What Should Students and Teachers Do If There's a School Shooting?

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What are some tips when a shooter is in your school? originally appeared on Quora - the place to gain and share knowledge, empowering people to learn from others and better understand the world.

Thinking on what to do if a shooter shows up at a school has changed over time, for a number of reasons. Originally the main thought was to “run or hide” but that thinking has changed. While running or hiding from a crazed gunman is not necessarily a bad idea it needs to be modified both to increase the chance of escape or evasion but to impact the brains of the people running and hiding later. People who act, rather than simply react tend to recover mentally and emotionally quicker than people who simply cave in to the situation.

The first thing to do is to prepare and train in advance. School systems need to prepare for shooters the way they prepare for a fire. Students and teachers have to be able to react to shooter in a positive way, then act in a way that maximizes their chance for escape, their ability to aid others and even to neutralize the shooter. Students need to know where the exits are, how to open windows, how to break windows, how to use fire escapes and access ladders and all means of evasion and escape and to do it quickly. When seconds count, you can’t be trying to figure out what to do and where to go - you have to know. Preparing for a shooter is a sad, sad state of affairs but since we can’t do anything about guns in America we have to prepare for their misuse instead, and this means learning about how to act once the balloon goes up. The most important thing to remember is DO NOT HESITATE. The first seconds of an event often determine the outcome. You can’t help but react to a situation but once it does happen, you must act and act fast. The shooter is counting on confusion, hesitation, fear, inaction - do not be his unwitting ally. Move fast, but move. And keep moving. Again, this is where training counts. Remember - when in a crisis, those who panic, die. Once I was in a fire in a hotel at 3AM and when the alarms went off, my heart nearly stopped. I pulled on my pants and went outside the room in a panic - and followed the idiots in front of me like a lemming. We went the wrong way. And in my panic I realized I could no longer read. I could see the letters “EXIT” but they made no sense. This is why it’s important to be trained and prepared before hand. Don’t assume that guy in front of you knows what he’s doing. You have to be able to think. And you do that by training and preparing ahead of time. Then it’s simply a matter of following the training.

Once trained, if a shooter does appear in the school then students should head for the exits they trained with. If possible, doors should be locked along the way. Shooting out a lock is not as easy as it appears on television and in the movies. It takes time and accuracy and the bolt still usually has to be removed by hand once the lock is destroyed. This gives the people on the other side more time to run. Student leaders or teachers should remain until the mass of students pass them by, then leave behind obstacles. Lights out, desks or chairs strewn around, knocked over bookcases - anything that hinders the shooter or makes him seek another, easier way or takes time. Buying time in this situation is key because you can be sure that the police are on their way - but they need minutes to do their job and the student/teachers job is to give them those minutes before the shooter appears.

Forget trying to rescue objects like cellphones or clothing and so on. On airplanes they always tell you to forget the luggage in the overhead when the plane is going to crash yet someone always tries to get their carry-on while they are running out. In a crisis, seconds count and stopping to grab a backpack or a cell phone can mean the difference between life and death, if not for you, then for the person who is holding up the rear waiting for you to leave.

Hiding might be an option but if you look at most schools, there really aren’t many places to hide. Cabinets are usually locked and made of materials that will not stop bullets; closets are easily inspected and searched by a shooter. Most places in schools are locked anyway to prevent student mischief. Many places are just dead-end traps, such as restrooms. If hiding is the only option, then any attempts at hiding must make the most of what is available, such as by turning off the lights, pulling down drapes, creating obstacles, including fire extinguishers which, when emptied into the air, make a cloud that’s difficult to breath for some time after they’ve been used. A shooter, whose heart is pounding and exerting energy, will not want to be tramping through an area where it’s difficult to catch a breath or where he’s stirring up a cloud of extinguisher chemicals that might make it harder to breathe. It might cause him to change his route.

