How can universities tackle the threat of active shooters?

As colleges and universities in the United States and elsewhere ramp up to begin a new term, most are woefully unprepared for the possibility of an active shooter, and for the carnage and massive potential legal liability which is almost certain to occur at several different locations this very school year.

The US clearly leads in this carnage (body count, damages, etc) and level of concern – indeed the very recent past (5 October) saw the murder of a professor at the University of Arizona by a former student. However, shootings at education institutions also occur in other countries, including recent examples in Russia and Germany.

Indeed, from January 2009 until May 2018, many other countries reported experiencing more than one shooting: Mexico (8), South Africa (6), Nigeria (4), Pakistan (4), Afghanistan (3), Brazil (2), Canada (2) and France (2).

Moreover, only one such event, even if it occurred in a different country, may be enough to put others on notice and make a shooting ‘foreseeable’, thereby creating a legal duty to take ‘reasonable’ care.

So while the problem is most acute in the US, the tips for reducing injuries and deaths from an active shooter are so logical and inexpensive that they should be considered – and arguably implemented – in schools and universities in many European and other countries. Indeed, putting an outside-lockable lock on a classroom door makes sense, whether you call it a ‘lock’, ‘schloss’, ‘serrure’, ‘cerradura’ or even a ‘kufuli’.

Additionally, it is quite likely that the growing number of shooting incidents at education institutions in the US will inspire copycat incidents in other countries where such shootings in the past have been rare, or even non-existent, so far.

A similar duty

Likewise, the following legal discussion about limiting legal liability for such a shooting applies primarily to those (largely Commonwealth) countries which tend to follow American and British common law, but a similar duty and legal responsibility and liability would probably be found under the laws of many other countries.

For example, the European Court of Human Rights found that Finland had violated its legal duty to protect the right to life of nine students and one teacher in a mass shooting at a vocational institute. It said that the legal duty to take at least ‘reasonable’ (a legal term in negligence law) steps to protect foreseeable victims existed because of the high risk to life any time there may be misconduct involving firearms.

Unfortunately, many institutions are responding to this very frightening risk by taking unnecessary and possibly ineffective, elaborate and expensive security precautions, such as those undertaken in many Texas schools in the aftermath of the Uvalde massacre. Meanwhile, anxious parents are praying while equipping their children with bulletproof backpacks and teachers are taking training courses of dubious value such as ALICE (Alert, Lockdown, Inform, Counter, Evacuate).

However, virtually all are ignoring, or have never even considered taking, a number of simple, inexpensive and proven methods to slash the risk of death and serious injury – as well as the huge potential legal liability and adverse publicity – which will occur when the escalating torrent of active shooters continues, and possibly further escalates.

The rash of shootings at education institutions has already resulted in major lawsuits and massive settlements for a very simple reason. Although there may be issues of immunity in some instances, it is now well established that education institutions, like many other establishments, have a legally enforceable duty to protect students and others from reasonably foreseeable risks by taking precautions which are reasonable.

Years ago the idea that a student or adult would come to a college or university with high capacity firearms and shoot many people would be virtually unthinkable and, therefore, perhaps not “reasonably foreseeable”. However, it is today so commonplace that higher education institutions everywhere must foresee that it might happen to them, and act accordingly.

Once a risk is considered reasonably foreseeable, an education institution must by law take precautions to prevent or at least mitigate harm, provided that there are precautions it can take which are reasonable.

So, for example, while a university doesn’t have to construct large bomb shelters to protect its students from a possible aerial bombing – because the cost is very high compared to the very small foreseeable risk – it probably would have to conduct fire drills, have at least one first aid kit on hand and put up signs if floors become slippery because the risks are reasonably foreseeable, and the costs and other burdens are small compared to the foreseeable risk.

Similarly, while colleges and universities may not have to install bulletproof glass in all windows, provide armed guards at every entrance, or utilise metal detectors because they are much too expensive compared to the foreseeable risk of a shooter, they may – to avoid legal liability – have to take simple steps such as upgrading classroom locks, and other simple steps outlined below, because the costs are very small compared with the now clearly foreseeable risks of an active shooter.

A wake-up call

The recent mass killing of 21 at a school in Uvalde, Texas, and other recent shootings, should serve as a wake-up call and a reminder that the danger of a murderer armed with a gun coming to your institution or campus is very real and can happen anywhere.

Additionally, for a variety of reasons, college and university officials cannot always rely upon law enforcement authorities for timely assistance, especially when so many innocent victims are typically shot during the first few minutes and may bleed out very quickly, local police may be delayed by traffic (particularly if there is an accident on a major road, or the shooter arrives during rush hour), rural colleges may have to wait even longer for any help to arrive, and campus police may not even be armed.

