How safe are your schools? Strategies for defending against armed attackers
By H. Anthony Semone, Ph.D., and Harris Sokoloff, Ph.D.

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School superintendents across the nation are working with staff, local police, fire officials and other experts to figure out how to make sure nothing like the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School happens in their districts. Although we are unlikely to be able to achieve that goal — sadly, one or more heavily armed and determined attackers will be nearly impossible to stop — we can get close.


Do you think your school has a strong plan for defending against armed attackers?
  • 1. Yes
  • 2. No

Any adequate strategy must include three critical components: detection, deterrence and defense. We begin by considering detection, the first component of school safety.


To detect threats, school personnel must first recognize that an attack is a realistic possibility. Threats can come from three broad sources:
  • Internal threats arise from teachers, students or staff who pose a danger to others inside the school. Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, the two students who murdered 12 students and one teacher and injured another 21 students at Columbine High School, represented an internal threat. Detection in these cases relies upon reports from other students, teachers or staff about an individual or group of individuals who exhibit behavior that observers find frightening or threatening. Such reports must be made to someone in authority, and the person in authority must follow through on them according to school or district policies.

  • Internal-external threats are made by people outside the school but with close ties to it, such as suspended or expelled students or students who were transferred to "disciplinary" schools. These threats are often retaliatory in nature and made via telephonic, social/media or written communications "voiced" in conspicuous places so as to be noticed by students, teachers or staff. In these cases, the school must notify law enforcement officials so they can evaluate the severity of the threat and recommend measures to protect students, staff and teachers.

  • External threats arise seemingly without reference to a particular individual or group of individuals. By definition, this type of threat is terroristic. It is the law enforcement equivalent of an ambush. Precursors are extremely difficult, if not impossible, to detect. As may have been the case in Newtown, Conn., these external threats seem to materialize with no advance notice and can only be detected if a school system operates within a detection mode that acknowledges the reasonable likelihood that such an attack can happen when least expected.

A determined attacker can find his way through even the best deterrence systems, but schools can implement numerous measures to make it difficult for him to succeed, such as by barring access to the building, positioning furniture to slow him down should he gain entry and providing protective measures for students and staff. Such measures fall into two general categories, based on whether they are meant to bar an attacker from entering the school or to protect students and school personnel after he has already penetrated the building.

External deterrence measures focus on discouraging a would-be attacker either by show of force or by making entry difficult:
  • Show of force amounts to having an armed law enforcement officer and vehicular presence at entrance points as students arrive and depart, and at random times throughout the day. Some school districts, in collaboration with local law enforcement and following local authorization, have constructed agreements permitting armed school resource officers.
  • Impediments to entry. Several forms of deterrence make entry difficult; these include, but are not limited to:
    • Impact-resistant doorways and glass of sufficient strength to counter the effect of high-velocity ammunition, large hammers and blunt-force tools.
    • Doorways that open only in an external direction, only electronically and only upon the explicit decision of an assigned school staff member.
    • High-definition, real-time video surveillance (with recording capabilities) of entrance and exit points.
Internal deterrence measures focus on making it difficult for would-be attackers to carry out their plans. Examples include:
  • School foyer design. Entrance areas should be designed to preclude a direct line of ac-cess to classrooms and teacher and staff areas, such as by placing seating areas at strategic points along lines of ingress.
  • Training in the use of equipment. All school personnel should know how to use fire ex-tinguishing equipment to slow down or stop an attacker, and know where that equipment is located.
  • Rigorous sign-in processes. All guests should be escorted to the sign-in area by a staff member with a physically imposing presence. Sign-in itself should require positive visual facial identification of arriving individuals, and the ID should be confirmed against pho-tographs in school records.
  • Lock-down capabilities. Teaching, coaching, and activities rooms should be capable of automatic lockdown under conditions of threat. Additionally, for each room, doors should open so that there is no direct line-of-sight toward the students (for example, opening toward a wall, not into the larger classroom).
Defense If Under Attack

The role of school staff when under attack is to delay the progress of the attacker until law enforcement arrives. Training and preparation are the first stages of defense. All staff should be trained by law enforcement and fire department officials from recognized training facilities in the use of tools commonly present in all schools.

One particularly important defensive measure is training staff to use high-energy-discharge water hoses, which typically reside within school walls and behind protective screening. Other techniques that can be developed in collaboration with fire department and law enforcement personnel include the use of lighting and ceiling sprinkler systems for defense. For maximum effectiveness, law enforcement trainers must provide initial and ongoing training to all staff, ideally via simulated, active-shooter/attacker scenarios.

Here are key locations throughout the school to implement defense measures:
  • The sign-in area is the first defensive barrier. Sign-in staff should:
    • Have access to a foam-based, handheld fire extinguisher. It should be kept in a secure, unobtrusive location that is immediately accessible to sign-in staff who have been trained to use it.
    • Have immediate access to an electronic means of notifying all staff involved in teaching and coaching activities so they, too, can begin defensive action. One such electronic means is to use light signals, available in each room, to alert staff and students of the presence of threatening conditions.
    • Have a means of notifying law enforcement officials that an attack is underway. This is a kind of "panic" notification to local law enforcement that intervention is needed immediately.
  • Hallways or portions of hallways should be locked down to limit the attacker's access to areas of the school. The school's lockdown protocol must be initiated at the same moment that law enforcement officials are notified.
  • Classrooms, study halls and activity areas must undergo immediate lockdown, including staff shepherding students into the most inaccessible area of their rooms. Some schools have acquired bullet resistant panels that, much like folding privacy screens, can be deployed as a protective shell behind which students might secure some cover from the attack. Classrooms are the last line of defense if the attacker is successful in warding off all prior interventions. Having a fire extinguisher in the classroom can be a primary defense weapon. Other tools can include law-enforcement-grade pepper spray and electronic, less-than-lethal weaponry, such as Tasers. In some jurisdictions teachers are authorized to use a legally carried firearm in the presence of a threat that poses an imminent danger of grave bodily harm or death.
A Careful Balancing Act

Employing some or all of these tactics requires all parties to the issues of school safety — school administrators at all levels, parents, teachers and other community members — to give careful consideration to a basic conundrum: Freedom and safety are mutually exclusive. Whatever makes a school setting more free will, at the same time, make it more dangerous to its students, teachers and administrative personnel. And equally obvious, whatever makes the school safer will impinge upon that freedom.

As is true for all choices, there are real consequences inherent in the dynamic of this polarity. Ultimately, the central dilemma for the stakeholders will be to decide what consequences they can live with because, indeed, "there is no such thing as a free lunch."

Additional Resources H. Anthony Semone, Ph.D., is a licensed psychologist with a specialization in police psychology. He is trained and qualified in assessing facilities for their deterrence and defense capacities and in managing the psychological aftermath of an active attacker incident.

Harris Sokoloff, Ph.D., is the director of the Center for School Study Councils at the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education, where he works with school superintendents in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Delaware.