A growing number of Texas public school districts are embracing more aggressive tactics that allow campus staff members to defend themselves against armed classroom intruders.
The tactics — everything from hurling scissors and textbooks to stealing the bad guy’s gun — are a departure from the drop-and-hide strategy that educators have used for years.
“When this program came out, it was laughed at,” said Kevin Kinley, director of safety and security for the Keller school district. “What do you mean teachers defending kids?”
Hundreds of educators in the Eagle Mountain-Saginaw and Fort Worth school districts have undergone training to combat on-campus killers in three-step, active-shooter drills, known as Avoid-Deny-Defend.
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I think that you run a gambit, if you become the aggressor and you’re not fully trained and you’re not confident in what you’re doing, you could be more of a problem than a help.
Craig Miller, Dallas school district police chief
The program, created by the criminal justice department at Texas State University in San Marcos, sometimes called Run-Hide-Fight in other states, gets financial backing from the Justice Department Bureau Assistance and the Texas Governor’s Office on Criminal Justice.
“We’re trying to bring everybody into the realities of today,” said Art Cavazos, chief of operations for Fort Worth school district, where 10 campuses underwent training in October and November. “The world has changed and the lockdown is not enough.”
But state and national law enforcement entities warn that active-shooter drills require a lot of repetition to be effective. Lax training could lead to a major misfire, skeptics say.
“There are districts that are more aggressive, obviously,” said Craig Miller, police chief for the 160,000-student Dallas school district, which isn’t expected to adopt Avoid-Deny-Defend.
“I think that you run a gambit, if you become the aggressor and you’re not fully trained and you’re not confident in what you’re doing, you could be more of a problem than a help,” said Miller, former commander of the Dallas Police Department’s homicide and narcotics units.
At more than 240 schools, Dallas’ $4.5 million surveillance equipment and school lockdown system is a more robust weapon against attackers, Miller said.
“One of the things that’s important to always stress is this — you’re more likely to get struck by lightning than you are to get involved in a school shooting,” Miller said.
School shootings account for only 1 percent of homicides among school-age youths, according to the nation’s largest group of school-based police officers.
Mo Canady, executive director of the National Association of School Resource Officers in Alabama, says there’s no evidence that Avoid-Deny-Defend works better.
“Who is planning more properly, Dallas or Fort Worth?” Canady said. “I don’t have the answer for that. It’s a really difficult question. I hate to say this but we’re going to have to wait until a major incident happens in a school that is using” Avoid-Deny-Defend tactics.
“It may work very effectively,” Canady said. “I just don’t know.”
School districts say they are being forced to turn to aggression to offer better protection to students and employees. Fewer casualties occur, they say, when civilians are permitted to defend themselves from attackers. Columbine showed educators that the drop-and-hide approach doesn’t always work, Cavazos said.
“Shootings at universities where people took one, two or three extra steps, the survival rate was just huge,” Cavazos said. “The most tragic event was Columbine where basically [the assailant] had the run of the place. We didn’t know how to respond. It was a ‘freeze’ situation in which people hid under tables.”
Over the summer, more than 120 Fort Worth police officers took part in training to provide assistance to school districts that want to learn Avoid-Deny-Defend, officer Stephanie Warren said. Warren has also conducted Avoid-Deny-Defend active-shooter training with staffers at Boswell High School in the Eagle Mountain-Saginaw school district. Other districts, such as Keller, have also expressed interest, she said.
When this program came out, it was laughed at. What do you mean teachers defending kids?
Kevin Kinley, Keller school district director of safety and security
Why is interest growing?
“It’s reality-based,” Warren said. “This teaches teachers to think outside the box and make decisions besides lockdown and hide.”
Kinley, a former lieutenant with the New York Police Department, said the Keller district took interest in Avoid-Deny-Defend because it equips a teacher with more than one response to address a crisis.
“We’re so used to teaching our kids to just go in a corner and the teacher hovers over them just waiting for something to happen,” Kinley said. “This is about having more options than just sitting there.”
In Step 1, teachers can avoid danger if they flee to safety outside the school building. In Step 2, teachers can deny classroom access to the attacker by barricading doors and windows. In Step 3, teachers can defend themselves if the intruder enters the classroom.
“We want them to defend themselves and fight like their life depends on it,” Warren said.
Some area districts have been teaching fight-back strategies for years.
Almost a decade ago, Greg Crane, a high school teacher in the Burleson school district and a former police officer, told teachers and students, “You can be a passive target and wait to get shot, or you can decide that life is worth fighting for.”
Crane has a point, said Kevin Lawrence, executive director of the Texas Municipal Police Association. Assailants often become more violent when victims become passive targets, such as students hiding in a classroom or under a desk.
“That doesn’t work,” Lawrence said. “It feeds into the anger of these active shooters. They have an objective in mind and it’s not to be compassionate with the people they are dealing with.”
At least a few hundred Fort Worth teachers have reported that they support the program, Cavazos said.
“We’re not asking anybody to become a hero,” Cavazos said. “We’re asking them to avoid [a confrontation] … but if one does defend themselves, they’re going to be heroes.”
The ALERRT Center at Texas State University has trained more than 70,000 law officers in 47 states in the Advanced Law Enforcement Rapid Response Training standard for active-shooter response. The program uses federal and state funding.