By Jennifer Wohlleb
Ever since last year’s shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary in Connecticut, school security expert Michael Dorn said, educators are responding differently when he runs them through active shooter simulations– and not for the better.
“The scores (on simulations) have dropped dramatically since Sandy Hook because what we’re hearing from principals is, ‘It’s my job to die,’” said Dorn, who was a keynote speaker and led two breakout sessions at the Kentucky Safe Schools and Communities conference in June. In that attack, which killed 26, the school’s principal and psychologist died trying to take down the gunman.
PHOTO: School security expert Michael Dorn uses an audience member at the Kentucky Safe Schools and Communities conference to do a safety exercise on responding to a student with a gun. Dorn, executive director of Safe Havens, uses simulations to help school personnel learn to respond to situations ranging from active shooters to natural disasters.
While lauding their bravery, Dorn, executive director of Safe Havens International, which focuses on campus safety, said in most scenarios rushing a gunman is almost always the last resort. His presentation focused on how more lives can be saved – from a gunman, in a fire, a tornado or any other hazardous situation – by training administrators and staff to first keep themselves safe. He calls it the window of life:
1. Protect yourself so you can protect others
2. Protect those in the immediate area
3. Protect the campus
4. Notify law enforcement
“What happens if you get on the phone with 911 as step 3?,” Dorn asked. “When will the building get locked down if (a teacher or administrator) calls 911 before he communicates with the office? It’s 1-2 minutes in (to the event) and if a tornado is coming or a fire, that’s a deadly gap … if we have two people in the office, we can split these steps up.”
He encouraged schools to create a culture of safety in which everyone is trained and feels empowered to act.
Why is empowerment so important?
“One of the deadliest school incidents in American history was a fire, not a gun,” Dorn said, referring to the Our Lady of Angels school fire in Chicago in 1958. “They did monthly safety drills, but because it was the principal who pulled the fire alarm, the teachers were inadvertently trained to wait until someone pulled the alarm for them (before beginning evacuations). So it was five minutes from the time the fire was detected to the time the alarm was pulled. That’s why 95 people died in a fire at a school that did nine fire drills a year and could clear 1,200 kids in three minutes.”
He said most schools today still do lockdown, fire, weather and room-clearing drills directed from the top down. “We’re not teaching staff to make life and death decisions and communicate them,” Dorn said. “That custodian or that teacher that first sees the tornado or the man with the gun better be trained and empowered to initiate that process.”
He said the empowerment will extend to getting people to speak up when they see an unsafe situation in the school, like one in North Carolina that led to a young child’s death.
“K-8 students were going into the teachers lounge to steal soft drinks and (school leaders) didn’t think it through, and they picked up the vending machine and put it up on a folding table so little students couldn’t reach up in them and steal Cokes – or so they thought,” Dorn said. “And they killed a little boy when the machine fell and smashed that little child … Over 60 employees who walked by that hazard every day did not feel empowered to say, ‘Hey, this is crazy. We can’t do this at a school full of kids.’”
Dorn encouraged educators not to focus too narrowly on active shooter scenarios when planning and training to respond in emergencies.
“Take the most lethal events in the history of our schools, the most lethal four or five,” he said. “None of them involved an attack with firearms. They’re all fires, tornados and explosions, and they killed more than Beslan, Russia, Columbine, Sandy Hook and Virginia Tech put together.”
Dorn encouraged school leaders to do simulation drills with their staff asking how they would respond in a given situation. Those scenarios can range from an angry parent entering the school to a vicious animal on the playground to someone trying to get on a school bus.
“You need to have a plan. You need to think about the age of the kids, what’s appropriate for them to hear, and I pose you the scenario: You’re outside with the kids and you see a tornado at 1,000 yards, coming at the school, what do you do?” he asked. “You’re 25 feet away from the door, you should do a reverse evacuation, shelter and notify the office.”
He said nationally, 90 percent of the people in that scenario don’t notify the office. “Those that call anybody, who do they call? They call 911,” Dorn said. “So when does the principal find out about the tornado? When it hits the building.”
He said a good way to conduct these drills is to go individually to staff members with a prepared scenario and ask them how they would react.
“At your next staff meeting you say, ‘I went to Bob, I posed him this scenario and he did a great job,’” Dorn said. “Now, if Bob falls apart, you retrain him, tell him what he should do, make him do it and tell him, ‘Don’t tell anyone this was you.’ And at the next staff meeting say, ‘We went to a staff member and they didn’t know what to do when we posed them with this situation.’” And then you can train everyone at that time, he said.
Dorn said there is no single correct response to any given situation, but he said training and empowerment will lead to better outcomes.
Referring back to an active shooter situation, he said, “When you tell them stay put, and you drill them over and over, stay put, don’t expect anything good when someone forces their way into the room. But when you teach them if your plans don’t match, do what makes sense based on what you know. If you give them permission to deviate, they’ll usually figure it out.”
– For more information about these methods, go to www.safehavensinternational.org.