'Run, hide, fight' new mantra for schools in post-Newtown environment

July 26, 2013
Alhambra police officers walk past the Alhambra High School Library during an active shooter simulation training at the campus in June 2013. Credit: Albert Lu, Alhambra Source

Alhambra police officers walk past the Alhambra High School library during an active shooter simulation training at the campus in June. Credit: Albert Lu, Alhambra Source

Traditional school safety techniques had students huddling in locked classrooms and waiting for rescue if danger approached during school hours. But tragic lessons in Newtown, Conn., and Columbine, Colo., have given rise to new recommendations from the U.S. Department of Education for keeping students safe: Run away and hide, they say. Or if you have to, fight.

The new school safety protocol for staff and students is “run, hide, fight,” a major shift from the static classroom lockdowns campuses have followed for years. The procedure asks teachers and staff to take a more assertive role in trying to survive the unlikely event of an “active shooter” situation on campus. As part of back-to-school preparation, educators throughout California are being trained in the technique, which includes giving teachers the leeway to ignore lockdowns requiring students to be kept inside, to run off campus with students, and to unleash a fire extinguisher on a person with a gun.

“The idea is that instead of being passive and being executed, be active and perhaps save your own life and the lives of others,” said Arthur Cummins, who sits on the board of the California School Resource Officers Association and is an administrator for safe and healthy schools at the Orange County Department of Education.

This week, Los Angeles Unified School District is training all administrators and school principals on “a change in district policy as it pertains to lockdowns,” said Steve Zipperman, chief of the LAUSD police department. Leery of publicizing details about the new procedure, Zipperman said, “It allows teachers and administrators to have other options, aside from the policy of saying that you should lockdown.”

Tim Anderson, deputy chief of the LAUSD school police, said he explained the procedure simply to district staff during the training: “If you’re in a building and the building is on fire, should you stay in the building? Of course not. Where should you go? Somewhere that is not on fire and that is safe.”

Tragic impetus

The impetus for the new approach comes from lessons learned from the school shootings in Newtown, where a former student shot and killed 26 students and staff at Sandy Hook Elementary School in December, and Columbine, where two students shot and killed 13 students and staff in 1999.

“If you listen to a 911 tape from Columbine, a teacher was doing what she was trained to do, which was to ‘shelter in place,’” said Carl Hall, assistant superintendent of support services for the Kern County Office of Education. “The reality was she had a great opportunity to remove herself and her kids and go out a back door – that’s very sobering.”

But what would “running” look like on campuses with hundreds or thousands of students? “Chaotic,” acknowledged Hall, whose Kern County Office of Education oversees 47 school districts and 178,000 students. But in some cases, it’s the best alternative, he said.

“We’re so used to lining up the kids and accounting for them, but we would rather get everybody away from the danger and into the neighborhood,” he said. “If we lose a kid for a while because he’s alive, that’s a better problem to have. We want to count them alive.”

Hall acknowledged that teachers, staff and students at Sandy Hook Elementary did “a lot of things right” in trying to stop the gunman and save students, but a mindset of searching out options for survival is helpful for teachers to have, he said.

The preparation comes as crimes of all types at school, including violent crimes, have steadily declined from 1992 to 2011, according to a new federal report. In the 2010-11 school year, 11 students died at school from homicide, out of a total school student population of 55 million, said Thomas Snyder, a statistician with the National Center for Education Statistics. In remarks calling for schools to keep a sense of perspective about violence at school, Vernon M. Billy, executive director of the California School Boards Association, noted, “Suicide, for example, is a bigger threat than gun violence.”

Staff watch from the third floor as police officers surround a restroom during an active shooter simulation at Alhambra High School in June. Credit: Albert Lu, Alhambra Source

But if the worst happens, schools want to be ready. “There are three basic options: run, hide, or fight,” states the Guide for Developing High-Quality School Emergency Operations Plans, released in June by federal agencies including the Department of Education, Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Federal Bureau of Investigation. The guide was promised to schools by President Barack Obama as part of a follow-up to the fatal shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in December. “You can run away from the shooter, seek a secure place where you can hide and/or deny the shooter access, or incapacitate the shooter to survive and protect others from harm,” the guide states.

While all schools are required by the state and the federal government to have safety plans, schools are not required to adopt the “run, hide, fight” protocol, which was issued as a guideline.

“Understandably, this is a sensitive topic,” notes the guide. “There is no single answer for what to do, but a survival mindset can increase the odds of surviving.”

Still, many districts, in addition to Los Angeles Unified, say they are offering trainings or will be offering staff trainings in some form of “run, hide, fight.” Kern County held trainings for administrators and staff in the new protocol in April and May, with representatives of 35 education agencies in attendance. Other districts include Norris School District, Capistrano Unified School District, Hermosa Beach City School District and Newport Mesa Unified School District.

Tough decisions

Grappling with the potential danger of an active shooter on campus is a shift in mentality that brings up some tough emotions, said Patricia Escalante, superintendent of the Hermosa Beach City School District.

“The shift is from knowing the mechanics of locking down to the harder part which is, as a first responder, teachers should know who they take with them and who they leave behind,” Escalante said. “You may have a child who’s clearly gone, and you leave that child behind.”

In June, the Alhambra Unified School District held active shooter simulation training at Alhambra High School, with a school counselor playing the part of a student with a gun, administrators and principals responding, unscripted, to the scenario, and Alhambra police rushing on campus after the call. The simulation was watched by 350 school staff and administrators, including 150 custodians and more than 50 bus drivers, teachers and other staff to be trained as part of professional development workshops this year, said Laurel Bear, director of the district’s student safety and services program, Gateway to Success, which coordinated the simulation. Another 100 people from a variety of school districts watched an excerpt of a video of the simulation as part of a training in “threat assessment” this month.

Laurel Bear, director of Alhambra Unified’s Gateway to Success program, left, speaks with Lt. Jennifer Wiese during an active shooter simulation at Alhambra High School in June. Credit: Albert Lu, Alhambra Source

The Alhambra active shooter simulation did not include the “run, hide and fight” protocol. “I think it gets mixed reviews,” Bear said.

In particular, advising school leaders to flee the campus during an active shooter situation may not be appropriate, she said. “In certain circumstances, absolutely, that’s what you need to do,” she said, “but it’s harder for school officials because we are responsible.”

Bear also noted that a focus on preventing violence on campus is critical, and effective tools include identifying emotionally troubled students, providing immediate assessments and referring students and families to counseling. While it is impossible to predict whether a student will become a perpetrator of violence, she said, students who commit acts of violence on campus share a sense of disconnection from school, family and life.

“It’s that lack of interaction that we concern ourselves with – the kids who isolate themselves in their bedrooms for 20 hours a day, and their only relationship is an electronic relationship,” Bear said. “Research has shown that relationships with adults are critically important for kids to mature and develop and be able to manage life.”

Improved relationships among students and staff, as well as improved counseling services, go a long way toward keeping students connected to school, she said.

“What I often tell our staff is this: We don’t need more metal detectors, we need more kid detectors,” Bear said. “We need to be more mindful when we see something out of the ordinary in kids, whether it’s a student’s behavior or (mood), and you need to be able to refer that student to professionally trained help.”

Jane Meredith Adams covers student health. Contact her or follow her @JaneAdams.

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