What's the Best Way for Schools to Protect Themselves From Shooters?

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

One reader wants to start a discussion on the question:

School shootings are absolutely horrific. They’re like plane crashes; very unlikely to affect you, but terrible and frightening if they do. We don’t want to alter our entire society to respond to a sensational but ultimately quite rare event. If you want to arm teachers, then you might as well mandate that every child in a car wear a full Formula One racing suit and helmet. A child is far more likely to die in a car crash than in a school shooting.

That said, I’d like to hear about other possible remedies and defenses.

I believe that students should be trained and drilled on how to respond to a mass shooter. Look at how Israeli civilians respond to an armed terrorist. Much of their action is due to military training, but there's no reason why our kids are wholly unprepared for this kind of thing. Could be useful as an adult, too.

Instead of arming every teacher, how about entrusting one teacher or the principal with that responsibility? Like an Air Marshall.

Moreover, there must be “lockdown” technology that can be easily implemented. An easy and automatic alarm that triggers when a gunshot is heard. Reinforced classroom doors. Designated shelters. Maybe some kind of teargas that could incapacitate everyone in a room, including the gunman.

Lara N. Dotson-Renta touched on some of those points in her piece for us today on teachers facing the possibility of a shooting:

A teacher in the United States is now likely to […] dutifully practice ever more realistic lockdowns, a safety measure that ultimately feels as though it’s placing shootings on par with fires, earthquakes, and natural disasters. At the elementary-school level, my daughter’s teachers devise quiet lockdown games and crouch-down-under-the-desk dances for their little first-graders, while a group of teachers in Iowa has even devised and marketed a locking mechanism that allows doors to be closed from the inside.

If you have any strong views on the best way for educators to protect themselves and their students, drop me an email and I’ll post. Meanwhile, this list of “unsuccessful attacks related to schools” is interesting to skim through. For example:

De Anza College student Al DeGuzman planned a Columbine style school shooting at the school. An employee at a Longs Drugs store developed pictures of DeGuzman posing with his guns and homemade bombs. She and a coworker called police. DeGuzman was arrested when he returned for his photos.

A remarkable number of those averted attacks—at least seven out of 24—involved would-be killers directly inspired by Columbine. I also looked around for examples of educators who stopped gunmen with their own guns, along the lines of the Air Marshall analogy mentioned by our reader. I found this AP story from 1997:

Luke Woodham [is] the 16-year-old who is charged with slashing his mother to death with a butcher knife and then opening fire on his classmates with a rifle. He is accused of killing Lydia Dew, 17, and his former girlfriend, Christina Menefee, and wounding seven other students, leaving them bleeding on the polished floor of the school cafeteria. [...]

Fearing Woodham would come for him next, [principal Roy] Balentine ran to his office to call the police. As he dialed, more shots rang out. More students fell.

Minutes later, Assistant Principal Joel Myrick chased Woodham down outside the school, held him at bay with a .45-caliber automatic pistol he kept in his truck in the school parking lot. He forced Woodham to the ground and put his foot on the youth’s neck. “I think he’s a coward,” Myrick said. “I had my weapon pointed at his face, and he didn’t want to die.”

Though I guess it’s questionable whether Woodham had already done all his damage before Myrick pinned him down. If you know of any better examples, please let me know.