What we’ve learned From Sandy Hook

On Friday afternoon as news outlets were reporting on the next day’s one-year anniversary of the horror that took place at Sandy Hook Elementary School, the latest chapter in school violence was unfolding at Arapahoe High School in Centennial, Colorado. There Karl Pierson had entered his high school looking for a particular teacher and willing to shoot anyone in his way. Eighty seconds after he entered the building, two students were injured, one fatally, and the gunmen dead by a self-inflicted gunshot. While this incident fails to compare to the carnage that took place in Newtown, Connecticut one year earlier, both events offer lessons that we must learn from to prevent similar tragedies from happening again.

Three reports are essential in understanding the lessons of Sandy Hook.  According to the June 2013 federal report entitled Guide for Developing High-Quality School Emergency Operations Plans and a 2013 Texas State University study there have occurred 84 active shooter events between 2000 and 2010.  Of these 34 percent involved schools, averaging nearly three school shootings per year.  The federal report acknowledges, among other things, that there exists no accurate or useful profiling which will reveal potential attackers, that attacks are rarely impulsive but rather well planned and that most shooting incidents were stopped by other than law enforcement intervention.  Across all 84 events said the Texas study, pistols were used 60 percent of time, whereas rifles and shotguns were used 27 percent and 9 percent, respectively.

The CT Division of Criminal Justice investigative report issued two weeks ago painfully dissects the killings within Sandy Hook on minute by minute basis and offers a glimpse into the mind of the killer.  From that report we learned that Adam Lanza shot out a floor to ceiling window next to the locked entrance doors in order to gain access shortly after 9:30AM EST.  A 911 call was placed from the school at 9:35:39, a delay of five minutes likely resulting from staff hiding in fear for their lives.  The alarm was sounded throughout the school as a result of the inadvertent activation of the school wide intercom system.  First Grade classrooms 8 and 10, where the children were killed, were incapable of being locked from the inside.  Lanza himself led a bizarre existence, communicating with his mother exclusively by email and never allowing her or anyone else access to his bedroom.  He had a morbid fascination with prior mass killings such as occurred at Columbine and Northern Illinois University.  There was contradictory evidence as to whether he was bullied.  His mother enabled his access to the firearms which ended her life, even providing him a check for a pistol as a Christmas present.  Yet the CT report admits that we may never conclusively know why Adam Lanza carried out such a plan or even why he targeted Sandy Hook and its first graders.

From this data several conclusions are inescapable.  First, attempts by active shooters to harm school children will continue.  Sandy Hook was a horrific event, but unfortunately not unique.  Second, no mental health legislation is likely to guarantee the safety of school children as it not possible to predict which individuals pose a threat.  Third, although deranged, these murderers are perfectly capable of developing a plan, executing such plan and covering their tracks.  According to the CT report, Lanza conceived of his plan, including his own suicide, weeks if not months prior to its execution, followed it with precision and destroyed his computer’s hard drive thereby preventing insight into his planning and mentation.  Fifth, although law enforcement was on scene at 9:39:00, less than four minutes from receipt of the 911 call, it was still too late.  Lanza committed suicide at 9:40:03, a full minute after the arrival of law enforcement having already taking 26 lives at the school.  According to the 2002 Secret Service and Department of Education report on Implications for the Prevention of School Attacks, law enforcement puts an end to such attacks only 27% of the time. Conversely, it is crucial to note that the school resource officer on campus at Arapahoe High, a deputy sheriff, limited casualties by warning students to stay low and eventually contained the shooter, causing Pierson to turn the gun on himself. Finally, at Sandy Hook the inability to lock classroom doors from the inside and the lack of an emergency system designed to alert immediately first responders as well as all in the school placed everyone at risk.  It was not the failure to plan at Sandy Hook; it was the failure of the plan.

Yet little has been accomplished that will serve to keep our kids safe.  Some states, such as CT and NY, have passed bans on assault rifles and large capacity magazines.  But of the 300 million firearms in the U.S., millions are assault rifles.  That ship has sailed.  Also, Adam Lanza could have created the same carnage with the two pistols and semi-automatic shotgun in his possession and no one is seriously contemplating the banning of such guns responsible for 69% of active shooter incidents.  And magazines can be changed in seconds.  Had a large capacity magazine ban been in place on 12/14/12, there would have been little if any difference.

However, Sandy Hook demonstrates that to save lives there truly are only two simple principles – slow down an intruder bent on doing harm and speed up the response time of first responders.  For example, if Sandy Hook had in place 3M window glass security film on the window shot out by Lanza, the glass would have shattered but remained in place held by the film.  The shooter may have been denied access.  Had there been installed a security vestibule, it would have further slowed an intruder’s progress.  Had there been a security alarm system of blue alarm boxes rather than reliance on staff dialing 911 and the school intercom, police response would have put an officer at the school around 9:34 rather than 9:39AM.  Were the doors of Classrooms 8 and 10 able to be locked from the inside with school emergency lockdown plans vesting teachers with the discretion to get kids out first floor windows, children would not be trapped in enclosed spaces.  No plan will be perfect, but we can stop this bloodshed.  

Bernat, founder of Safer Schools First, is a physician and attorney in Highland Park, Ill.

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