New Lesson at School: What to Do in a Shooting

A few weeks before the anniversary of the mass shooting at Virginia Tech, safety expert Ken Trump says schools still aren't taking enough steps to prepare students for a possible catastrophe.

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ALISON STEWART, host:

Remember back to your elementary school days during the era of the old-fashioned fire drill? You thought, great, I get out of class, I'm going to go outside, run around for a while, completely safe in the assumption that the drill was just a precaution for something that would, you know, probably never even happen.

RACHEL MARTIN, host:

All that's changed, really, though, in the wake of the Columbine shootings in 1999, Virginia Tech almost a year ago, and the Northern Illinois University shootings just last month. Now, a new kind of emergency drill is taking place in schools across the country. The lockdown. In other words, what do you do if an armed gunman storms your classroom and starts shooting?

Ken Trump is the president of the National School Safety and Security Services. It's a firm, a private company based in Cleveland, that advises school campuses on how to prepare for these kinds of crises. Ken, thanks very much for being here.

Mr. KEN TRUMP (President, National School Safety and Security Services): Good morning. Glad to be with you.

STEWART: So, we're approaching the one-year anniversary of the Virginia Tech shootings. Thirty-two people died, as well as the killer, a total of 33 deaths, making it what's been called the deadliest mass-killing in modern U.S. history, let alone at a school. Now, you have been in this business of school safety for 25 years. How did this tragedy, along with Columbine and other attacks like it, change that work that you do?

Mr. TRUMP: Well, the school safety field has certainly changed. The landscape is much more dramatically different today than it was 20, and even 10, years ago. I think that school safety is a concern for all parents. Parents will forgive school officials if their test scores go down, but they're much less forgiving if something happens to their kids that could have been prevented or better managed.

So there is a heightened awareness by parents. There is a heightened awareness by school officials, and we've seen the incidents that typically historically have occurred out in our society increasingly cross the school house door into the school, and create a great deal more anxiety than what we used to see five, ten, 15 and 20 years ago.

STEWART: Now, I understand, your work in particular - you focus on kindergarten through grade 12. Not necessarily colleges, like Northern Illinois or Virginia Tech, but how do the drills now differ for K through 12? What are you teaching people to prepare them for these kinds of crises?

Mr. TRUMP: Well, as you well said, we have historically looked at fire drills, and today we are looking at lockdowns. We're looking at evacuations, sheltering in place. There's a whole new arena of drills that schools have to be prepared for, and I think we have to look at this in context. We are not suggesting that every single day schools have a drill, and the reason for a lockdown in particular may be a wide range of things. For example, what we typically think of a shooter, an irate person, someone who's armed in the building, who's causing a lockdown.

There could be a loose dog running through the school, and in particular, in our elementary schools across the country, the number one reason elementary schools go into lockdown is actually because of something happening out in the community. Police are in a pursuit. they have a hostage situation across the street from the school. they stop a car with a person wanted for a felony. That person bails out and runs through the neighborhood towards a school, and the school locks down.

So we have to realize that there could be many causes beyond simply an armed person in a building, but we want to get people out of harm's way. In short, the purpose for a fire drill is to get students and staff out of harm's way. they do that by leaving the building. The purpose of a lockdown is to also get students and staff out of potential harm's way, whatever that harm may be. They just stay inside their classrooms.

STEWART: So Ken, I'm curious about - you described the wide range of situations that can cause a lockdown. You must have to manage the language pretty carefully, considering you're dealing, in some cases, with little kids.

Mr. TRUMP: Oh, absolutely. One of the most important things we can do is to have age-appropriate communication with kids prior to ever having a lockdown, and to practice those lockdowns before you actually need to have one for a real emergency. You are not going to talk to a second grader the way you are to a 12th grader, and one of the very important things that you alluded to earlier is that we don't want to create fear, but we want to be prepared.

And just as we don't have kids who are afraid to come to school because the building might burn down because they had a fire drill last week, if we talk to kids appropriately, even our elementary kids, and we explain it is just to be prepared, just in case, just like we do a fire drill, then that helps set a better tone for it, and gets kids so that they are not at the same level of anxiety they would if they have never heard about it or never practiced it before.

STEWART: Ken, have you found that when you speak to kids, especially younger grades, that they have a new level of sophistication about these - what these crises are, in the wake of Virginia Tech and Columbine?

Mr. TRUMP: Absolutely. Schools on a day-to-day basis are safe places. They are nurturing, they're supportive, and in some cases they are more nurturing and supportive than in the communities and homes, even the homes that the kids come from in certain places in our country. But kids today are also born in a security-oriented world. When they go to the grocery store, the shopping center, the recreation center, they are used to seeing security cameras, police officers, security personnel, and other measures in place.

What tends to happen is that the adults, our parents, middle-agers like myself, tend to have a little bit more anxiety. We reflect back on our days in schools which were different times, and we get caught up a little bit more about is there too much or too little security than our kids do. We are in a security-oriented world today. It's been present in front of our kids, many of them since the day they were born, and they are much more comfortable with that as long as it's presented in a balanced rational way, and people don't go overboard to extremes.

STEWART: Well, lastly, I would ask you, there are so many unknowable variables with something like a first-person shooter, that's such a different scenario than a fire or a loose dog even. How much can you really prevent, and how much of this is just about, you know, preventing future lawsuits or something to go horribly, horribly wrong?

Mr. TRUMP: Well, actually, we focus on two things. Prevention and preparedness. Parents expect schools to take every possible step to prevent an incident, and to be well-prepared to manage those things they can't prevent. The first and best line of defense is a well-trained, highly alert staff and student body that will recognize a stranger in a building, or report a student who's made a threat of violence or bringing a weapon to school, and these things can be prevented. One of the hidden secrets is actually how many things are prevented that never make the high-profile eye-catchers, like Virginia Tech or Columbine.

So we can prevent, and we do prevent, a number of incidents. The other part of that is to be prepared. While want schools to work with their first responders, police, fire and emergency service personnel, the very first responders are your teachers, secretaries, bus drivers, custodians, and people who are going to be on the frontline in the school if an incident unfolds, because it unfolds literally in a manner of minutes, and they may be the very ones that make a difference between life and death. So we need to do a better job of educating people to be prepared to respond. Most of all, our emphasis is on prevention.

STEWART: Ken Trump, president of the National School Safety and Security Services, a private company in Cleveland that advises school campuses on exactly these kinds of issues. Hey, thanks, Ken. We appreciate it.

Mr. TRUMP: Thank you. Always good talking with you.

STEWART: Take care. Next up on the Bryant Park Project, do you talk to yourself much?

MARTIN: I'm good company.

STEWART: Guilty as charged. Jared Sandberg from the Wall Street Journal will join us to talk about those people around the office who have some pretty interesting conversations with themselves. We'll also get to The Most. The BPP crew will be in the studios to tell you a little bit about wolverines, Easter Island, and "Billie Jean." Stay with us here at the Bryant Park Project from NPR News.

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