By Jacob Hancock
Published: Thursday, March 12, 2009 10:27 a.m. MDTNews of a 17-year-old student storming his Germany high school and killing 15 serves as a solemn reminder of the peril students everywhere still face in the classroom.
Experts say the danger from the increasing number of shooting attacks is so chaotic, that even before the first responding officer arrives, a person can take several actions to increase their odds of survival.
If you’re ever found in such a situation, law enforcement officials say there are steps you can take to help you live through an event such as the one Derek O’Dell almost didn’t survive.
Moments after O’Dell heard popping sounds down the hall, a gunman stepped inside his college German class at Virginia Tech, shot him and fired a barrage of 9mm slugs through most of his classmates.
In the 10 years leading up to the Virginia Tech massacre, 42 gunmen across the United States gunned down 210 students and faculty during school, killing 78, according to data compiled by the Deseret News.
And since the 2007 VT massacre, seven gunmen have shot 79 students and faculty at school, killing 43.
Obvious gang-related shootings were not included in the data, which is specifically intended to follow active-gunmen-type shooters.
Dave Grossman, a West Point professor and founder of Killology science, coined the “active” shooter neologism in the late 90s to distinguish modern killers, who actively and indiscriminately aim for the most possible bloodshed without concern for themselves, from the deal-striking, hostage-taking oriented type in the past who typically killed for gain.
“These killers are on a spree, out to kill as many people as possible, and ‘take no prisoners’ could well be their motto,” Grossman said.
The chances of meeting a gunman may be low but a student is 17.6 times more likely to die from a bullet at school than by a fire, according to a comparison of U.S Fire Administration statistics.
In perspective, school shooters kill more students each year than 93,500 school fires do in 17 years.
International codes, U.S. and state laws closely regulate fire safety; Utah elementary schools are supposed to drill monthly, high schools bimonthly.
But because laws do not mandate school officials to practice gunmen scenarios, besides perhaps a broad statement saying they must “drill for other emergencies” once a year, faculty and students are largely left to voluntarily or self-prepare for such a circumstance.
Law enforcement interviews, analysis from past gunmen behavior, and a ballistics test conducted by the Deseret News, BYU police and the Utah County Sheriffs Office, all reveal advice for someone in danger at each level of a an “active” threat: from hearing the ominous pops, to escaping, to barricading and finally to a face-to-face melee.
First, believe it
Before you can take a physical step from danger, though, authorities say you should make a mental one: Come to terms with the reality that a shooting is entirely possible today — right now.
Those who haven’t already ingested that bitter pill will likely psychologically “mis-frame the event as something more familiar — such as firecrackers, a prank, or the backfire of a car,” noted Dallas Drake, principal researcher at Homicide Prevention Research. It is this unprepared group of initial unbelievers who will surely break the next rule of survival: Do not investigate.
Dying to know
Curiosity has repeatedly proven to draw people toward abnormal sounds. Unsuspecting folks often saunter closer to danger, peering around corners, probing for answers.
Virginia Tech professor Kevin Granata saved 20 students by heroically funneling them into his locked office from their more-vulnerable classroom after he heard popping sounds.
But he just “couldn’t wait around,” students later told the Washington Post. He left the office, ventured toward the shots and was killed.
Distance, then cover
It may seem commonsensical for experts to suggest bolting to an exit, but too many in their panic automatically spring for close corners, nooks and crannies. Officials overwhelmingly stress distance as your No. 1 concern.
“You can’t get far enough,” said Richard Morman, Ohio State University police chief.
“Make an exit, break a window. Just go.”
Fifty-two Columbine High students didn’t. They had nine minutes to escape the second-floor library after initially hearing “popping sounds” outside, according to Jefferson County, Colo., sheriff’s reports, but they obeyed a teacher’s order to “get down” and to “stay on the floor,” as recorded in a 911 call. Students crouched defenselessly under wide-open tables in the school’s library and remained there for seven and a half minutes while two active gunmen blasted beneath their shoddy shields, killing 10 and injuring 12 before moving on.
In most cases, there’s an available exit — even if you have to make one and it’s framed by freshly broken glass, 12 feet above ground.
