Shooter drills: A ‘hide and seek’ game you can’t win

A kids-eye view of shooter drills, Stoneman Douglas wasn’t practicing safety protocols, and a barstool through a window saved lives in Thousand Oaks.

By Amanda Field

Last week four high-ranking administrators at Stoneman Douglas High School, the site of the Parkland, Fla., massacre, were reassigned after a safety commission found the school hadn’t held a single Code Red active shooter drill in the past year. Three assistant principals and the security chief will leave the school, which also had “safe” corners blocked by furniture and unsecured campus gates.

Standard active shooter drills are now a regular part of American school safety preparedness. They train students and teachers to turn off lights, lock doors, and shelter-in-place silently and out of view of windows and doors. In short, the prevailing advice to prepare for an armed attacker is effectively to rehearse a high-stakes game of hide & seek.

This video, published on Mother Jones, explores how children perceive this high stakes game. This article from The Atlantic calls into question the psychological impact of such drills. “That single experience shaped my childhood,” Ryan Marino, an emergency medicine physician at the University of Pittsburgh, told the magazine.

Not everyone agrees on the drills’ effectiveness. “Some experts say hiding is the worst thing victims can do when bullets start flying,” ABC News reported. Greg Shaffer, former FBI agent, member of the bureau’s elite Hostage Rescue Team, and founder of Shaffer Security Group, reports that “the average distance victims in mass shootings are shot from is just 18 inches” and those who hide quietly are  “making themselves easy targets.”  

“If the attacker does something just a little bit different….those programs just don’t fare very well,” said Michael Dorn, the executive director of Safe Havens, a non-profit school safety consultancy. He advises a “scenario-based training” approach that encourages participants to think on their feet, reacting to the specific cues of any given emergency situation, rather than rely exclusively on one type of response.

Just how people will react during a real-life shooting is always a wildcard. One customer under fire during the Borderline Bar & Grill gun massacre in Thousand Oaks, Calif., last month waited for the gunman to reload his legally-purchased Glock handgun with an extended magazine, then used a bar stool thrown through the window to break the glass and usher people as far away from the gunman as possible.  

Unfortunately, police Sergeant Ronald Helus arrived on the scene, exchanged gunfire, but was killed while confronting the assailant. During a mass shooting at an Alabama Mall, also this November, Emantic Bradford rushed to protect shoppers from the gunman, but in the subsequent chaos was killed at the hands of law enforcement. Those killings call into question the NRA-endorsed “good guys with guns” approach.

Ultimately, people in any civilian setting, whether unarmed or armed, are no match for a heavily-armed, determined shooter who aims to achieve a high body count. “No training program is effective enough to guarantee another attack…won’t happen again,” said Joseph A. LaSorsa, a former Secret Service agent and CEO of the LaSorsa & Associates security firm. He continues, “People who are hell-bent on doing this, they’re going to find a way.”


Photo credit: Amanda Field

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