Preparing for the Worst: School Shootings
Preparing for the Worst: School Shootings /

On the campus of the University of Texas at Austin in 1966, 43 people were shot by an engineering student, and 13 of them died during the first mass shooting on a college campus. Since then, campus shootings have become more and more common, affecting not only colleges, but also elementary, middle, and high schools, as often as once a month. One study found that the national media attention after a school shooting or mass killing increased the likelihood of another mass killing in the following two weeks. Being a part of a school shooting is any student’s worst nightmare, but there are steps that you can take to protect yourself if there’s ever a threat or if the school initiates lockdown.

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Is there any way to actually prepare for a school shooting?

Yes and no. While your school probably won’t run active shooter drills—though primary and secondary schools might—you can read through your student handbook to see what the administration recommends and you can run through scenarios on your own. At the beginning of each semester, take note of each of your classrooms, your dorm room, and the buildings you frequent. Imagine where you would go and what you would do in an active shooter situation. Having an idea of escape routes and possible hiding spots will prevent you from freezing should such a situation actually arise.

There are three things that you can do in an active shooter situation: Run, hide, or fight. The action that you take will depend on your location and the location of the shooter. If there is distance between you and the shooter and you can run to safety, do so. If, while running, you catch the shooter’s attention, do not stop moving. Continue to make yourself a moving target (run in zig zags, not a straight line) so that you are harder to hit. If you cannot run or leave a building safely, the next best action is to hide. Lock the door to the room you’re in, turn the lights out, and silence your phone. Stay out of sight of windows and doors, and hide behind large pieces of furniture. Do not open the door under any circumstances. If you cannot run or hide, or you have already caught the shooter’s attention, you can fight back. Most active shooters will not expect unarmed individuals to try to fight, which is to your advantage. While you may not be a trained fighter, you will have adrenaline on your side; do be aggressive, don’t fight fairly, and do try to do damage. Use any tools you have at your disposal. Anything can be a weapon: textbooks, pencils, fire extinguishers, etc. If you can get the gun away from the shooter, do so.

It’s not uplifting to imagine yourself in an active shooting situation, but the reality is that this type of mass casualty event does occur. Knowing how to react and what options you have in each location could save your life and the lives of others.

What should I do if I think a student poses a threat?

If you think that one of your classmates or former classmates poses a threat to your school, it’s important that you tell someone. Some states have implemented anonymous tip lines and apps that allow students to share information about possible threats with school administrators and law enforcement officers without having to make a phone call or talk to someone face to face, like Colorado and it’s Safe2Tell program. Other states don’t have such systems in place. In these cases, if you feel you that you have credible information about a threat, you can contact a school administrator, campus security, local law enforcement, or the FBI.

What is lockdown?

Lockdown is intended to protect students, faculty, and staff if there is an armed and dangerous intruder in a school building or on campus. Lockdown may be initiated in the event of a bomb threat or when a crime has occurred close to campus as well. Initiation of a lockdown procedure may be broadcast to students via email or text message. At this time, all normal school activities are to cease until the threat has been neutralized. If you receive a lockdown message and are not on campus, do not go onto campus. Find a safe place and stay away until you receive the all clear.

Where do I go during lockdown in an active shooter situation?

Again, where you should go depends on the location of the shooter. If the shooter is indoors and you’re in the same building, you will want to run or hide, depending on the shooter’s exact location. If you’re a floor below and you can sprint out of the building and far away without drawing attention to yourself, this is probably the best course of action. If the shooter is advancing on the classroom in which you’re sitting, however, you probably don’t have time to run without drawing the shooter’s attention, so you’ll want to hide or fight. If the shooter is outside, getting as far away from campus as possible is preferred, but again, your actions depend on your proximity to the shooter.

Generally, college lockdown procedures instruct students who are indoors on campus to run to the nearest office or classroom, shut the door, and barricade themselves inside. Doors should be locked from the inside, blinds should be closed, and all lights should be turned off. If possible, doors should also be barricaded with heavy furniture. Students, faculty, and staff should remain out of sight from doors and windows and stay quiet. If students are in their dorm rooms, they should close and lock the doors and not let anyone inside, taking care to remain quiet and out of sight from windows.

Students who are outside when they receive notice of lockdown should head to the nearest building if it is safe or find a place to hide (e.g., behind a car or large tree). Staying out of sight of the threat is imperative and could save your life. If you are near your car, lock yourself inside your personal vehicle (and leave campus if possible) until you receive the all clear.

