Students were running around on the playground and parents were dropping their children off at Rancho Tehama Elementary School Tuesday morning when the school secretary heard the first gunshots fired by Kevin Neal up the road. Without delay, the administrators started a reverse evacuation and lockdown procedure, whisking children and parents alike into the elementary school. By the time Neal—who was on a shooting rampage throughout the small town—arrived at the campus, two-thirds of the school’s 100 students were inside, said district superintendent Richard Fitzpatrick.
The school’s head custodian saw Neal crash his truck into the school’s gate and begin walking toward the facility, so the custodian stepped out and distracted him while the rest of the students were ushered into safety. Neal began firing but his gun jammed, providing essential seconds for the custodian to escape.
"The custodian's actions in diverting the attention from the shooter at that time gave us the much-needed seconds to complete the (lockdown) process," Fitzpatrick said in a Wednesday press conference. "That amount of seconds was critical."
Through surveillance video, Neal can then be seen going from door to door trying to find an entry, and when he failed, he began shooting through the school’s walls, windows, and doors. One child received gunshots in his chest and right foot while crouching under a table inside the classroom and is in fair condition at a local hospital.
Neal was unable to find an unlocked door to access the students, parents, and staff in the school, so he left the campus and was shot and killed by police a short time later. Fitzpatrick acknowledged that while one student was seriously injured, the incident could have ended much worse.
"The reason that I'm standing here today and I'm able to speak to you without breaking down and crying is because of the heroic efforts of our school staff," Fitzpatrick said.
Paul Timm, PSP, vice president at Facility Engineering Associates and a member of the ASIS School Safety and Security Council, says that the school’s straightforward and efficient lockdown procedure was the result of a heightened level of awareness.
“We are in a time of heightened awareness,” he tells Security Management. “This is following the events of Las Vegas, New York, and Texas. While only one of those involved a school, at the forefront of our minds is that there could be some kind of violence that takes place in our communities. One was a concert, one was a church, and one was right during dismissal time near a bike path before a parade. I think that helps everybody because we’re thinking, ‘how would I respond, what would I do, are we prepared?’ And that had to help them.”
Timm encourages school officials to always err on the side of caution when it comes to enacting lockdown or evacuation procedures—he notes that Rancho Tehama administrators began lockdown procedures before seeing the threat or being alerted by law enforcement.
“Not many of us really know, genuinely, what gunshots will sound like, and in Rancho Tehama they were able to just say, ‘I’m not going to assess whether that’s a real gunshot or not, we’re just getting in motion,’” Timm notes. “I think that erring on the side of caution is always the best thing to do. We can always say ‘whoops’ if someone got excited over a balloon popping and went into lockdown, but you’d much rather see them err on that side than someone investigating and finding out we’re not where we should be and we’re in big trouble.”
Timm has been in the school security industry since before the Columbine High School shooting, and says that, despite the relative regularity of incidents at schools, he often hears that people don’t want to increase school security. “Sometimes people say to me that it’s a shame that we have to live in a time where these things happen and we have to keep schools locked down,” he says. “I like to equate it to vehicle safety—In the 70s you could buy a car that didn’t have seatbelts and car seats were nonexistent. That doesn’t mean it was better back then—it wasn’t. It might be less comfortable, but let’s face it, it’s safer to wear a seatbelt, to have kids in car seats. Whenever schools are questioning whether or not basic access control, emergency preparedness, and communication systems and capabilities are necessary, I don’t think it’s sad—I think the safer way to go is generally the better way, as long as we can keep perspective. I don’t want schools to look like Fort Knox either, but I do want them to be safer than they are today.”
For free school security resources compiled by ASIS, visit https://www.asisonline.org/Membership/Member-Center/Security-Spotlight/Pages/Spotlight-on-School-Security.aspx.