Fight and flight: the new approach to school shooters

Mountain View Whisman district adopting several options if there is gunfire on campus

by Kevin Forestieri / Mountain View Voice

After the school shooting at Sandy Hook, as many as 74 school shooting incidents have occurred in the United States, most recently in Seattle and Oregon. With the spike in shootings, local school districts are looking at new ways to prepare and react if there is an active shooter on campus.

A few weeks ago, Mountain View Whisman School District board members unanimously approved a newly revised emergency response policy if there is an active shooter on campus. According to Kathi Lilga, executive assistant to the superintendent, the new response goes well beyond the traditional "lockdown" strategy, and suggests teachers and students find ways to flee the campus or, at worst, defend themselves against an attacker.

In a presentation to the board titled "Run Hide Defend," Lilga explained that based on recent school shootings, students taking shelter in a lockdown had a lower rate of survival than people who assessed the situation and decided between evacuation, lockdown and defensive measures.

Lilga said the Sandy Hook shooting was a prime example: the students did everything "right" in a lockdown-only response and it was one of the deadliest shootings in U.S. history, with 20 students and 6 staff members slain.

So what should teachers and students do instead? In the revised plan is a simple flow chart. The first option is to attempt a safe evacuation. If the shooter is far away or the sound of gunshots is distant, students and staff are advised to lead students away to a nearby, safe location. This could be someone's backyard or a nearby building. Fleeing the campus means running as fast as possible from the shooter, according to a presentation by the Santa Clara County Police Chiefs Association.

If students cannot safely flee the campus, the well-known lockdown strategy is still in effect. This includes locking and barricading doors, lights turned off and students sheltered behind a secondary barricade. Lilga said the police chiefs' presentation also suggested students wedge textbooks behind their heads if they're leaning against walls to further protect themselves.

If the shooter enters the room, the new strategy suggests teachers and students should "believe that they should survive" and defend themselves. This could mean discharging a fire extinguisher at the intruder or throwing books and other objects in an attempt to disrupt him or her.

The county police presentation suggests students "commit to their actions," attack as aggressively as possible, improvise weapons and make loud noises to disorient the shooter.

Defending can mean different things depending on the grade level. Because the policy is designed for students from 5 to 14 years old, there is no "one size fits all" for how to react. Lilga said it's likely that kindergarteners will be told to just run if a shooter makes it in. Eighth graders, on the other hand, might be more capable of throwing books or taking someone down.

The three-tiered response puts more responsibility on teachers and faculty to assess the situation and figure out the best course of action, which means they'll need training. Lilga said teachers, along with classified staff like janitors and secretaries, will have to go through training seminars with local police officers on the new plan in the coming fall.

It also means a bad call could put lives at risk, but Lilga said that should not affect staff decisions. She said they are covered by Good Samaritan laws, which prevents people from being liable for civil damages if they act in good faith to help in emergency situations.

Currently the district has no plans to tell students about the newly revised response. Lilga said teacher input during staff training will help determine "age appropriate discussions" that could be held with students. Students will continue to practice lockdowns, which the school has down for the last eight or nine years.

Board trustee Chris Chiang voiced concerns over whether details for the revised response should be openly released to the public, which could benefit an attacker. But the new strategy was presented publicly by the police chiefs and is available online, and Lilga said there was also local television coverage of the change.

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