the first-ever collaboration between the FBI, FEMA, and the national departments of education, homeland security, justice, and health and human services. The input from all of the groups makes for a more comprehensive guide, as it incorporates lessons learned from terrorist attacks, hurricanes, and school incidents, says David Esquith, director of the Department of Education’s Office of Safe and Healthy Students.

“The impetus to develop this new generation of guides was the Newtown tragedy,” Esquith says. “The doctrine of ‘run, hide, fight’ is sourced from studies of active-shooter situations. It doesn’t require staff to be more active in an active-shooter situation, but tries to lay out in clear terms a recommended course of action.”

Though adults at Sandy Hook Elementary tried unsuccessfully to stop the shooter, research shows that fighting an attacker is often effective. A 2013 Texas State University study found that 41 of the 84 active-shooter events that occurred between 2000 and 2010 in businesses, schools, and public venues ended before law enforcement officers arrived.

In 16 of the cases, victims stopped the attacker themselves. In three instances, the assailant was shot; in the other 13 instances, the attacker was physically subdued.

First responders—such as police, fire departments, and emergency medical technicians—should work with administrators to create comprehensive strategies for all types of emergencies. Staff, parents, and older students should also offer their input so their specific concerns are addressed in the plan.

At McNair, Principal Bolden formed collaborative planning committees in the months after Sandy Hook that included police officials, parents, students, and community members. As a result of the work of the committees, the schools updated parent check-in procedures, added more lighting in wooded areas outside of the school, and installed additional cameras on campus.

“Safety is everyone’s business, not just the administrator’s,” Bolden says. “When you ask others for help, it empowers them, and they can show you weaknesses in your plan.”