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Seven Practices to Prevent and Prepare for Shootings

Joe Vossen, JD
October 2020
Promising prevention practices based on findings from national studies

While shootings at K-12 schools, colleges, and universities are difficult to predict, seven promising practices for prevention emerge from national studies.

1. Implement a threat assessment team. Studies show that prior to shootings, attackers often behave in troubling ways. Your threat assessment team should gather and assess information from sources across campus about these troubling actions. Intervene to manage a threat or connect the person of interest with helpful resources. For the assessment team to be effective, members must be trained. Hire a threat assessment expert — such as a mental health or law enforcement professional — to train and advise your team.

2. Develop an emergency management plan. Address critical response practices including lockdowns, evacuations, parent-student reunification, and mobilizing mental health services. Tailor plans for different districts, campuses, and buildings instead of using a one-size-fits-all approach. Regularly review and update plans so you can correct deficiencies.

3. Create a crisis communications plan. Honest, timely communication following a shooting can improve public trust, protect your institution’s reputation, and maintain financial stability. Your crisis communications team should include personnel with communications expertise and influential administrators who may speak in a crisis. Provide media training and ensure the team meets before a crisis to prepare a coordinated response.

4. Train staff. The first line of defense against shootings is a vigilant staff trained to recognize and report potential indicators of violence and help law enforcement or other first responders. The Department of Homeland Security offers free courses, materials, and workshops — many written for schools — to prepare employees for active shooter situations.

5. Conduct site assessments. Examine campus facilities and grounds to identify security weaknesses, such as:

  • Unlocked doors
  • Ineffective communications systems
  • Line-of-sight issues for surveillance cameras
  • Broken fences or gates
  • Traffic patterns impeding emergency responders’ access

6. Form community partnerships. Strong relationships with community service providers such as police, fire departments, emergency management, and local mental health experts, can help your institution:

  • Craft and practice emergency plans.
  • Build a threat assessment team.
  • Train staff.

Meet with your community partners at least twice a year. For example, many schools meet annually with local police and fire departments to provide blueprints of each campus building.

7. Conduct drills and tabletop exercises. Periodically conduct a campus-wide active shooter drill; many institutions do it annually. While full-scale drills are time- and labor-intensive, consider tabletop exercises as an alternative or supplement to live drills. United Educators offers a library of tabletop exercises including scenarios on active shooters at K-12 and higher ed schools. The FBI also has published a set of exercises that specifically address school shootings.

Additional Resources