Prepare Your Faculty, Staff, and Students for an Active Shooter Situation

by Lisa Cook, Academic Impressions

Efforts to prepare higher education faculty, staff, and students for an active shooter situation have lagged behind those in K-12. Often, institutions think they can't train thousands of faculty and students because the logistics are too difficult or drills are time-consuming and unnecessary.

But in a school shooting everything changes. In the minutes before law enforcement arrives:

  • Do your staff and students know what first steps to take if they hear or see gunfire?
  • Do your students and staff know what steps to take if your campus issues a “lockdown” alert?

The answer frequently is no, leaving everyone on campus under-prepared if the worst happens -- and opening your institution to legal ramifications.

"'It can't happen here' is happening someplace everyday."
John McDonald, Jefferson County Public Schools

Nearly all campuses train campus security and police officers for active shooter situations on a regular basis, but that creates a false sense of security. To be adequately prepared, institutions must include everyone — administrators, faculty, staff, and students — in training and drills.

We talked with John McDonald, a security expert who has worked to address security weaknesses and conduct lockdown drills at 35 colleges and universities nationwide. McDonald currently serves as the executive director of safety, security and emergency planning at Jefferson County Public Schools in Colorado, where one of the largest school shootings in the US took place in 1999 at Columbine High School.

During our conversation, McDonald had several critical points to make.

1. Train Faculty, Staff, and Students - Not Just Campus Security

Although lockdown drills have become common in K-12 education, colleges have not been training their students or staff, McDonald explains. This gap leaves colleges especially vulnerable because in a crisis, employees and students alike may not know what to do. Should they hide? Should they flee the building if possible, or should they lock the door, turn off the lights and hide out of sight of any windows?

In contrast, staff and students know exactly what to do if they hear a fire alarm: calmly but quickly exit the building and stand at a reasonable distance away from the building until the fire department or other authorities tell them it is safe to return. They know this because faculty, staff, and students alike have done regular fire drills in K-12 schools for more than 50 years.

"In an emergency, you will react the way you have been trained. We have to give faculty and staff 'muscle memory.'"
John McDonald, Jefferson County Public Schools

The vast majority of campus employees, however, have never participated in a lockdown drill or training and will not know what to do in an active shooter situation. That also holds true of many adult learners. The only population that may be prepared are younger college students who regularly did lockdown drills during their K-12 education. Effective active shooter preparation means that everyone on your campus must receive regular training and participate in drills to familiarize them with your alert system and evacuation procedures.

2. Drill to Teach an Automatic Response in an Emergency

Drills are important because emergency plans need to be brought down to the classroom level, McDonald emphasizes. Staff and students need to be able to respond just as they would when the fire alarm sounds: by taking immediate action. Some institutions have posters in each classroom with instructions about responding to a variety of emergency situations, but in an active shooter situation, there isn’t time to read the poster.

Many institutions also rely on text messaging and social media to alert the campus to an emergency. But in a crisis, there will be a delay between the first 911 call and your institution's first campus alert. In addition, faculty and students may have turned off their phones during class, or classrooms and offices may be located in an area of the building that has poor reception and may not receive the alert. Everyone needs to be equipped to carry out basic campus safety procedures without waiting for instructions.

Local police response time is two to three minutes, on average, McDonald adds, but in an active shooter situation, classrooms and offices need to be secured within 30 seconds. Training is the first step, but drills will allow your faculty, staff, students, and first responders to practice carrying out those instructions in real time on campus.

"We have to give them muscle memory," McDonald explains, so that the response is automatic in a real emergency. Drills also serve as a test, and institutions can learn from that test, provide follow-up communication about what went well and badly, and give further instructions to address weak areas. It’s also important to familiarize everyone with what the emergency response looks like to minimize fear in an actual crisis.