Preparing for the Unthinkable

Following tragedies like Columbine, Sandy Hook and most recently Santa Fe in the US, the issue of how best to keep our children safe in schools has rarely left our collective anxieties over the past decade. The idea of children being murdered in the one place we send them every day to learn and grow is sickening to us. Sadly, planning and preparing for this most horrifying of worst-case scenarios is a moral and legal obligation of every school, and the horror must be faced.

The FBI have identified that between 2000 and 2013, 160 active shooter incidents occurred in the United States resulting in the killing of 486 and wounding of 557. Here in the UK mass shootings, although rarer, do still happen:

  • In Hungerford (1987) – Michael Ryan killed 16 before killing himself;
  • In Monkseaton (1989) – Robert Sartin killed 1 and left 14 other people injured during a twenty-minute shooting spree;
  • In Dunblane (1996) – Thomas Hamilton killed 16 children and 1 teacher before killing himself; and more recently
  • In Cumbria (2010) – Derrick Bird killed 12 people and injured 11 others before killing himself.

It Can’t Happen Here?

An active shooter situation is still mercifully unlikely. A lockdown (or “invacuation”) – the term given to keeping people in rather than evacuating them out – is also an important emergency response to other, more likely threats. This could be a violent pupil, a kidnapping attempt, a violent parent or member of the public or any other dangerous incident near the school. These incidents aren’t limited to inner city schools: a village college in Cambridgeshire needed to lockdown because it was believed a distressed man had poured petrol over himself outside the school gates. In the words of Sheriff Tim Cameron of St. Mary’s County, Maryland: “The notion of ‘it can’t happen here’ is no longer a notion.”

Having spent 4 years teaching in secondary schools, the thought of telling a room full of wide-eyed Year 7s that we are going to practice what to do if an armed intruder breaks into the school turns my stomach. It’s clear that we must prepare for the worst, but “active shooter” drills and lockdown practices are controversial.

Are Lockdown Drills the Answer?

primary school lock down.jpg
Some elementary schools in the US tell pupils that they’re practicing how to stay safe from bears when they do lock down drills.

On the extreme end of the scale, some schools have faced criticism for using overly realistic simulations. For example, when officers armed with rifles burst into a Florida school for an unannounced drill, parents were outraged. However, even more moderate approaches to lockdown drills have been criticised. Some argue that active-shooter drills mean exposing children to the idea that at any point, someone they know may try to kill them. Current advice includes, as a last resort, using anything to hand to attack or distract an assailant. Teaching children that classroom objects – books, pens, chairs, compasses – can also be weapons is an unpalatable thought. This more active approach to defence in case of an intruder is also training children to leave others behind if they do get the chance to escape, something that creates heavy moral questions for adults, let alone children.

Lockdown drills are therefore not to be done without careful thought, and the risk to children’s sense of safety and security needs to be balanced by making sure that the drills are as effective as they possibly can be. There are proven benefits to being prepared with a well-rehearsed plan, and we must remember that it is likely that an incident might well have happened and finished before the police can arrive. School staff must have a plan and be prepared to manage the emergency on their own, without police help.

ALICE or Run, Hide, Tell?

walkie talkie
Many schools rely on walkie-talkies for communication in an emergency, which could give away staff and students’ location in an active shooter situation.

Before considering the content of the lockdown plan, it is worth noting best practice for sharing it with staff. Whatever the threat, staff must be alerted as soon as possible and there must be an open channel of communication from that moment on. The fire alarm, although well recognised, is not fit for purpose here, as it could cause confusion over the nature of the emergency and does not keep staff in the loop in the following minutes until police can arrive. Having rapid, accurate and simple messaging throughout an incident is vital to managing it safely. It’s rare that an incident follows the pre-prepared playbook exactly, and good communication is the only way to ensure that staff are able to be flexible in the face of a changing situation. Sticking rigidly to a plan just because it’s “The Plan” can have fatal consequences: during the Columbine shooting, pupils sat quietly in the library (where they were eventually killed) and waited during the lockdown, despite having a clear escape route, because that was the protocol.

The importance of having a plan cannot be overstated, but just having a static lockdown (lock the doors, hide under tables, cover the windows) is no longer good enough. Although currently the Department for Education does not have official guidance on how to complete a successful lockdown, we can look to US schools and security experts to consider what works best. In America, schools are being advised to implement ALICE — Alert, Lockdown, Inform, Counter and Evacuate (not necessarily in that order). This is an “options-based approach” that allows flexibility according to context. In the UK, the National Police Chiefs Council recommends a ‘Run, Hide, Tell’ approach to a terror attack which has informed wider lockdown policy in the UK, leading recommendations to avoid active contact with an attacker.

Further advice from experts, particularly from the US includes:

  • Aiming ultimately to evacuate as soon as it’s safe to do so.
  • ‘Scattering’ rather than staying in one place; screaming; throwing things at the attacker if they do manage to make it past a barricade.
  • Frequent and accurate communication with parents.
  • The FBI states that having a lockdown procedure planned and practiced makes people less likely to freeze in an emergency. Frequent rehearsal is the key to keeping it fresh in people’s minds.
  • Measures such as metal detectors can help make a school seem like less of a “soft target.” This may not deter the most determined attackers, but makes an attack less likely.
  • Employ a two-stage lockdown. One meaning ‘be aware, but carry on’, the second ‘full lockdown’, which may mean lock classroom doors and close window blinds.
  • Use scenario based training so that staff are empowered to deviate from the plan when that is the most prudent thing to do.
  • The layout of the school must be taken into account
  • The plans should be updated regularly following internal review and advice from experts and government bodies.

The idea of an atrocity like Columbine or Dunblane even being possible in the schools I have worked in makes me feel genuinely nauseous. Preparing children for a violent incident is a chilling prospect. It may be uncomfortable to think about, which might explain the tendency to fall back on the familiar format of a fire drill, or to plan a lockdown around waiting for the police to deal with it, but this simply isn’t enough anymore. Pupils, parents, staff and the law all expect every possible measure to be taken to deal with an incident as safely as possible.

This article was originally written for the Independent Schools Bursars Association.

YUDU Sentinel is an app based crisis communication platform for the management of fire, terrorist and cyber attacks, or any other critical incidents. Crisis managers have immediate access to an independent two-way communication (SMS, voice, email and in app messaging) and can view key documents on mobiles. Sentinel is a cutting edge crisis management tool. Find out more at or contact us on Twitter @YUDUSentinel.

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