Put Training to the Test

Physical Security

​By Sharon McCutcheon, EyeEm, Getty Images​

Put Training to the Test

​The classroom door flies open. An emotionally distraught student rushes into the doorway, produces a semiautomatic pistol, presses the muzzle of the gun to his temple with his finger on the trigger, and proclaims, "I can't take it anymore."

How will the teacher respond to this stressful, high-stakes situation? Will she intervene with verbal tactics or physical ones? Will she inadvertently put other students in danger by reacting too quickly?

An analysis by school security firm Safe Havens International found that teachers and administrators who had undergone traditional active shooter training were more likely to react to this situation by opting to attack the student or throw things at him, rather than taking the action steps outlined in the school's policies and procedures, such as calling 911 or instigating a lockdown. In other scenarios, trainees reacted in a similar manner that could intensify and aggravate the situation when time allowed for safer policies and procedures to be applied.

In the wake of high-profile massacres at schools and college campuses, institutions are preparing themselves for the emergency situations with scenario-based training programs.

The percentage of U.S. public schools that have drilled for an active shooter scenario rose from 47 to 70 percent from 2004 to 2014, according to a study by the National Center for Education Statistics. But the intensive search for solutions to these deadly events can lead to hasty planning and decision making, ultimately resulting in an ineffective response.

The number of teachers and administrators who opt to attack or otherwise approach the armed perpetrator indicates that current active shooter programs may be overwhelming for participants, causing them to respond to threatening scenarios in a dangerous way. Schools have also become narrowly focused on active shooter scenarios, when most deaths and accidents on campuses do not involve an active shooter.

Taking these factors into consideration, an all-hazards approach to scenario-based training allows schools to prepare for a range of incidents, including bullying, sexual harassment, and natural disasters. Fidelity testing then allows administrators and teachers to put those plans to the test and see how participants apply the training under stressful scenarios.

School leaders can then learn to rely on the solid foundational principles of policies and procedures, as well as communications and emergency plans, to diffuse potentially hazardous situations. Using these basic elements of active threat response and evaluating training programs to identify gaps could save lives.​


During the stress of an actual crisis, people often react differently than they have been trained to do. Fidelity testing of a training program can help determine if there are gaps between what the trainer thinks the trainees will do, and what actions trainees will take in real life. This was the aim of evaluations completed by campus security nonprofit Safe Havens International of Macon, Georgia.

Methodology. Analysts conducted the evaluations at more than 1,000 K-12 public, faith-based, independent, and charter schools in 38 states. More than 7,000 one-on-one crisis scenario simulations were conducted by Safe Havens International in a series of school safety, security, and emergency preparedness assessments over the last five years. The participants were observed and scored by analysts who had completed a 16-hour formal training program and one day of field work.

Prior to running the scenarios, analysts came up with several action steps that should be taken in each scenario. These steps included initiating a lockdown, calling 911, sheltering in place, or pulling the fire alarm, for example. Based on those steps, the analysts developed a standardized scoring system to keep track of participant performance in the scenarios.

This type of training is known as options-based active shooter training because it gives the participants various responses to choose from. Many popular options-based programs are based on the U.S. Department of Homeland Security's Run. Hide. Fight. approach. 

Drawing from Safe Havens International's repository of more than 200 audio and video crisis scenarios, analysts ran the simulations and let administrators, support staff, and teachers respond accordingly. These simulations covered a range of scenarios, which were presented in several formats.

For example, some participants were guided through an audio narration of a school bus taken hostage by an armed student. The audio was paused, and the trainees were asked what they would do next in that situation.

Similarly, video scenarios depicted potentially violent situations that left participants with a number of choices on how to react.

In one scenario, a woman screams at staff in the school office while brandishing a claw hammer. In another, a student on a school bus jumps up with a gun and yells, "Nobody move, and nobody gets hurt!" The video is stopped and trainees are prompted to say how they would react.

Based on action steps that were predetermined to be ideal, analysts then scored the trainees' responses on tablet devices. The scoring was be tailored to individual clients. For instance, if analysts were training a school district that has a police officer on every campus, its response would be different from that of a rural district that does not have a law enforcement officer within 20 miles.

Results. The results of the evaluations consistently showed that participants who were provided with options-based active shooter programs had lower scores than those who had not completed any type of training.

This outcome shows that current active shooter training methods may be overwhelming for administrators and teachers because they provide too much information—prompting them to attack when it is not necessary.

In an assessment in the northeastern United States, test subjects completed an options-based active shooter training program that was three and a half hours long. Evaluators found that the 63 administrators and staff members from 28 schools missed 628 out of 1,243 critical action steps that should have been implemented. That's more than 50 percent.

