Justin Kelley

Ten years ago, on December 14, in Newtown, Connecticut, 20-year-old Adam Lanza shot and killed 26 at Sandy Hook Elementary School. It was the deadliest mass shooting at an elementary school in U.S. history. Schools and colleges, houses of worship, theatres, offices and retail stores continue to be among the venues targeted by mass shooters based on a combination of vulnerability, attack capability and perceived impact. As we look back at the Newtown event, we can identify several important lessons applicable to a variety of soft targets in today’s landscape.  

Threat Assessments and Response Plans | School security must be uncompromising and ever evolving. It is essential to recognize unique vulnerabilities that may exist in any given school environment to best mitigate risk. An independent and comprehensive vulnerability assessment will help identify areas where security gaps exist and then serve as a foundation from which to develop a robust active shooter response plan. Consider establishing a multidisciplinary threat assessment team of school personnel to help direct and manage the process and define emergency communication protocols.

Train and Empower | Although the loss of life was extensive in Newtown, certain actions by school staff helped limit fatalities. The office staff members were the first to see the shooter and reports indicate that they took action to protect themselves, which allowed them to survive and call 911. The shooter killed himself shortly after police arrived, ending the killing, so this was an important measure. The school’s custodian heroically ran through the building to alert staff and lock doors – another action that undoubtedly saved lives. All school staff, including support areas like maintenance, food service and transportation, should be well informed and trained in proper active shooter response protocol. This protocol should include a variety of response measures that are clear, well-defined and consistently reviewed.

Plain-clothes Guards | According to the FBI, nearly 70 percent of all active shooter incidents end before police arrive and nearly 37% of them end in two minutes or less. Given that statistic, the first line of defense at any school will be the personnel. The presence of a well-trained, armed security professional in plain clothes who is not immediately recognizable as security provides a heightened security posture. Any gunman who is intent on causing mass casualty will quickly identify and neutralize a uniformed security guard. Whereas a covert professional is more likely to identify and respond first to an emerging active shooter threat.  

The Right Balance | An effective and comprehensive school security plan is layered. It may include access systems that harden entry points and secure the perimeter. This is an important aspect to help monitor students, staff and visitors. Yet, structural security systems are only one part of an overall security approach. It is important to combine security equipment with other initiatives.  Both in Newtown and in this year’s shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, where 19 children and two adults were killed, the gunmen shot out glass to enter the premises.

See Something, Say Something | While active shooter situations are often unpredictable, paying careful attention to warning signs could go a long way in mitigating a potential incident. The U.S. Secret Service National Threat Assessment Center (NTAC) studied 41 incidents of targeted school violence that occurred at K-12 schools in this country from 2008 to 2017. This report notes that most attackers had a history of school disciplinary actions, and many had prior contact with law enforcement. Most attackers communicated a prior threat to their target or communicated their intentions to carry out an attack. In many of these cases, someone observed a threatening communication or behavior but did not act. These findings highlight the importance of encouraging students, school personnel and family members who see something to say something.

Cooperation and Relationships | Cooperation and ongoing communication between local law enforcement and school personnel are vital in building a culture of heightened safety. Consistent and continual information exchange should be transparent and include suggestions for identifying warning signs and risk factors. Parents of school children may already be members of local law enforcement or first responders and can be trusted initial points of contact in building active working relationships.

Safeguarding children in school is the highest priority, requiring leadership and a layered approach to security. There are many tangible initiatives that will help reduce the likelihood of an active shooter incident occurring on today’s school campuses, but there is no one-size-fits-all solution. To schedule a consultation with an MSA subject matter expert, contact info@msasecurity.net.

Click here to download The Active Shooter Threat and Reducing the Risk.


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