In this era of high profile school shootings, it's more important than ever that schools train for such a crisis.
Illinois State University Police and Emergency Management officials recently offered the year's first active shooter training for faculty, staff, and students.
Trainers recommend three responses to an active shooter situation: run, hide, or fight.
A widely reported estimate is that the U.S. has about one school shooting per week, though not all are as deadly as the Valentine’s Day shooting in Parkland, Florida, in which 17 high school students died.
The big number raises eyebrows and alarm at the apparent increase, but details matter. What constitutes a school shooting? What if no one was injured? What if there were injuries but no deaths? The answers suggest a less dramatic picture.
Illinois State University Police Chief Aaron Woodruff said there hasn’t been a significant increase in school shootings, though public awareness and media coverage rightly draw attention to those that happen.
Every time a school shooting happens, like the one in Parkland, Woodruff said his phone line is ringing with parents and students asking what happens if ISU is next?
His response is it’s time to focus more on prevention than preparation.
“When you get on an airplane, everybody's not paying attention and they give the little seat belt speech and tell you what to do in the event the plane goes down,” Woodruff said. “And oftentimes after one of these targeted violence incidents, that's the first question I get. People call and say, 'What do I do if this happens?' And what they're asking for is that seat belt speech, and I tell them the part they're missing is the prevention side.”
At one of ISU’s active shooter training events, Woodruff expanded on that airplane example, asking the audience if they could only pick one, would they rather their flight crew check the plane prior to departure, or give the "seat belt speech"?
“One of the things that helps prevent a plane from going down to begin with, and that's some of the basic checks and services for a plane,” Woodruff said. “So, I think that metaphor helps kind of bring the importance of prevention to light for people because, again, we're all like that. We all want to know what would I do if this happens. But we have to look at our day to day.”
Preventing an in-flight plane catastrophe involves testing propellers, checking wings, and reviewing takeoff and landing procedures. Woodruff said preventing an active shooter situation is human-centric.
“A lot of people attribute these incidents to mental health, and while mental health may play a role, again, statistics indicate that given the number or percentage of people that we have in this country with some form of diagnosable mental illness, that doesn't necessarily mean they're all going to commit a violent act,” Woodruff said.
He said violence is usually the result of unbearable stress.
“Everything is always about the totality of what's going on in their life and looking at these things and evaluating what risk level are they at,” Woodruff said. “And what are the appropriate intervention measures, what can we do to reduce or de-escalate the situation to bring them back to a point where they don't see violence as an alternative."
Stress alone does not make an individual likely to commit violence. Woodruff said it is important to recognize the difference between making a threat and someone posing a threat.
For example someone could say, “You better watch out.”
That's vague, but could be dangerous. To determine whether the person actually poses a threat, Woodruff advised to reply with, “What do you mean by that?”
“Is it a threat of violence? Is it a threat of something else? So, what we encourage everybody to do is to report any threat, and then we'll evaluate them on a case-by-case basis,” Woodruff said.
Woodruff said looking at individuals on a case-by-case basis allows police to determine if the threat is credible and how to help that person.
“As a university, we'll have a number of other different resources, departments we can reach out to to figure out what is occurring, and then determine, is this a credible threat of violence? Is this just the threat of some other behavior acting out?” Woodruff said.
When it comes to active shooter situations, the State of Illinois recommends Run-Hide-Fight over the “lockdown” method common before the Columbine High School massacre in 1999.
“Lockdown” advised teachers to corral students into a corner of the classroom, away from doors and windows, with the lights off.
The “hide” of Run-Hide-Fight is similar to lockdown. But rather than having students clumped in masses, authorities urge people to spread out to make less easy targets.
ISU Director of Emergency Management Eric Hodges said the idea of Run-Hide-Fight is let people choose what works best for them in an emergency.
“That changes second by second based on where the suspect is. So, it's not, you only have the run option and if you don't use that now, your barricade option is the only one left. You really re-evaluate as this incident unfolds,” Hodges said.
Illinois will soon switch to the Enhanced Run-Hide-Fight method, which encourages individuals to rethink and update their choice as the active shooter situation carries out.
Woodruff said active shooters are rare. So are tornadoes and fires. He said schools drill for those disasters and active shooter drills are just another precaution.
“We practice it for a reason, and we have to be prepared for it,” Woodruff said. “But that doesn't mean that we have to be afraid every day that there's going to be a tornado coming.”
ISU’s active shooter training shows videos of the Run-Hide-Fight method in use. The method is for use in all settings, not just schools.
Active shooter trainee Jennine Harvey-Northrop teaches in the Department of Communication Sciences and Disorders at ISU. Working in a building that welcomes non-ISU patients and community members, Harvey-Northrop said it helps to know Run-Hide-Fight provides options for the department’s less mobile visitors.
“With all of the uncertainty that is going on in the country right now, it is important that I feel educated and empowered to provide that information to my students and all of the pediatric and adult clients that come into our department,” Harvey-Northrop said.
After seeing videos of the Run-Hide-Fight method in use during ISU’s training, Harvey-Northrop said she feels better prepared to inform her students. With student instructors, she said they are often apprehensive in emergencies where they have a leadership role.
Hodges said ISU’s offers active shooter training to all faculty, students and staff.
"Right now, we offer these in classroom and hands-on methods. We have been talking about perhaps some video series, very short video segments on this, but that's really just a discussion at this point,” Hodges said. “So right now, our two real options are classroom and hands on."
The university spreads emergency information in eight different ways. The most commonly known is ISU Emergency Alert, which sends text messages detailing specifics of the emergency.
“What we don't say is, 'There's a fire on campus, evacuate.' We say, 'There's a fire in this location.' So when the dispatcher is bringing up that script to send, they have to type in that one piece, location. Then it can send,” Hodges said.
Hodges said their goal is to update emergency alerts every 15 to 20 minutes, but all updates are freshest on the ISU website.
Community members and parents can become ISU Emergency Alert recipients by signing up online. The university is offering a hands-on simulation of the Run-Hide-Fight method in early October. University students, faculty, and staff are welcome to sign up on the Emergency Management website.
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