The New Normal
Discussing school gun violence, safety at WCA, and what YOU can do.
January 27, 2020
“BEEEEEEP, BEEEEEEP. A DISTURBANCE HAS BEEN DETECTED IN THE BUILDING. PLEASE TAKE NOTE OF YOUR SURROUNDINGS AND PREPARE TO DEFEND YOURSELF IF NECESSARY.”
As blinds are pulled on classroom windows, doors are securely locked, lights are turned off, and students huddle in the corners of their classrooms, this announcement sounds over the loudspeaker. Students fall silent, knowing what to do in this situation, as the teachers respond quickly, jumping into action to ensure the security of their students and classrooms.
At Westminster, we practice these “intruder drills” about once a month with the goal of preparing the entire student body and all faculty and staff members for the unlikely event of an armed intruder entering the building. Of course, Westminster is not alone in these efforts to equip students for this situation; elementary, middle, and high schools, both public and private, all over the country regularly perform these drills.
In recent years, school shootings have become an increasingly prominent and real concern in the United States. According to Elizabeth Wolfe and Christina Walker in an article from CNN, in 46 weeks in 2019, 45 school shootings occurred, which translates to an average of nearly one school shooting each week. Unfortunately, 2018 was also a year in which school shootings took place at a record high. Data from the US Naval Postgraduate School showed that 94 school gun violence incidents occurred in 2018 alone, and as German Lopez explains in a Vox article, this is “a record high since 1970, which is as far back as the data goes, and 59 percent higher than the previous record of 59 in 2006.”
All that being said, “mass shootings are statistically rare events,” as Officer Tim DeWitt explained, despite what the data may seem to show. Although school homicides have certainly become “more common and more deadly” as a Los Angeles Times article’s headline claims, the probability of a student being involved or killed in a school shooting is extremely rare.
According to The Washington Post, “the statistical likelihood of any given public school student being killed by a gun, in school, on any given day since 1999 was roughly 1 in 614,000,000.”
But while the odds may be fortunately low, this, of course, does not negate the tragedies that have occurred and the lives that have been lost. As Sandy Hook Promise states on their website, “Every number you see below represents a person, often a child, with hopes, dreams, potential, and loved ones who cherished them.” In reality, the statistics do not necessarily tell the story — if even one life is lost in a school shooting, an enormous tragedy has occurred, which is why Westminster, along with other schools, has taken several precautions to protect its students, teachers, and staff.
“The first notable precaution (or security enhancement) is our armed security presence. Town & Country Police officers and I are present during Westminster’s busiest hours to provide an immediate armed response to any situation or condition which affects the safety and security of others. Also, our multi-layered defensive strategy progressively limits vulnerabilities from the outside-in. The outermost layer, Westminster’s campus grounds, are closed to the public. The next layer is our building’s exterior walls and doors, which are locked. Within the building, guests must sign in and all adults are required to wear identification,” explained DeWitt.
Beyond these precautions that undoubtedly make Westminster a place where students should feel safe and protected at all times, knowing there are people on campus with the sole job of defending our school, Westminster also institutes drills and training that engage the students and educate them about this real issue.
“The innermost layer of defense combines physical elements with readiness techniques. Classroom doors are always locked to provide an immediate safe haven for students should an emergency arise. If an emergency does arise, faculty and staff are equipped to simultaneously sound the alarm and notify law enforcement within seconds through the use of strategically placed panic buttons and the use of the SchoolGuard app. Additionally, students, faculty, and staff attend safety lessons throughout the school year. This empowers everyone as critical players in our emergency prevention, preparedness, and response. And throughout the school year, we design and execute various emergency drills not only to safely practice, evaluate, and refine our strategies but also to reinforce every student’s confidence that Westminster is a safe place,” said DeWitt.
As DeWitt stated, students at Westminster should feel assured that their safety is not only of the utmost importance, but also that precautions have not been taken lightly. Students may occasionally feel as if they are not given enough freedom, but ultimately, it is essential that every member in the WCA community understands that these limits are for the safety and protection of the students. As an educational institution, Westminster’s responsibility is to provide a safe place for students to learn, grow, discover, and form relationships, and some limits must be established in order to fulfill this aim.
“Although the odds of such an attack occurring at Westminster are low, we are positioned well to prevent and defend against them. Safety is a top priority at Westminster. We assume a preventive and adaptive security posture so our students may enjoy a comfortable learning environment free of undue safety concerns. Steered by yours truly, we run our standard daily rhythms as well as unique events through a risk management process model. These perpetual evaluations of our security strategies assess and address potential threats and vulnerabilities and evolve into safety enhancements,” confirmed DeWitt.
Although school gun violence is statistically unlikely, one of the best methods for preparation for students is to develop a game plan and to be aware of the steps to take if such a situation were to arise. Of course, there is simply no way in which to prepare for every scenario, but merely providing students with a response model and helping them to feel as if they are experienced and educated in this area of self-defense can be immensely helpful.
