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.
Katherine Schweit, an F.B.I. special agent who retired in 2017 after 20 years, created and ran the agency’s active shooter program after the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012. She is the author of “Stop the Killing.”
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