Doors: lock or block
Authorities know, however, that gaining distance or reaching outside can be out of reach no matter your Rambo-strength or MacGyver-mind, especially for students on higher floors. So, without an exit, find one of two types of doors: either one you can lock or one you can barricade.
Since students rarely have the means to lock doors, they’ll likely need to barricade, which is only practically possible by retreating to a room with an inward swinging door. Only inward opening doors have effectively been barricaded in past incidents with stacked furniture, body weight or wedged shoe soles. All have been reported to have saved lives during U.S. shootings.
Your chances of landing behind one of these more-protective doors are greater if you lunge into offices, lounges or smaller classrooms at the sound of gunshots.
That’s because, according to international building fire codes adopted by every U.S. school, large rooms — 50-person-capacity or more — are fitted with outward swinging doors, according to Warren Jones a longtime university architect in Utah. The task of keeping an outward swinging door shut with a tough, white-knuckle grip on a smooth knob is awkward and ineffective.
A 76-year-old Virginia Tech instructor understood the importance of barricading. He kept the gunman out by bravely propping himself against his inward swinging door. He eventually died from a few door-penetrating slugs, but his actions kept the gunman at bay and saved every one of his students, except for one.
Just down the hall, however, students left their door unchallenged. The gunman, 23, entered the classroom two times shooting 21 of his 25 frightened targets. By the time the gunman wandered back to the classroom to fire a third volley of shots at the few still surviving, he was stopped. O’Dell shut and wedged his shoes against the door and saved his peers. Door-penetrating bullets missed.
Take charge, not cover
When you can’t run, escape or take shelter behind an inward swinging door, you must be ready for when the doorknob rolls and clanks the mechanical sound of entry.
“At that very moment, that’s when you have little choice but to take action,” said BYU Police Lt. Arnold Lemmon, who has spent 28 years protecting students. “I wouldn’t have suggested that years ago, but it’s no longer hostage situations where you can just comply with their demands and live.”
Lemmon and other officials know that contrary to many students’ and teachers’ first instinct, just passively dodging bullets behind desks when a gunman enters is unwise — and has proven deadly. In fact, using desks hardly helps, according to several field ballistic tests conducted by police officials and the Deseret News.
One of the very weakest bullets, a regular .22 long-rifle caliber, tore through two different kinds of new BYU-donated school desks at 42 feet away — a shuddering fact when considering the average classroom depth is only between 26 and 30 feet. What may be more alarming, gunmen don’t commonly use the weakest bullets. Deseret News data shows they overwhelmingly wield 9mm or similar caliber ammunition during their shooting sprees that are packed with 320 percent more lead and hit with 270 percent more energy than the average .22 caliber bullet.
The next most common weapon of choice is the powerful, easy-to-aim 12-gauge shotgun, which again, when tested, gave further evidence for students not to depend on a ¾-inch-thick, composite-wood desk top for much protection. A common 12-gauge round fired at 40 feet blasted through the desk’s surface leaving a jagged 3-inch hole in the laminate-covered desktop.
Unsettling facts like these, coupled with such malicious and indiscriminate shooters as have been witnessed, are reasons why most officials say they have moved them from suggestions of passivity to more a modern and assertive view: “You’ll need to become more aggressive than you ever thought possible,” states the Center for Personal Protection & Safety, a Washington-based violence research think tank, in a survival training video. The center, staffed with former U.S. Department of Defense and FBI officials, added: “Throwing things, yelling, using improvised weapons can all be effective in this situation.”
The center instructs students and faculty to take charge against an active gunman by turning off the lights, spreading out (because shooters frequently aim at groups) and to quietly discuss a synchronized attack — queued at the gunman’s entrance. Then, solemnly, the center suggests, “Do the best you can.”
“But,” the center then warns, “total commitment and absolute resolve are critical.”
Ralph Waldo Emerson succinctly penned this same notion about challenging a much stronger foe when he wrote, “If you strike at a king, you must kill him.”
Active shooters won’t stop to negotiate, forgive your charge or give second chances. So, if he does enter, security professionals agree: strike with several and strike with strength.
Indecision or hesitation during your attack adds to your danger.
“At the least, (students) should remember the ‘three outs,’ ” Lemmon said in finality.
“Get out, hide out or take out.“