Experts say locked doors, not teachers with guns, proven to keep kids safe in school shootings | #schoolshooting


Despite the unpopularity of the policy among parents and educators, Ohio recently made it easier for teachers and staff to carry guns in schools, passing legislation that drops the firearms training requirement from 700 hours to no more than 24 hours of training, according to the New York Times.

Even among law enforcement who support arming teachers and staff in schools, one primary caveat to that support is ensuring sufficient training for people in possession of firearms, says Jaclyn Schildkraut, an associate professor of criminal justice at the State University of New York at Oswego and a national expert on mass shootings research. So, why do we keep seeing these kinds of policies being passed in various states?

Schildkraut, who is also interim executive director of the Regional Gun Violence Research Consortium at the Rockefeller Institute of Government and whose work has focused on the effects of lockdown drills on students, faculty, and staff, is joined in conversation on this topic by Johanna Vollhardt. Vollhardt is a social psychologist and associate professor at Clark University in Massachusetts and one of the editors-in-chief of the Journal of Social and Political Psychology, where political psychology generally looks at the effects of individual and group processes on political attitudes and decision-making. They each took some time to talk about safety responses that have been proven effective in protecting students and staff during school shootings, and what the thinking behind the political support of arming teachers in schools could be rooted in. (These interviews have been edited for length and clarity. )

Q: How did this idea of arming teachers first come about? Where did this come from, and what have we learned about whether it’s an effective approach to the issue of safety for staff and students during a school shooting?

Schildkraut: The first state that implemented a policy was South Dakota, back in 2013. Of course, tensions and emotions were very high at that point because we were coming right out of Sandy Hook [the 2012 shooting at the elementary school in Newton, Conn., in which a gunman killed 20 children and six adults]. Since then, I believe Ohio just signed their law recently, so I believe we’re at 11 states now that have specific armed teacher policies on the books. In more states than that, there are ways that people can effectively carry [guns] on school grounds. But when we look at all of the shootings that have happened, we haven’t seen that anybody, even from 2013 forward when you have the first armed teacher policy in place, there’s never been a school shooting or a shooter stopped by an armed teacher. Actually, in cases where shooters have been stopped by teachers, they’re usually unarmed teachers.

Q: Can you talk about what your own work and research in this area — arming teachers in schools — has revealed about these kinds of policies?

Schildkraut: With a colleague at ALERRT (Advanced Law Enforcement Rapid Response Training), we’ve done some work trying to understand the law enforcement perspective of these practices. In doing that work, we learned about how law enforcement perceives these practices, but also got into some of the additional research to understand whether or not they would be effective in doing what they were designed to do. We did find that law enforcement was supportive of the policy, but with very significant concerns about the training that would accompany that. There was certainly hesitation raised, particularly among school resource officers, that, without proper training, the situations could become more deadly, not actually get better. In doing a lot of the preliminary work to understand the policy and what might be the arguments for and against it, one of the things that kept standing out to us [regarding] the conversation about training, is just accuracy. If you look at the research on law enforcement and how often they hit their intended target when they’re firing their weapons, most research finds it to be 50 percent of the time or less, and that’s when nobody is firing their gun back at them. When somebody is shooting their gun back at [law enforcement officers], it drops to about 18 percent. A case that is pointed to a lot is a shooting at the Empire State Building in 2012, and police responded and ended up neutralizing the shooter, but they also shot nine bystanders in the process, so one of the significant concerns about arming teachers is that one of law enforcement’s main responsibilities in training is learning how to accurately fire their weapon in stressful situations. They spend a tremendous number of hours in training, and they also have time on the range and annual retraining; most policies that are implemented right now for teachers don’t have anywhere near that amount of hours in training. Florida is a rare exception with 144 hours, but most states are 40 hours or less. … The concern is that you’re giving teachers less training but expecting them to be more accurate than law enforcement.

Q: What does political psychology tell us about what the idea of arming teachers in schools is rooted in?

