Thursday, Jan. 17, 2013 | 2 a.m.
The average school shooting lasts just 12 minutes.
That means all too often, help arrives too late to prevent mass casualties as demonstrated by last month's Newtown, Conn., tragedy, which took the lives of 26 people – including 20 young children.
That sobering fact weighed heavily on some 200 school and police personnel who this week descended upon Las Vegas for the fourth annual National School Response Conference.
The conference – which started in the wake of the 2007 Virginia Tech massacre, the deadliest school shooting in U.S. history – aims to educate school officials on how to deal with myriad campus threats, such as natural disasters, disease epidemics and bullying.
However in the aftermath of the Connecticut shootings, learning how to react to a gunman on campus became the most pressing issue, dominating much of the conference programming.
"This is a difficult topic that people don't always want to talk about," said Amy Klinger of the campus security consulting nonprofit The Educator's School Safety Network. "But it has to happen. It's critical."
For three days, school teachers, police officers, psychologists, counselors and administrators will receive a crash course on how to deal with a gunman on campus. Conference speakers – such as Klinger – urged attendees to rethink the way they handle school security, lockdowns and evacuations.
"The lesson learned from Newtown is just putting in a security system isn't enough," she said. "If someone is determined enough to get into a school, they will get in."
Traditionally, schools advise students and staff to "lock down" a campus when a shooter breaches its doors. That means teachers and staff lock classroom doors, dim the lights, shepherd students to a corner and remain quiet until help arrives.
However, such traditional lockdowns leave students vulnerable. Often all that separates the children from a gunman is a locked door.
"You lock the door, hide the kids and hope for the best," Klinger said, shaking her head. "We have created the optimal condition for a (shooting spree)."
Klinger urged schools to adopt new, more proactive approaches to campus security. The former teacher and principal – who has studied decades of school shootings – showcased a set of new recommendations endorsed by the Department of Homeland Security called "Run, Hide, Fight."
Instead of remaining inside a locked-down campus with a gunman, students and teachers are advised to flee whenever possible, then reconvene at a common area outside of school.
If they can't run, teachers and students can hide, barricading themselves inside a classroom. If a classroom door has a hydraulic system, tying a belt around the mechanism could slow down a gunman, Klinger said.
Students and staff are urged to fight back with improvised weapons as a measure of last resort, Klinger said.
The Clark County School District has a lockdown procedure in place, but has not adopted the "Run, Hide, Fight" program, said CCSD Police spokesman Ken Young.
"We're always looking at best practices," he said. "Everybody has their own methodologies and philosophies. We don't teach run, hide and fight, but we're confident in our procedures and our first-responders."
The conference came as President Barack Obama announced a $500 million gun-control initiative aimed at reinstating an assault rifle ban, boosting mental health services and providing more resources for schools to curtail campus violence.
The initiative will be hotly contested by the National Rifle Association, which has recommended that armed guards be placed in every school and advocates that teachers with concealed-carry permits be allowed to bring guns to school.
Klinger and conference chairman Michael Hobbs said they didn't necessarily agree with the NRA's proposal.
In some communities – such as rural towns with scarce resources – arming teachers could be a solution, but there are many more ways schools can address school safety other than handing guns to qualified teachers. Schools need to take a comprehensive approach to campus safety, Hobbs said.
"We could debate until we're blue in the face looking for the right response, but there's not exactly a right or wrong way to do things," Hobbs said. "But the more options you have, the better your (school security) plan can be."
One the easiest and cheapest ways to deter school violence is to nurture a culture of vigilance, Klinger said. It requires training teachers and staff, who are often the true "first-responders" in a school emergency, she said.
Teachers need to be skeptical of doors that are propped open and strangers walking around on campus. A simple "Good morning, how can I help you" uttered to every stranger walking about a campus can help, Klinger said. It can put good people at ease and put potential do-no-gooders on edge.
Students also need to feel like they can share concerns about potential threats with school administrators, Klinger said. In one recent school shooting, a student came across a gunman preparing a rifle inside a campus bathroom but didn't tell school officials, she added.
"Kids, they know what's happening," she said. "You've got to get them to tell (administrators)."
Schools also should conduct routine assessments of its emergency protocols and identify potential threats to head off school violence. Instead of conducting practice drills during class hours – typical for most districts – schools also should practice lockdowns and evacuations before and after school, at lunchtime and even during a pep rally.
Usually, principals are given unilateral authority over calling 911 and initiating emergency procedures, Klinger said. However, with the fast-paced nature of school shootings, teachers need to take on a leadership role in the event of a school shooting – starting lockdowns and calling 911, she said.
"The sooner we get someone in there, the quicker we can intervene and stop the shooter," Klinger said.
While many schools have policies in place for an orderly evacuation, during a mass shooting, students will be running for their lives, Klinger said. Schools should establish a phone number to allow students with cell phones to text their location and status, and talk with students on how to use social media wisely during an emergency.
Schools ought to better communicate with students, staff and parents during an emergency by getting rid of codes and colors to represent different emergencies. Schools also should work with local police so they are familiar with the school layout and class schedule, she said.
Too often, these simple security measures aren't heeded, leaving campuses vulnerable to attack and unprepared for the worst.
"Parents will forgive a school if their test scores are bad, but they will never forgive a school if their kid is hurt," Klinger said. "We have a moral and ethical responsibility to protect our kids. Right now, we're not doing enough to protect them."