Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut was the scene of one of America’s worst-ever school massacres on Friday. Police arrived shortly after the 9:40 a.m. 911 call, but by that time, at least 26 people, including 20 children were found shot dead. Police found the killer dead by an apparent self-inflicted gunshot wound; 20-year-old Adam Lanza. Among those killed was also Lanza’s mother, at the family home.
The shooting at Sandy Hook began in the main office. Students throughout the building heard the initial gunfire as it was heard over the PA system. The shooter then opened fire in the nearby kindergarten classroom where most of the bodies were found and then killed himself.
Last week, it was the Clackamas Town Center shooting, outside of Portland, Oregon. Yesterday it was Sandy Hook. Ford Hood, Columbine, Virginia Tech, Aurora…what will tomorrow bring? That is the question law enforcement has asked itself since the coming of Columbine.
All of us are familiar with the first-responder role. Police have a demonstrated track record of excellence in response to Active Shooter Incidents (ASI’s). Newton and Connecticut State Police, as well as other agencies under mutual aid agreements, responded very well to this sad situation, but all the victims and the shooter were already dead, by the time they arrived. This is a typical prompt police action after an ASI. LEOs are duty-bound to contain death and injuries at ASI’s, but can’t we take a step further? The First Responder is important and continuous training to respond to such incidents is imperative. However, it is not enough.
Can’t we give law enforcement a better chance for success by educating them about what steps occur before the Active Shooter implements his evil plan? We can we go further, with the public’s help, in identifying potential active shooters before they hurt others.
Sandy Hook teachers responded to this horror with valor and saved many lives. Principal Dawn Hochsprung championed safety at her school. This vivacious and caring administrator tweeted in October about safety drills and new safety standards at the school. She gave her life for her students. Clearly, these teachers and staff were prepared to respond to a threat. Someone in the office, while under attack, keyed the PA system so that others in the building could hear the violence and take steps to protect the children. Lives were saved because the teachers were prepared to act under threat.
An alert and courageous mother in Bolivar, Missouri averted a tragedy when she alerted police to her son’s erratic behavior. He admitted to planning an ASI. Shortly after the Aurora Massacre, alert Pitney Bowes employees in Maryland contacted police regarding a disgruntled employee. Turns out he was contemplating a copy-cat incident. Freedom High School in Tampa Florida school employees alerted law enforcement regarding a troubled student, who planned to kill others at his high school. In all of these cases, law enforcement was able to prevent tragedy because an educated and courageous public notified them. NIJ statistics indicate that over 90% of AS’s engage in recognized erratic behavior and often tell others about their twisted views before the incident. The more the public understands this phenomena; the better law enforcement can respond to preventing tragedy.
All of these incidents show the efficacy of law enforcement, school authorities, and workplace senior staff working in concert to recognize the signs of a troubled individual who may act out in the future. One common denominator among all AS is that the offenders perceive themselves as victims. Whether they suffer from school bullying, personality disorders, or are frustrated by treatment at work, in their minds, they are justified.
Reasonable people understand that a 20-year-old shooter cannot possibly be the victim of a kindergarten student, but our goal is to understand the mindset of the shooter. What was the connection between the mother, the son, and these precious children preparing for life that he chose to act out at the school? The key issue is not whether it makes sense to us, but how it made sense to him.
According to the National Institute for Justice (NIJ), 71% of AS’s reported feeling bullied, threatened or attacked by others. Attorney and forensic psychologist Dr. Brian Russell reported Friday on Fox News that there are always signs which indicate that a troubled individual may be ready to act out.
The Five Phases of the Active Shooter, as theorized by Lt. Dan Marcou are:
Can you imagine Adam Lanza fantasizing about what he was going to do? Did he tweet about it or list something on the Internet about his thoughts? What warning signs were in place? An acquaintance of Lanza’s posted on Facebook that he was “not surprised” by Lanza’s actions. Would this incident have occurred if he had reported Lanza’s conduct and ideations? Media reports indicate that Lanza was a gamer. Could involvement in playing violent video games have supported his fantasies of carnage?
Lanza was clearly well prepared with BDU clothing, a Kevlar vest, weapons, and ammunition. Would this situation have turned out differently if an alert employee had noticed these purchases in combination with odd behavior? Law enforcement can intervene without danger or death during these first three stages. If the public understands what to look for, they can be heroes just like the mother in Bolivar, Missouri. Everyone today is asking, “How do we stop this?” The answer is, by not letting it begin.
Times are tough these days. Funding for mental health issues is declining while situations which fuel erratic behavior and troubled individuals are increasing. This represents a lethal combination which must be addressed. Everyone who has emotional issues does not become an AS. However, we must learn the signs which may indicate that someone is stepping over the line from being troubled to planning an ASI.
Former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani in commenting on this tragedy asked all of us to avoid providing simplistic answers to a very complex issue. However, in a first effort to understand how to prevent an ASI, on January 10, 2013, Lt. Dan Marcou will be speaking at Iona College located in New Rochelle, NY in a conference planned to be affordable for everyone. He will discuss the Five Phases to stress that with the help of other community members, law enforcement can intercede before a person is injured or there is a loss of life. Now we must learn the warning signs and intervene ahead of time, before the carnage begins. This training is open to members of the education field, law enforcement, and the general public.
To register for the Five Stages of the Active Shooter presentation refer to: http://www.iona.edu/academic/artsscience/departments/criminaljustice/conference.cfm
Learn more about this article here:
The Final Report and Findings of the Safe School Initiative: Implications for the Prevention of School Attacks in the United Stats(pdf, 63 pages), Washington, DC: U.S. Secret Service and U.S. Department of Education, May 2002.