DeWitt explained how students should respond during such an event: “Because every situation is different, there are no absolutes when it comes to responding to an armed intruder. First, students should follow their teacher’s instructions. Teachers receive more in-depth training and likely have more information about the emergency than students. However, in the event that students are not under the direct supervision of a teacher or staff member when an armed intruder is present, students should use the ‘Run – Hide – Fight’ response model to help determine how to react. Keep in mind, the situation will dictate which response is most appropriate. For example, the student’s location relative to a lethal threat may make it best to first hide behind a locked door (then prepare to fight or escape) rather than attempting to escape through a distant exit.”
In addition to preparing for these situations, attempting to uncover the root of the problem by understanding some of the causes of school shootings could be the difference between life and death — between a student body that works to support, uphold, and respect one another and a student body that is divided, broken, and corrupted by tension and conflict.
“School shootings and the events that transpire before them are very complex. So too are the situations, lives, and circumstances of the attacker, making it difficult at best to pinpoint the root causes. When discussing the reason for school shootings, it’s important to identify the attacker’s relationship with the school,” said Officer Tim DeWitt.
In general, threats can be organized into two categories: insider and outsider. “With insider threats, the attacker has an established relationship with the school and is most often a current or former student. Outside threats are just the opposite and typically result from an extreme ideology and hatred towards a certain demographic or people group,” explained DeWitt. According to Campus Safety Magazine, out of the approximately 1,300 school shooting incidents since 1970 (not including data from 2019 or 2020), “the shooter was a current student at the school” in 691 incidents.
With outsider threats, the main method of protection is adequate preparation, but regarding insider threats, there is more that we can do to combat these threats before they become incidents — or even before problems become threats.
According to a 2015 study by the National Council for Behavioral Health Board of Directors and the Medical Director Institute (MDI), “While perpetrators of mass violence can be categorized with respect to motivation, the characteristics of individual perpetrators cut across demographic, sociologic, cultural and occupational groups. The characteristics that most frequently occur are males, often hopeless and harboring grievances that are frequently related to work, school, finances or interpersonal relationships; feeling victimized and sympathizing with others who they perceive to be similarly mistreated; indifference to life; and often subsequently dying by suicide. They frequently plan and prepare for their attack and often share information about the attack with others, though often not with the intended victims.”
Therefore, despite popular belief, mental illness is not usually the cause behind school gun violence. In fact, according to Sandy Hook Promise and data from the same study mentioned above, “The majority of individuals with diagnosed mental illness do not engage in violence against others.”
Although mental illness may not be the origin of most school gun violence incidents, mental health can certainly play a substantial role in motivating a perpetrator or preventing them from taking action. And, this is an area where we do have some control in impeding insider threats. As recently discussed in chapel and grade level meetings, cultivating respectful and healthy relationships founded upon love, humility, and grace is essential to preserving a beneficial and nourishing environment at Westminster.
“Combine the MDI’s conclusion on the characteristics of individual perpetrators with Scripture’s call for us to love our neighbor, and it becomes pretty clear what we can do corporately to prevent a lethal insider threat. Westminster’s faculty and staff are committed to coming alongside students to foster an environment of love and respect and challenge anything contrary. Our cultural norms need to include words and actions that lift others up,” explained DeWitt.
Indeed, it is our duty as students, parents, teachers, faculty, and ultimately, Christians to create a culture in which every individual feels treasured, valuable, and loved. Our words, actions, and jokes can all result in extensive consequences that can cause ripples throughout our relationships, mental health, and safety.
DeWitt offered his thoughts on how we can approach this: “The problem is, our tendency is to underestimate the impact we have on each other’s lives and take our interactions at face-value. However, that face value estimation is most often inaccurate. So those who see or hear anything that makes them or others uncomfortable should say something. Those who are not comfortable with challenging destructive behavior on the spot, consider other possibilities. Talk and pray with a friend, teacher, or other trusted adult to evaluate the next best step. Maybe talk with the victim. Or, use Westminster’s anonymous tip line to report the situation. But above all, love your neighbor as yourself.”
I do not write this article and share these facts and statistics to scare you because “God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power and of love and of a sound mind” (2 Timothy 1:7). No, I’m writing this because I believe it is a real concern in our current society and because each one of us has the ability to be a force for change in our community by radically transforming the way in which we interact and treat one another. I hope that through this article, you have confidence that Westminster has created a safe and secure environment and that it is now our duty to ensure the environment inside these walls radiates love, peace, patience, and kindness (Galatians 5:22). As a quote from Dietrich Bonhoeffer on the wall outside the Academic Hub reads, “Silence in the face of evil is itself evil: God will not hold us guiltless. Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act.”
If you have any questions or concerns about this serious topic, Officer DeWitt is “always willing to have conversations with students and parents about school safety. Everyone should feel free to contact [him] in the Grand Entry or via email.”
Also, remember that the Westminster tipline can be found at https://wcastl.org/community-life/school-safety/. According to DeWitt, “It is an anonymous tip reporting tool that gives our students and parents a mechanism to do the right thing and alert the school about something concerning they see or hear in an anonymous and safe way. In addition to physical threats, this reporting tool may be used to report a variety of concerns including bullying, abuse, and mental health concerns. All tips are taken seriously and passed on to the appropriate administrator. Any tips regarding a potential threat to the safety of our community will be turned over to law enforcement.”