Move in groups, never alone. It’s hard for a shooter to hit any single target that’s on the move and moving in groups may make it easier for him to get any target but not a specific target. People who do get shot should try to keep running. People who are shot do not fall down and die instantly as they do on TV and so they should keep moving. And just because someone is shot doesn’t mean the game is over - the shooter may pump in a few bullets out of sadism or for whatever reason. Even if shot, the runners should keep running as long as possible. Those escaping should be trained in advance to drag, support or assist those who are slow, weak, hurt or shot as they run.

Fighting back has been mentioned by many police agencies recently as a valid strategy. If the shooter is rapidly moving into the area and escape or evasion is not possible or is too slow, or if the group is too large to hide, then the next option is to fight. It’s better to die fighting than to die cowering so use any object at hand and fight. Multiple people fighting at once is the best strategy. Guns have a long range, but to be accurate one must be close to the target. Even trained shooters have a hard time hitting a moving target with a pistol. The closer the distance, the better the chances the students and teachers have of overwhelming the shooter. Books, equipment, desks, fire extinguishers - anything that can be used to strike or be thrown with force, especially en masse could disorient the shooter and drive him to find easier targets. It may also enrage him and make him shoot randomly but in that situation he’s going to miss more than he hits and may run out of ammunition and need to reload, which gives the defenders a better chance to overwhelm the attacker. Naturally, this is asking a great deal of students typically unfamiliar with combat - and this is real combat - but this is where training and preparation come in. Students should be drilled in advance at what they can - and cannot - accomplish “in the field” once the shooting starts. If the combat becomes hand-to-hand, then any weapon is good - a pen, a ruler, a book, a cell phone - anything that can bludgeon or jab. A co-worker of mine who was a Golden Gloves boxer said the only defense against a fighter who is much stronger or more powerful than you are is to go crazy. You can’t keep it up long, but there’s also little defense for it. If it’s down to the wire, then forget about holding anything back and go crazy. Go for the eyes, the balls, pull the ears. You don’t have to be strong to hurt someone. Kick out at their knees. And if you get hurt, break a finger, get shot - keep fighting. The longer you fight, the more time you give others to help you or get away - and for help to arrive. That horrible moment is your moment - your only moment, maybe your last moment. Make it count for something.

Once outside of the building, students and teachers should run, as fast as they can, to the pre-planned, designated “safe site” or gathering place - with their hands up, or where the police direct them - with their hands up. The police are going to be looking for anyone with something in their hands, be it a sweater or a backpack or a cell phone - and they may start shooting because they don’t know who is concealing a gun. Make sure your hands are empty and up in the air when you run or you might get shot. Making that cell phone call to mom as you run might get you killed.

In the aftermath do not try to “be strong”. Cry, ask for help, get counseling, talk as much as necessary. Don’t say, “I’m fine”. Don’t suggest “so and so needs it more than I do”. Take advantage of everything that is available. One of the top ways the Army has found to overcome PTSD is to get a pet. A pet makes people live beyond themselves, outside themselves, makes them think of something other than themselves and gives them a reason to carry on. Pets listen and love without judgment - people cannot be trusted to do that and survivors often feel guilt or shame even when unwarranted. A pet allows them to talk because they can talk to the pet about whatever they feel and the pet will still love them.

Don’t surrender. The work of the shooter doesn’t end when he’s dead or arrested. His actions are like acid corroding the souls of the victims long after he’s gone. Don’t surrender to him or he wins. Return to normal life when you can. Take up new activities. Honor the event and any victims. Speak up and be brave to show that you have triumphed over the trauma. And continue counseling for as long as necessary. Work to come to terms with the events. Forgive yourself and others for anything that happened. There are no cowards in this kind of situation. There is no “inexcusable behavior” when it’s your life on the line. Your survival is paramount. The survival of others is great if you can help engineer it, but it’s still secondary to your own. There is no place for self-blame or blame of others. You and they are not the enemy. Blame should only be reserved for the shooter. But it takes time to come to terms with these things. Self forgiveness may be the biggest and most difficult task of this event.

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