For example, participants failed to initiate or order a lockdown when it was appropriate 70 percent of the time. More than 55 percent of participants failed to call 911 or the school resource officer in scenarios depicting a person with a weapon, and 39 percent of participants failed to pull the fire alarm in situations involving fire.

During an assessment of a school district in the southwestern United States, 32 people from two groups participated in scenario simulations. One group completed a five-hour live training program based on the Run. Hide. Fight. video, developed by the district's school resource officers. The second group did not receive the training or view the video.

The simulation results revealed that none of the top five scoring participants had received any type of active shooter training. All five of the lowest scoring participants, on the other hand, had completed the training program.

The overall score was also significantly lower for the group that had completed training than it was for the untrained group. The lower scoring participants often opted to attack in situations where it was not the best option.

Opting to attack. For the scenario described in the beginning of the article, where a student is potentially suicidal, analysts found that in one out of every four incidents, a school employee who had completed an options-based active shooter training would try to throw an object at or attack the student armed with a weapon.

Many of the participants in the simulations responded by opting to use force for almost any scenario involving a subject depicted with a gun. If the student in question was suicidal, such a reaction could be deadly, possibly leading to the student to shoot himself or others.

Participants who had not received formal training began talking to the student, encouraging him to put the gun down, and asking if it was okay for the other students in the classroom to leave. These basics of communication are essential in an active suicide threat situation and can help defuse possible violence. 

Another scenario featured a drunk man who was 75 yards away from a school at the same time that a teacher and her students were 25 yards from the school building at recess. The analysis found that 30 percent of participants playing the teacher chose to approach—and even attack the drunk man—even though he was three-quarters of a football field away from the school.

The best option in this scenario is for the teacher to instruct the students to go into the school and put themselves in lockdown, then go into the building and ask the office to dial 911.

In November 2017, a school in Northern California initiated its lockdown procedure when the school secretary heard gunshots nearby. The gunman tried to enter the campus but could not find an open door. Because school faculty followed policies and procedures, countless lives were saved.

Active Threat Approach

The narrow focus on active shooter incidents has left many schools ill-prepared for other active attacker methods, including edge weapons, acid attacks, and fire. Relying on active shooter training also neglects response to incidents that often go undetected, such as bullying and sexual harassment.

The Safe Havens International assessments revealed that many K-12 schools lack written protocols for hazardous materials incidents or do not conduct any training or drills for these easy-to-orchestrate, devastating types of attacks. Evaluations also revealed an unwillingness among some school staff to report incidents of sexual harassment.

Policies and procedures. Edu­cational institutions have written policies and procedures on a range of issues, including bullying, sexual misconduct, signing in visitors, and traffic safety. Scenario-based training will help demonstrate whether staff are prepared to apply those policies appropriately. All staff should be included in this training, including bus drivers, cafeteria employees, and custodial workers.

Scenario-based training can reveal the gaps between what procedure dictates and what staff would actually do when confronted with a threat.

For example, in one simulation conducted by Safe Havens International, a student sat in a classroom with a teacher after hours. The teacher stroked the pupil's hair inappropriately and used sexually explicit language. Some custodial staff faced with this scenario responded that they did not feel comfortable reporting what they saw to school administrators. Janitors, who may be more likely to witness such incidents, said they felt an imbalance of power among the staff, leaving them unwilling to speak up.

Administrators should address such issues by using multiple scenarios related to sexual misconduct to demonstrate to employees that they are not only empowered but required to report these situations. Reviewing these policies and procedures as part of scenario-based training, and incorporating possible threats other than active shooter, will bolster preparation among staff.

Attack methods. While mass shootings garner the most media attention, most recent homicides at schools were caused by attacks that did not involve active shooter events, according to Relative Risk of Death on K12 Campuses by school security expert Steven Satterly.

The 2014 study revealed that of 489 victims murdered on U.S. K-12 campuses from 1998 to 2013, only 62 were killed by active shooters. The Columbine, Sandy Hook, and Red Lake Reservation School shootings made up 74 percent of those 62 deaths.

Several weapons possibilities exist, and should be acknowledged in training programs, including edged weapons, explosive devices, and fire.

There have been dozens of mass casualty edged weapons attacks in schools, and serious damage can occur in a matter of minutes. A mass stabbing and slashing incident in Franklin, Pennsylvania, in April 2014 left 21 victims injured when a sophomore began attacking other students in a crowded hallway. Similar attacks have occurred in China, Japan, and Sweden that have killed and seriously injured students and school employees. 