Vollhardt: I work in many different cultural contexts, and I would say that gives me some insight as to what is not just a universal phenomenon, but really depends on the political, cultural and historical context. This is definitely a very American phenomenon, arming teachers as opposed to imposing stricter gun policies and banning certain types of weapons. Or, in general, the idea that people are allowed to carry weapons. [Banning weapons] has been the solution in many other countries that faced shootings, like New Zealand, like Norway, so we also have to look at the cultural and historical roots of it in the U.S.

As a psychologist, we usually start with the individual and try to figure out what motivates this type of response. In general, the very basic process is that when people are under threat, they feel that certain assumptions about the world — that the world is a safe place — have been shattered. That is kind of a hallmark of trauma, that our assumptions about the world and the sense of safety are destroyed, are shattered, are challenged. When that happens, people want to restore control. One way to restore control is that people will have the urge to defend and protect the in-group and do certain things to restore a sense of safety and control. Then, you can look to different solutions, and I think that’s where the structural level comes in with the culture, the history, and the other societal-level phenomenon. If you want to feel safer, which is the basic psychological process after violence happens, you can come up with different solutions. In some contexts, the solution may be to ban guns; but in the context where the right to bear arms is so deeply entrenched into, frankly, the settler-colonial history of this country, in the Constitution, the “natural” response within this societal-historical context is to double down on what we know, what we are familiar with, what is seen as part of the culture. Here, in the U.S., the right to bear arms is what we are familiar with, so many people will turn to that. That is coupled with another societal-level phenomenon in the U.S., which is much higher compared to many other countries, and that’s the sense of individualism and a focus on individual solutions. An overall ban on weapons would be a more collective policy solution, whereas arming individual teachers to restore a sense of control and safety feeds into the sense of individualism and individual rights, which is deeply rooted here in the U.S. and much higher than in other societies.

Q: This will sound like an obvious question, but what are the potential risks of placing firearms in classrooms?

Schildkraut: There are a number of concerns. First is, what messaging is that sending to students (the same concerns can be raised about metal detectors), and is it telling you that your school is not safe, when we know that schools are otherwise incredibly safe?

We know that a concern is accidental discharges, and there have been stories where firearms have been accidentally left around the school and have been picked up by students. Or, there were instances where even in teachers trying to teach their students gun safety, the guns have gone off and bullets have ricocheted, and kids have been struck. So, accidental discharges and guns falling into the wrong hands are some of the most severe concerns. Then, thinking about the potential person-to-person retaliation amongst employees. While that’s not as high of a concern or in the forefront of everyone’s mind as accidental shooting, it’s still possible.

Q: What alternative responses to this issue in schools aren’t getting enough consideration, and what does the existing research suggest about the efficacy of those responses?

Schildkraut: The number one, life saving device in an active shooter situation in a school is a door lock. So, the most important thing that we could be focusing our efforts on is ensuring that our schools have proper lockdown procedures and that they are being crafted effectively.

There are four main considerations when you are either practicing or activating a lockdown in a real-world situation: Number one, is that you want to get that door locked. Prior to Uvalde, which I’m going to leave out of this because we just don’t know enough about that yet, there are only three instances where anybody has been killed behind a locked door; in zero of those cases was it because the door locks failed. In 2005 in Red Lake, Minn., the shooter wanted to get into one specific room and shot the door locks, and they melted so that he couldn’t get into the room, so he ended up shooting out the window next to it and that’s how he gained access. The second time was at Platte Canyon High School in 2006 [in Bailey, Colo.]: the student who was killed in the shooting was barricaded in the room with the perpetrator, and when SWAT reached the door, he killed her and then he died in aftermath of that. The third time was Parkland [Fla.] and there were six students who were killed in three different classrooms on the first floor, but the perpetrator never entered a single room. They were all locked. He ended up shooting at them through the doors and through the windows because they hadn’t been able to successfully get out of sight, not that that was their fault. There was furniture in the way and too many kids and not enough room for them to get out of sight. So, even in those three instances, those were isolated to one room or three rooms, but you had dozens of other rooms where students successfully locked down and went home that day. That’s a really important consideration about the door lock.

The second consideration is that you want to turn the lights off, which provides an added layer of concealment so that it makes it harder for somebody to see and figure out where you are.

