Katherine Schweit, Former FBI special agent writes in The New York Times:
After watching the tragedy at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, unfold after so many other shootings in recent weeks, I’m wondering what I might have missed when I was asked to start the F.B.I.’s active shooter program 10 years ago. Did I have my team focus on the wrong problems? Did I spend my budget wisely to find ways to save lives?
Every shooting is evaluated in three parts: How
could we have prevented the shooting? Did we respond effectively to save
lives? How are we helping the community recover? Last Monday, the F.B.I. designated 61 shootings in 2021 as active
shooter attacks, up from 40 in 2020 and 30 in 2019. We aren’t preventing the
shootings, I realized. Perhaps, I thought, we were doing better in responding
to the attacks as they unfolded.
But if the 78 minutes that the police in Uvalde waited before
confronting the gunman at Robb Elementary are any indication, the answer is: We
aren’t. Waiting so long, the director of the Texas Department of Public Safety
said Friday, “was the wrong decision. Period.”
So why did the police leadership make that call?
In the first few years after the massacre at Sandy
Hook Elementary School in December 2012, the F.B.I. spent more than $30 million
to send agents to police departments around the country. The goal was to train
local officers how to handle active shooters so they would know how to go after
a shooter with confidence and neutralize the threat.
The day after the F.B.I. released its latest active
shooter figures, Robb Elementary School was attacked. In the past two years,
the Uvalde school district has hosted at least two active shooter trainings,
according to reporting by The Times. One of them was two months ago.
Current protocol and best practices say officers must persistently pursue
efforts to neutralize a shooter when a shooting is underway. This is true even
if only one officer is present. This is without question the right approach.
We need to understand why that protocol was not
followed in Uvalde. I am still confident the F.B.I.’s focus on training to this
standard was right, but I’m less confident in its execution. The officers who
responded may have been unprepared for conflict, which can lead to fatal
results. Law enforcement officers need to be mentally prepared before they
arrive on the scene, so they can respond immediately.
Repetitive training builds practice and confidence.
Big gatherings for training every few years are more expensive and less
effective for muscle memory. Instead, departments should consider more virtual
tabletop exercises they can run through in an afternoon. Have officers walk
through schools and talk with one another about how they would respond. Require
officers to check all their gear before they begin a shift.
Last year, active shooters killed 103 people and
injured 140 others in 30 states. Five of those attacks were in Texas.
Most of our more than 800,000 law enforcement officers in the United States are
in small departments. This is not the first time a law enforcement agency has
failed in the way it responded. At times, training can become routine and be
taken less seriously in any environment, but agencies should be careful to
avoid complacency. Are they undertaking the training to check a box? Police
department leaders need to tell their officers today what is expected of them
and to understand that Americans demand it.
We also need to re-evaluate how we advise students
and teachers to react when an active shooter enters a school. After Sandy Hook
the federal government adopted the run, hide, fight model, which instructs
students and teachers to run first if they can, then hide if they must
and, finally, fight to survive.
Today schools, at best, are giving lip service to
the first part of that mantra, to run. Most schools that train for a shooting
urge students, teachers and other staff members to lock out or hide from a
shooter but almost never to run for their lives if they can. My friend Frank
DeAngelis, a retired principal of Columbine High School in Colorado, told me he
wished his students and faculty had been taught to flee. At Sandy Hook, nine
first graders survived when they were able to flee their classroom, thanks to
their brave teacher Victoria Leigh Soto, who was shot and killed when she stood
in front of the killer.
I still have nightmares about details from school
shootings in which survivors told me they huddled under their desks, hoping
against logic that the shooter would not see them. It’s hard to shed the images
of victims’ bodies found huddled under plastic tables, behind cloth partitions
or together in a group against a wall.
I remember telling my children that if someone
approached them in a car while they were walking, they should run as fast and
as far as possible. Yet in many school settings we have mistakenly discouraged
students from trying their best to simply stay alive.
Now my youngest child is a teacher whose middle
school classroom is near the end of a hall with a side door to the outside. The
classrooms are filled with desks. She knows that killers who strike schools
will take advantage of opportunities to find more victims. I share my
daughter’s experience not to invite criticism of the actions of educators
responding to lethal situations but to underscore how vital proper training is
to the survival of teachers and their students.
We’re told the best way to learn is from the
mistakes we make. According to data from the F.B.I., in recent years the
average number of casualties per active shooter attack has declined even as the
number of attacks has increased. I think this reflects better policing and
improved public awareness.
Still, police will not likely be there in the
critical first minutes of an attack on a school. In the aftermath of the
wrenching tragedy in Uvalde, it’s clear that, nearly 10 years after Sandy Hook,
we must ask ourselves if the training designed to safeguard us against killers
in our schools is the training that is working.
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