The shooting at the Arapahoe High School in Colorado, coming on the day before the one-year anniversary of the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, CT, reminds us that it’s always a good time to have a serious conversation with your kids about school safety. These events, while rare, are growing in number, according to research just released by the FBI.
The question of how much detail to go into and how much depth to cover for this issue is always an age-appropriate decision. You certainly don’t want to scare your younger kids into not wanting to go to school anymore because they fear being shot, but you also don’t want them always assuming the adults at the school can provide all the answers or keep them completely protected. School district officials and on-campus leaders, teachers, and staff are doing their best to adapt to this problem (which was exceedingly rare prior to Columbine in 1999), so it makes sense to teach your kids to follow the instructions when they hear them but to know that their first order of protection is themselves.
Research from the 2002 United States Secret Service “Safe School Initiative” tells us that in most cases of school violence, the perpetrator engaged in “third-party leakage,” meaning he or she told someone about wanting to shoot up the school. They did not tell the target; they told others about the target. More recent research into the latest school shootings suggests that they work alone and typically make entry through the main entrance to the school (as Adam Lanza did at Sandy Hook). As such, here are five life-saving tools to teach your kids, especially if you have junior high and high school-aged students. Tell them to:
Listen to the hallway chatter.
School shooters don’t warn their targets about killing them; they tell others around them. Part of this may be a cry for help, which may result in the student, acquaintance, or friend who hears these threats talking the angry threatener out of using violence. Or it may cause the shooter’s friends to talk him into using violence. These third-party threats (“leakage”) may be in response to being bullied or humiliated by the target or his or her friends, come after a significant loss in their personal or school lives, or after a romantic breakup. They don’t tell the targets because they fear the consequences and they don’t want to be stopped. They tell others to boost their confidence, to test the waters about the act, to get support, to be provocative, or just to see what may happen. Your child should know to come to you immediately if he or she hears any student making statements to harm themselves or others, especially that are not said to the other party directly. You should evaluate the stories you hear and make the courageous decision to speak to a principal, district administrator, counselor, teacher, or the school police / resource officer if one is assigned there. While it’s true many of these threats may be part of usual teenage false bravado, lots of incidents that ended in campus violence started with third-party threats.
Report what they hear to an adult or use an anonymous source.
You should also tell your child to have the courage to speak to a teacher, counselor, principal, school security guard, or school police officer, if they hear about other students talking about guns, hurting or killing other students, revenge, or any related threatening language, without having to wait to tell you first. Many schools have set up monitored answering machines, WeTip or Crime Stopper telephone lines, and even social media accounts that allow students to make confidential, anonymous reports. For every 20 that are bogus, there may be one that is valid and the intervention opportunity can be rapid and significant by the school safety and security stakeholders. The “no snitch / don’t be a rat” culture can be pervasive and intimidating on any school campus. Tell your child he or she doesn’t need to fear being identified as being the one who told what was said or overheard. The school professionals are very familiar with these fears and stigmas and will reassure your child they can take action without having to involve him or her in the investigation.
Assume the worse about noises or dangerous-sounding events.
Bad or violent events start off with bad or violent noises. If your child hears screaming or yelling (especially by adults), crying or wailing, adults or other kids running toward them with scared looks on their faces, arguing voices using louder and louder tones, or what may seem like “firecrackers” or “a car backfiring,” they need to leave the area. Better to figure out later it was not serious then to get caught up in the middle of an attack.
Be ready to Run or Hide.
If it looks like a gun—metal and real or plastic and fake—or if it sounds like gunshots, they need to run away to a safe place as fast as they can. For elementary school kids, this means they should not leave the campus but get out of the immediate area and go find an adult, especially if they can go to another lockable classroom or building, far from the possible shooting situation. For junior high and high school kids, tell them to either leave the area, including going off campus if that seems safest in a real emergency, or go to a safe room on campus with a teacher, counselor, or principal and help them lock and barricade the door once as many students as safely possible are inside. In the workplace, we teach employees to follow the national “active shooter” protocol: Run–Hide–Fight. This means leave the area, go to a safe room, lock and barricade the door, or fight back with whatever you have until the cops get there. In schools, we only teach the Run–Hide part, and leave the Fight to the arriving police.
Avoid bad kids.
Some kids are introverted (author included) and some kids are spooky, sinister loners. Your child often knows the difference, intuitively, of a kid who gives him or her an uncomfortable feeling because of an alarming lack of social skills, better than the adults on campus. You can’t always pick your child’s friends (who see him or her a lot more than you do each day, unless you home school), but you can talk to your child about making good choices and staying away from other kids who are fighters, bullies, overly-aggressive, thugs, gang members, thieves, dopers, weapons possessors, chronic rule-breakers and teacher-challengers. But while the loud ones may want to cause problems; the quiet ones, the social misfits, and the angry or depressed loners may want to take lives.
Dr. Steve Albrecht, PHR, CPP, BCC, is a San Diego-based speaker, author, and trainer. He is board certified in HR, security, and coaching. He focuses on high-risk employee issues, threat assessments, and school and workplace violence prevention. In 1994, he co-wrote Ticking Bombs, one of the first business books on workplace violence. He holds a doctorate in Business Administration (DBA); an M.A. in Security Management; a B.S. in Psychology; and a B.A. in English. He worked for the San Diego Police Department for 15 years and has written 17 books on business, HR, and police subjects. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @DrSteveAlbrecht