If lockdown is initiated for a certain building on campus or you are made aware of where the threat is located, get as far away from that location as possible. If you can safely exit the building, do so. Do not take any belongings with you, as they will slow you down and impede escape. Once you’re outside, run to a safe place and warn people outside not to enter the building if it hasn’t already been locked.

Eventually, police will set up a perimeter. If you can get beyond the police perimeter, chances are the law enforcement presence will keep you safe. If you are running toward law enforcement, be sure to keep your hands visible so as not to appear as a threat.

What else is important to know during lockdown?

  • Cell phones should be silenced and turned off vibrate. You don’t want your phone to make any noise that could give away your location.
  • Only call 9-1-1 or campus police if you have critical information (the location of the threat or the identity of the threat, for example).
  • If you are in a building during lockdown and the fire alarm goes off, do not evacuate unless you see fire or smell smoke. This could be an attempt by the shooter to get people out into the open.
  • Be aware of alternative exits (windows, side doors, etc.). If the main exit is compromised, you want to have a plan for getting out of the building safely.
  • Stay away from windows and doors. Hide under desks or behind bookshelves if possible.
  • Close curtains and blinds.
  • Do not let anyone into a locked room without having first received the all clear.
  • If the threat is in your area, do not lock yourself into a room or building with him or her.
  • Do not confront the shooter except as a last resort. In this case, do everything you can to distract him or her by throwing things, making noise, and using found objects as weapons.
  • Remember that the job of first responders is to contain the shooter, not to help you evacuate or to tend to injured individuals. Do not yell, ask for help, or get in the way of these first responders; help will come after the shooter is apprehended.

What if I notice a shooter before the school goes into lockdown?

This is a realistic possibility, since many active shooting events last less than five minutes. If you haven’t already grabbed the attention of the shooter, call 9-1-1 immediately and get to a safe area. Warn others around you and stay quiet. If you cannot run to a safe area, hide; call 9-1-1 if possible. If you cannot hide, fight.

What happens immediately after a school shooting?

What happens immediately after a shooting depends on the severity of the event and whether there were casualties. Some schools may choose to reopen right away, while others may wait several days or even weeks before reinitiating classes. This timing depends partially on law enforcement; a school shooting is a crime, and therefore buildings on campus become crime scenes that need investigating. After law enforcement concludes their investigation, the school may need to make repairs, further extending the time that students are away from the classroom. When students do come back to campus, they may find a heightened security presence in the form of security checkpoints, video surveillance, more police and security guards on campus, or fewer unlocked entrances to buildings.

The media also plays a role in the aftermath of a school shooting. Journalists and news reporters may stick around campus for days after the event to interview witnesses and students about their experiences. As a result of the media attention, students may get social media requests or messages from people whom they know only tangentially or not at all. Note that you are not obligated to talk to reporters or to anyone else about your experience if you do not want to.

Many communities and schools will host candlelight vigils and memorial events if there were casualties during or as a result of the shooting event. Again, your participation in these events is not required.

How do I take care of myself after experiencing a school shooting?

After a school shooting, it can be hard to feel safe on campus again. You may be reluctant to attend classes or feel nervous when you cross wide, open spaces to get from one class to another. This is normal, especially after a traumatic event. Some students may choose to transfer away from the school where the shooting occurred, so as to distance themselves from the trauma. There is nothing wrong with staying or leaving, but taking care of your mental health is of utmost importance.

In the days, weeks, and months following the event your emotions are bound to fluctuate. You may feel survivor’s guilt if you were in an event that resulted in casualties. It’s important to remember that nothing you did was wrong and that often survivor’s guilt is a way of coping with sadness and loss. It can be hard to talk about the trauma, but doing so, whether you talk to your mom, your best friend, or your dog, will help you process what occurred. Guilt, anxiety, and difficulty sleeping are normal after a traumatic event, but if they persist, it could be time to seek professional help.

Developing post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is also a common reaction to experiencing a trauma, but not one that happens to every person who was involved. PTSD is a treatable condition in which the body has trouble coping with a traumatic event, like a school shooting. Individuals with PTSD may avoid talking about or going near places that remind them of the experience, have vivid dreams and flashbacks, begin suffering from depression, or become ultra vigilant in their day-to-day lives.

If you are struggling after experiencing a school shooting, you should consider talking to a mental health professional. Often, institutions will bring in extra counselors and therapists after such an event occurs so that there are enough on-campus resources for the students who want to utilize a professional. Don’t forget about your other built-in support systems: friends, family, and fellow survivors.

Page last updated: 03/2019