Acid attacks are occurring more frequently in the United Kingdom, as well as in India, East Africa, Vietnam, and other regions.

For example, in September 2016, a student rigged a peer's violin case with acid at a high school in Haddington, Scotland. The victim's legs were disfigured as a result. 

These types of attacks are relatively easy to carry out because acid is inexpensive and can be concealed in bottles that appear harmless. The injuries sustained in these attacks are gruesome and irreversible, and there are concerns that this attack method may become more common in the United States.

Many active shooter training approaches also fail to address combination attacks, in which the perpetrator uses two or more attack weapons, such as firearms and explosives, firearms and fire, and so forth.

In the 2013 attack at Arapahoe High School in Colorado, a student shot his classmates and a staff member several times before throwing three Molotov cocktails that set part of the library ablaze. The student then shot himself.

Combination attack methods can present complications for first responders who may have to decipher where each threat is located and which one to deal with first. These campus attacks demonstrate the danger of training concepts that focus intently on active shooter incidents, while not offering viable options for other extreme attack methodologies.

There are ways to better prepare school staff to react to violence and reduce the chance of unintended consequences. Scenarios that present a range of threats and situations help trainees learn to react in the most effective manner, and remind them to rely on existing policies.

Fidelity testing that includes a scoring system for action steps will help determine whether active shooter and active threat training concepts have been received by the faculty. Including all staff members who have contact with students creates an inclusive environment where everyone feels empowered to report misconduct.

Putting a mirror to current school emergency preparedness will reflect where changes need to be made. If there are significant gaps between the training concept and application of those concepts when reacting unscripted to scenarios, improvements are in order. By applying these principles, schools can prepare themselves for the common emergencies, the worst-case-scenarios, and everything in between. 


​Sidebar: keeping simulations safe

​Even the most well-intentioned scenario-based training can result in injuries. Training programs that teach throwing of objects, taking people to the floor, punching and kicking, or similar uses of force can wind up hurting trainees and trainers alike.

At least one popular active shooter training program has resulted in high rates of serious injuries among trainees, according to Jerry D. Loghry, CPP, loss prevention information manager for EMC Insurance.

Loghry verified that EMC Insurance has paid out more than $1 million in medical bills to school employees for injuries sustained in trainings from one active shooter program over a 22-month time period. In addition, one police department is being sued due to those injuries.

Instructors can be trained on how to engage participants in use-of-force in a safe way. Reasonable safety measures should be put into place, such as floor mats, and participants should wear protective padding, goggles, and even helmets if necessary.

Safety rules should be written in advance and observed during training simulations.

Local law enforcement can be a valuable resource for simulating active threat situations in a safe manner, because police officers complete similar close-quarters combat training on a regular basis. Observing these best practices can help prevent litigation and liability issues, as well as enhance the overall experience of participants and instructors.​

sidebar: fidelity Testing

For stereo systems, fidelity means that the sound generated by the speakers is nearly identical to the sound of the music that is recorded. In marriage, fidelity means that a person will be faithful to their promises to another.

In the world of school safety, fidelity indicates a close alignment between what is intended by safety policies, plans, drills, and training, and what people do in reality. Fidelity testing is the best way to verify the level of alignment between intentions and reality.

In the case of active shooter preparedness, fidelity testing involves efforts to measure whether there is a close match between theory and what people will actually do under the stress of a violent incident. 

With properly designed active shooter preparedness approaches, practical application under extreme stress should mirror, to a reasonable extent, the theoretical expectations of the approach. If people cannot correctly apply the active shooter survival options they have been provided under simulated conditions, their performance will likely not improve when they are placed under extreme stress.

A high degree of fidelity helps reduce the distance between what people ideally do under stress and what they are likely to do. A reasonable level of fidelity testing of active shooter survival concepts should document that people are able to:


•             Demonstrate the ability to identify when they are in an active shooter situation.

•             Apply each option they are taught in an appropriate fashion when tested with scenarios they do not know in advance.

•             Apply each option under limited time frames with incomplete information.

•             Demonstrate knowledge of when applying each option would increase rather than decrease danger. 

•             Demonstrate the ability to identify when they are in a situation involving firearms that is not an active shooter event.

•             Demonstrate the ability to properly address a wide array of scenarios involving weapons other than firearms.​

Michael Dorn is the CEO of Safe Havens International. He has authored 27 books on school safety and emergency preparedness, and his work has taken him to 11 countries. He has provided post-incident assistance for 12 active shooter incidents at K-12 schools, and helped coauthor a u.s. government IS360 Web training program on active shooter events. He can be reached at mike@weakfish.org ​