Teachers more prepared for school violence 15 years after Columbine massacre

“Mr. Alfred is in the building.”

Before the 1999 massacre at Columbine High School in Colorado, that was the sum total of the plans in place for a potentially violent situation, said Melissa Dirks, an elementary art teacher in Frederick County Public Schools.

If you heard that catch phrase come over the intercom system, you knew there was trouble.

There’s been a “dramatic difference” since then, said Dirks, who has taught for 18 years. Shortly after Columbine, the school system centralized its emergency action plan and started teaching the teachers how to lock down the school.

The standard fire drill became a thing of the past.

“It became real after Columbine,” Dirks said. 

April 20 marked the 15th anniversary of the Columbine mass shootings , the deadliest high school shooting in the country’s history. Twelve students and one teacher were killed when Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold when on a shooting spree through the school, then turned the guns on themselves.

The shooting prompted a culture shift among teachers, especially in how they prepare for potential crises. Schools across the country rolled out extensive emergency preparedness plans and updated surveillance technology. Some teachers flocked to private self-defense classes.

In Focus | School security has been a popular topic in the wake of several highly-publicized active shooter incidents that took place at schools or in public places. It was training for active shooter situations that contributed the Howard County Police Department's management of the shooting at The Mall in Columbia. Thursday at 6 p.m. we go in-depth on the shooting at the mall and bring the issue in focus.

“It’s the next wave of terrorism,” said Todd Rosenthal, an Annapolis-based crime prevention advocate who teaches a seminar called Situational Awareness and Assailant Force Evasion Training. “Teachers, male and female, are a very vulnerable target. They’re dealing with people who might not have the best home situation, and they might be an outlet for that anger.” 

Columbine wasn’t the first school shooting, but it’s the one everyone thinks of first, said Bob Benedetto, coordinator of safety and security for Harford County Public Schools.

The media covered it live, and the TV images of students climbing out of the school’s windows “just sticks in your mind,” Benedetto said.

Matthew Vaughn-Smith, a fourth grade teacher in Howard County schools, was in middle school when the Columbine shootings happened.

A decade and a half later, the legacy of that day reverberates through his district.

“I was struck by the incident. You go to school to be safe,” said Vaughn-Smith, who has been teaching for six years. “There was a large part of me that thought, that wouldn’t happen here.”

The following years showed that’s not necessarily the case. Columbine was only the first of several high-profile incidents of school violence. In 2007, S eung-Hui Cho opened fire at Virginia Tech, killing 32 people and injuring more than a dozen more —and referenced the Columbine shooters in a manifesto he sent to national media before he killed himself.

In 2012, a Perry Hall High School student opened fire in the cafeteria on the first day of school, critically injuring another student. A few months later, Adam Lanza killed 26 people – 20 of them students—in a shooting spree at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut.

Last week, a Pittsburgh-area teenager was arrested on multiple counts of attempted murder and aggravated assault after he stabbed nearly two dozen students and a teacher.

More formal training

Preparedness training became more formal after Columbine, Benedetto said. Before that, teachers thought of preparing for danger as a necessary evil.

“But it was never at the top of the line,” Benedetto said.

In 2002, Harford County schools adopted an emergency plan with the input of the local fire and police departments, Benedetto said. It’s been updated four times since then.

Teachers are primed on the details of the plan throughout the school year at faculty meetings.

But the biggest change teachers have seen is in technology.

They’re all equipped with handheld radios, which wasn’t the case 10 years ago, Bendetto said.

All classrooms have phones, which wasn’t the case 30 years ago.

By June, all Harford County schools will have video cameras.

“The technology is just phenomenal,” he said.

In Frederick County, a 2003 shooting at Red Lion Area Junior High School in Pennsylvania prompted a major change in the district’s emergency plan. In that case, an eighth grader shot and killed his principal.

Prior to that, Frederick County’s policy was that only a principal could mandate a lockdown. Dirks said teachers and other school employees wondered what would happen if the principal was involved in a dangerous incident.

“We changed that policy immediately,” she said.  

A culture shock

Some teachers are seeking outside help to learn how to handle danger inside the classroom. 

All it takes is a tragedy, and teachers’ interest in self-defense classes spikes, said Maryland-based trainer Tzviel “B.K.” Blankchtein.

The owner of Masada Tactical in Pikesville offers self-defense classes all over the country, many geared specifically toward teachers.

“It’s been an evolution,” Blankchtein said.

He said teachers can be reluctant to learn self-defense strategies for the classroom, though that’s changing.

“A lot of them say that’s not their job, and I can understand that,” he said. “It’s a culture shock.”

But when violence is breaking out in a school, it’s not the police officer that’s right there in the classroom, Blankchtein said.

Aside from self-defense techniques, he said he focuses much of his instruction on how to recognize potential threats—“behavioral analysis and profiling”—and being aware of their surroundings.

He also teaches them how to take control of their classrooms when violence is breaking out, such as stacking desks and chairs against doors or covering windows with colorful electrical tape to alert police. 

But Kenneth Trump, an Ohio-based school security expert, questions whether investing time and money in intense self-defense classes is the right move for teachers.

Teachers say they feel empowered afterward—but do they have a solid foundation in what it takes to make schools safer? Maybe not, he said.

“It’s preying on emotions,” said Trump, president of the consulting firm National School Safety and Security Services.

He recommended teachers focus on the fundamentals of school safety. Running through a practice lockdown is one way to do that, though he cautions teachers and principals against doing them just when students are in class.

Schools should hold lockdown drills at lunch time, when there’s a class change or before school.

“They try to make [lockdowns] convenient for their reality,” Trump said. “But when are you likely to have an incident? In the morning, often times there are more kids in the building than staff members.”

Vaughn-Smith, of Howard County, reminded his fellow teachers to be vigilant and not hesitate to notify someone else if they see an unknown person in the building without a visitor’s badge.

At the same time, parents and other visitors need to cooperate when asked to hand over their IDs when they enter a school.

“This is one area where we have come leaps and bounds,” Dirks said. “You can’t just walk into a school here. I hesitate to think about what we could be doing that we aren’t doing right now.”

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