Our team’s analysis of the Sandy Hook Final Report released by the Connecticut State’s Attorney continues with 10 key lessons learned for school security and emergency preparedness.
While additional details may be revealed in forthcoming documents from the Connecticut State Police, 10 important lessons from Sandy Hook have emerged based upon the final report, information shared with us by individuals involved with the incident, and other published reports:
- Invest in the people side of school safety. The principal and school psychologist lost their lives moving toward the shooter. Teachers and teacher aides in two classrooms died with their children. The office staff minimized their visibility and as shots were being fired in the hall still managed to call 911. The school custodian ran through the building alerting teachers to lock down as he helped lock classrooms. People are the first line of defense for student safety. We need to invest more in training and preparing our students and staff for safety, security and preparedness versus skewing our focus on security equipment.
- Lockdowns work and are still one of the most effective tools available to get students and staff out of harms way. While 26 students and staff sadly lost their lives at Sandy Hook, many lives were saved due to students and staff locking down. The final report indicates that classrooms on both sides of the rooms where the killings occurred locked down and remained quiet with no one harmed. The shooter bypassed the first classroom that was locked down and had a piece of paper covering the window that remained from a lockdown drill the week prior to the shootings.
The principal told everyone to stay put, not to run or attack the gunmen, and one shot staff member made it back into the conference room, locked down, called 911, and activated the PA.
Office staff and the school nurse locked down. We have been told that a secretary and nurse locked down so successfully that they went undetected during multiple police sweeps of the building and were detected only after police set up a command center in the office nearby where they were locked down.
The final report indicates the two rooms where the children and educators were killed had unlocked doors, showed no signs of forced entry, and keys were found on the floor nearby one killed teacher. This suggests not that these rooms were locked down and breached, but that they may not have had time to lockdown.
- Diversify drills and make them reasonable but progressively challenging. Conduct lockdown drills between class changes, during lunch periods, upon student arrival, at dismissal, during staff-only in-service days. Remove the building’s leadership team and office staff to see how drills unfold without them, as was the case at Sandy Hook once the principal and psychologist were killed and the office staff’s ability to act was marginalized by an immediate threat.
- Engage support staff. While schools are much better at doing so today, many still do not fully engage support staff such as food services, custodial and maintenance, office support staff, bus drivers, and others in training sessions, drills and crisis teams. At Sandy Hook, the custodian heroically ran through the building alerting staff and helping them by locking doors. The office staff members were the first to see the shooter.
- Train and empower all staff. Prior lockdown drills were reportedly held at Sandy Hook which surely helped many staff quickly do so during the shooting. Evacuation planning, parent-student reunification and other best practices for training and planning are critical to school preparedness. Reasonable student training is also important.
- Assess physical security at each school due to unique designs and issues. The classrooms where children and staff died at Sandy Hook had connecting doors in the walls. Restrooms inside the classrooms helped as places for young children to lockdown. Each school district is unique and schools within each district are unique, requiring building-specific assessments and actions as appropriate to identify strengths and areas of concern.
- Strengthen communications capabilities and create redundancy. The ability to activate the PA from multiple locations was helpful in alerting others of the shootings at Sandy Hook. As noted in Chuck Hibbert’s blog article this week, Connecticut State Police radios did not work inside the school. Have redundancy in communications in the event “Plan A” fails.
- Recognize and address the elephants in the living room: Mental health, home dysfunction, weapons, violent videos, etc. These are largely home and community issues that must be recognized, acknowledged and addressed by parents and the community.
- Think and act cognitively, not emotionally; and measured, not knee-jerk — and related to this lesson:
- Stay focused on proven, tested and reliable best practices. Experienced school safety professionals, psychologists and many educators have expressed concerns since December of 2012 about far too many emotionally-driven ideas and actions based upon what people believed occurred at Sandy Hook. Bulletproof backpacks, bulletproof whiteboards, vendors and consultants pushing expensive classroom surveillance cameras activated by individual teacher panic alerts, software developers providing lockdown or shooter notification apps (that could result in not only first responders rushing to the school, but also undesired onlookers like the NY man who went to Sandy Hook to see what was going and got detained by police), and others have jumped into the fray with questionable proposals.
Many schools rushed to fortify their front entrance doors, failing to recognize that the Sandy Hook shooter shot out the glass next to the doorway, not in the actual doorway. Some mistakenly have downplayed and/or dismissed lockdowns as effective tools. Others have encouraged students and staff to evacuate and run anywhere and everywhere possible, which in the case of Sandy Hook appears to have adversely impacted police from getting inside the school once they arrived.
Teaching children and teachers to throw things at, and to attack, armed gunmen is another flawed theory put forth with greater emphasis after Sandy Hook. Yet the Sandy Hook principal and psychologist were instantly killed while moving toward the heavily armed gunman. The staff member who was near them and got shot went back into the conference room, locked down and lived. Students who locked down, even inside the inner classroom restrooms, survived. Classes on both sides where the shootings occurred quietly locked down and survived.
More lessons may follow, and some amendments to the above may be needed, with the release of additional documents. But for now, based upon what is known, the above lessons remind us to focus on proven, reliable best practices.