The third thing is that you want to be out of sight, which basically means that you visually get out of sight of any corridor or window. I always tell students when we’re working on this, that if you can’t see out of the window, someone can’t see you in the window. Just make sure you can’t see into the hallway from your position. Also, maintain silence. We don’t want to do anything that calls attention to our room. Again, make it look vacant, get out of the way, and be quiet. That way, nobody knows where you are.

The fourth consideration is just making sure that once you get into that lockdown position, you don’t come back out until you’re being escorted out or given directions to leave. One thing that we do know is that there have been attacks where people may try and knock on the door. At that point, once you’re locked down, you don’t know if that’s the threat or students just trying to get in for help. Teachers are encouraged, before they fully lock down, to do a visual sweep of the hallway to make sure all students have been picked up, and then to get everybody locked down. Once you’re locked down, you don’t come back to the door at all. Whoever needs to come to your room, whether it’s an administrator or law enforcement or another first responder, they’re going to have access to a key, so you just need to maintain that position.

Q: What are the beliefs underpinning the promotion of these policies versus the practical realities of implementing them, and their real-world results?

Schildkraut: There really aren’t any real-world results because it’s never been used to successfully stop a shooting, but the perception is that by having somebody on the scene, it would basically create an instantaneous response, versus having to wait for law enforcement to show up and bring the event to an end. The challenge is, in addition to the fact that we’ve never seen that happen, that it actually can end up creating more problems for law enforcement. For instance, when they come into the building and effectively are looking at two different people who are holding firearms — one is the good guy with the gun and one is the bad guy with the gun — they have to figure out who’s the good guy with pretty much split-second precision and they have to get it right. Otherwise, you have collateral damage.

You can also have collateral damage just from the lack of accuracy. With the Empire State Building example that I gave, that was a street where everything was very open, rather than a school building where everything’s very closed in — you could end up with more ricocheting bullets in a school building because of so many interior walls. With the lack of accuracy, there’s the potential for more collateral damage.

Also, there’s nothing to suggest that teachers would be effective in even trying to do this. Although we have no data on this because it has never happened, one of the common questions is how can you expect a teacher to shoot their students after all the time they spent building these relationships? Even in that moment, if it’s you or them, you’re still asking them to make a choice between them and their students, which they’re not programmed to do.

Q: There is polling that demonstrates most educators and parents are opposed to arming teachers in the classroom. What does political psychology tell us about why the unpopularity of this response hasn’t deterred its supporters, particularly politicians, from continuing to advocate for it?

Vollhardt: That’s why I would say, as a psychologist, that this goes beyond psychology because it’s a political phenomenon that goes back to the structure. Maybe [the U.S. is] more of an oligarchy than a democracy — the role of money in politics, the role of the gun lobby. So, unfortunately, our own citizens’ political attitudes won’t always matter as much as the role of structural influences of power and money in politics. I think, there, the answer is mostly structural and less psychological, but it creates dissonance, which is psychological; it creates a contradiction that somehow needs to be resolved. I’m not quite sure how those people support the unpopular solutions and how they resolve that in their minds. Maybe it’s by pointing to the idea that “This is America, these are our values, traditions, and constitutional rights.”

Q: In your professional experience and perspective, what are more preferable ways to approach responding to this issue?

Schildkraut: I think we know that, in shooting after shooting after shooting, lockdowns continue to save countless lives. Unfortunately, the narrative that we find ourselves hearing about these practices simply does not reflect the evidence about what we know about them, particularly with the drill side of it when you’re conducting the practices in accordance with best practices. From my perspective, the reality is that lockdowns are not only used in active shooter situations, but you can use them for any threat that’s inside of the building that you’re trying to build distance between. I grew up in south Florida and, as silly as it might sound, it wouldn’t be unheard of for wildlife to get into your school. It could be an alligator in Florida, or a moose or bear in the Pacific Northwest. You want to build the same distance that you would between a kid and an alligator, as a kid and a shooter. It’s the same principle, all you’re doing is building distance between you and something that’s trying to hurt you.

The second consideration I would offer related to that is, what you learn when you go through lockdown drills is not something that’s only applicable in the four walls of that school building. We’re teaching people to be aware of their surroundings and to make decisions based on the information they have in the moment. That is a skill that can carry them forward wherever they go.





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