In 1997, Luke Woodum entered Pearl High School in Mississippi and started shooting. Two students were killed and seven others injured before he was stopped. Who stopped him? A principal armed with a .45 caliber handgun that he retrieved from his truck. How many others were saved that day by the principal? Do you think any parents in Pearl, Mississippi said “I only want the police to have guns in the school,” after that day? Or do they wonder how many more students would have been saved if the gun was on his hip.
One cop can’t protect a school full of kids alone – like it or not, but they should be the main cog in several layers of protection. Much has been said in the past few months about how to protect children from active shooters, and I’ve read several articles that have condemned arming anyone but law enforcement officers in schools. However, I think these people would quickly change their minds if their children were in danger and the only person there to save them was a teacher.
Don’t get me wrong, I want enough armed police officers in every American school to ensure the safety of our children, but schools and police departments can’t afford that. Why not consider arming and training some of the people who are always there with your children?
Cops in Schools Are Great But Not Enough
A 16 year old boy, Daniel, was being horribly bullied at our high school. He was 6’2” tall and had a husky build that would intimidate most of the students in the halls. He was not the average victim of bullying and no one seemed to have any idea that a group from the football team was viciously bullying him on a daily basis. His mother had died suddenly and his father ran out on him, leaving him to be raised by his grandparents. They were light years apart from him in every way and communication was non-existent.
Daniel began abusing Coricidin tablets as well and said they helped make his misery go away. He decided he no longer wanted to live, and planned to kill the two main bullies and anyone else who allowed his abuse to continue. He spent several months planning out the horrific attack, which was to occur on his 17th birthday. With 3,000 students and staff, I did not know Daniel, or have him on my radar as a bullied student or possible mass shooter. Believe me, if you serve as a cop in a school, you have several lists of students to watch – several.
Daniel decided just days before the attack that he would need an ally to help him access the roof of the school from where he would rain down his assault using several firearms and home-made bombs. That student came forward and likely saved the lives of countless students.
When we searched Daniel’s bedroom, we found a strategic plan based on General Patton’s philosophies. It was chilling to look at how calculated his assault would have been and the level of devastation that would have occurred. He also had a list of people who “must be killed” in order for the plan to have worked.
The first name on the list was “Officer Neil” – me. There was an uncomfortable silence as we all looked at the names. Another officer finally broke the silence by saying, “I guess those community policing classes aren’t working for you.” We all chuckled but I was still thanking God that this kid didn’t have the opportunity to carry out his master plan.
When I confronted Daniel about his plan, he explained how several students had brutally bullied him and deserved to die. He felt that the other students who had done nothing to stop it also deserved the same fate.
I asked him how I ended up on the top of his list. Had he asked me for help and I failed to act? “No, Officer Neil. In fact, I studied you for a while and decided you are the type who would truly sacrifice your life to save a student. That is why you had to die first. It wasn’t personal. I hoped you would not be at the school on my birthday so I wouldn’t have to kill you at all. But you and I both know that I deserve to have vengeance and you would have interfered.”
It was quite an eye opening experience for me. Army infantry training, nor my police experience, had prepared me to hear such a candid threat against my life, and from a 16 (well almost 17) year old. He raises several important points that we must consider when it comes to active shooters. A layer of protection is much better than one armed officer who may or may not be on campus, or who may be the first casualty.
The Forgotten Limitations of a School Assigned Officer
School Resource Officers have to qualify on the range, attend departmental meetings, testify in court, conduct follow up investigations, and take students to juvenile detention. What happens when a shooter attacks during those times? Every time the SRO leaves the school for 20 minutes to interview a witness, will another police officer fill in?
If the shooter kills the SRO, how long will it take for more help to arrive? How long before those officers enter the building and stop the killing? Remember time equals lives. Every second may cost a child their life and that child may be yours or mine. How easy will it be for the responding officers to even find the shooter in your child’s school? Our high school has 6 separate buildings on one campus, making it a nightmare for us and a gold mine for them. Just locating a bathroom is hard for someone unfamiliar with the school.
If your child is sitting in class trying to learn and some nut starts shooting up the school, how many layers of protection are enough for you? If there are teachers and principals who are actually interested in being an armed deterrent and are willing to attend training with the law enforcement agency, great. It may require them to pass a 40 hour firearms course along with active shooter training orchestrated by the School Resource Officer. They know the school best, and should be the best educated police officer on the agency when it comes to active shooters. When they teach others in the required tactics, they develop a higher level of expertise than the average road cop.
Let’s add another group of people to the equation – retired cops. There are multiple positions that schools fill with volunteers and part-time employees. They have chaperones on school buses, teacher’s aides, cafeteria monitors, library volunteers, etc. Imagine filling those positions, when possible, with retired law enforcement professionals. They are easily updated by attending the same training as the teachers and can act as mentors for the school’s staff members who decide to participate in the program.
If the Worst Happens – Who Would You Arm to Protect Your Child?
A sadistic killer enters your child’s school bent on murdering unarmed students and teachers. Is one armed School Resource Officer enough to help you feel secure about the outcome? But what if in your child’s school, we have trained and armed other staff. If the SRO is at court they still have to get past the principal who is packing and supervising the hallways, and the cafeteria monitor who is a retired deputy, as well as the office secretary who was an MP in the Army. The lock down alert will have caused teachers to lock their classroom doors, but this shooter really wants to get into your child’s classroom. Can the door hold them out forever?
The dirt bag begins shooting through the door, but the teacher has followed the lock down procedures and has the children safely tucked into a corner of the room, away from the rounds. The shooter begins concentrating their fire on the door knob until it gives way.
As he enters the classroom with a .357 Magnum in hand, do you want to wait 45 minutes for the SWAT team to assemble? As they cock the hammer back on their revolver, do you want to wait 5 minutes for teams of officers trained in active shooter response to form? As they line your child up in their sites and begin to pull the trigger, are you still wrestling around with the idea of arming and training teachers to protect kids? Do you still want to stand solidly behind “the only person who should be armed in a school is a police officer?” Or do you want the teacher to take her pocket sized .32 auto from its concealed holster, line the red dot up on the killer’s forehead, and commence emptying the magazine?
Decisions, Decisions, Decisions
An armed teacher, principal, aide, or other qualified volunteer, may be in the best position to save the life of your child. Police agencies should be leading the way for school safety with innovative methods to protect students and staff through their SRO programs. You can choose to do nothing instead and wait for the politicians in Washington to save our kids, but you will be disappointed with the results.
In a perfect world, we would have enough police officers protecting our schools that teachers could concentrate on teaching. But we don’t live in The Land of Oz and I don’t have any ruby red slippers to click together. Until then, we should consider every possible way to protect our children. Just like arming pilots, there will have to be stringent background checks and training to start such programs in a school, but it can be done.
We want teachers to shield our kids with their bodies, or try and tackle the gunman who is actively shooting at them. But as officers, we wouldn’t go after a gunman without a vest, backup, and especially our gun. Why wouldn’t we be willing to consider arming and training teachers and staff members who are interested in protecting our kids? They are likely to be much more successful in protecting your child from a killer when they are armed with a gun instead of a ruler.
Richard Neil is LET’s Police Training Contributor. He is the author of “Police Instructor: Deliver Dynamic Presentations, Create Engaging Slides, & Increase Active Learning.” He is a retired city cop, and instructs for several of Ohio’s criminal justice training academies. He can be contacted through his website that is dedicated to law enforcement educators and trainers – www.PhalanxLE.com