Furthermore, we as educators certainly should not wait for new gun laws or other legislation – which may not be very effective – to provide enough protection in the real world.

In short, don't bet your life, and the lives of your students, on their effectiveness.

In addition, conventional techniques to “harden” institutions to protect those inside from armed gunmen are expensive, may be very difficult to implement at large institutions, and take time to put into place. Moreover, if completed, they may also not be sufficient or even very effective. As the Texas Tribune reminds us, Texas already “hardened” schools. It didn't save Uvalde.

Therefore, those in charge of educational institutions, as well as those who teach there, should carefully consider taking some simple, proven and inexpensive steps to substantially improve safety and reduce the chance that they and-or their students will be injured – or possibly even killed – by an active shooter on campus.

Failure to take such reasonable steps could also substantially increase the likelihood of massive legal liability, especially at private colleges and universities, should someone be shot because a classroom door could not be locked from inside, an outside entrance supposed to be locked was left or even propped open, there was no way to stop the catastrophic organ damage and bleeding caused by use of an AR-15 or similar semi-automatic weapon with high-velocity bullets, etc.

Since shootings at education institutions are now all-too foreseeable, negligence law requires that those in a position to do so take all steps which are reasonable (not too expensive, burdensome, or intrusive) to reduce the foreseeable danger.

Here are some simple and inexpensive – and therefore reasonable – actions which can substantially improve security and safety, and help prevent more needless shootings and deaths.

1. Classroom doors which can be locked from the inside

In many ways, the best, least expensive, and also by far the simplest step universities can take to protect students and others from being shot by an active shooter is having classroom doors which can be easily and quickly locked from the inside.

That's why the Sandy Hook Advisory Commission recommended that “all classrooms in K-12 schools should be equipped with locked doors that can be locked from the inside”. This recommendation is also endorsed by the California Federation of Teachers, the National Association of State Fire Marshals and many other organisations.

After all, if there is an active shooter alert or if gunfire is heard, few teachers would be willing to step outside into the hall to insert a key into a classroom door which can be locked only from the outside – as the locks in my law school once did.

Moreover, there might be students in a classroom but no professor; the professor may not have brought his classroom key with him; even experienced teachers can become momentarily flustered and not be able to locate their keys, etc.

That's why many schools have adopted the simple recommendation noted above. Indeed, in some cases, faculty have even helped to raise money to implement it.

George Washington University adopted my suggestion for such locks, and installed a button in each classroom which, when pushed, securely locks the classroom door(s). So, in the event of an active shooter alert or the sound of gunfire, a professor or even a student can simply push a button and be comparatively safe.

However, such an elaborate and expensive system isn’t necessary to provide more-than-adequate protection from an armed gunman roaming the halls looking for soft targets.

The common type of door lock (technically a “latch”) found on guest rooms in even the least expensive hotels and motels – where the guest inside a room simply swings a metal latch horizontally to engage a ball-tipped prong – is as good as any, meets all the requirements of the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA), and will lock both single- and double-door classrooms securely.

Online retailers sell several different models of such latches for about US$10 each, such as this, and each can be installed on a door in less than 10 minutes by anyone with a portable electric drill.

Thus, the cost to any college or university to protect all its classrooms and classroom doors with such latches would be minimal.

The most important thing to remember is that no potential victim inside a locked classroom has ever been shot in all of the hundreds of reported school shootings.

Experts explain that shooters know they have very little time before they will be captured or killed. So, upon encountering a classroom door which they cannot open quickly, they will almost always move on down the hall without wasting valuable time.

RECOMMENDATION – All classrooms should be equipped with doors which can be quickly and easily locked from the inside, perhaps employing the same inexpensive latch-locks used on most hotel and motel guest doors.

2. Room-identifying signs in windows

When police or other first responders arrive at a university, it is vital that they all know immediately in which rooms the shooter may be found, where there may be victims, where still others may be hiding, etc.

Although responders may have been given this information in the form of room numbers or designations, there may not be any (or enough) floor plans immediately available for the responders.

Since we all know that some classrooms might not be clearly marked and easy to locate, each should be clearly marked at the entry doors, and a sufficient number of up-to-date floor plans should be readily available for first responders.

More importantly, responders outside – including those close by as well as those at a distance using binoculars and-or telescopic video cameras to see inside – may not be able to quickly and reliably identify individual rooms, even from a detailed floor plan.

This potentially life-threatening problem can be addressed at virtually no cost if the number of each room, or other designation, is displayed clearly with large letters in at least one outside-facing window of each room.

This one simple step, which costs virtually nothing and can save valuable time – or even lives – during those vital early minutes when law enforcement initially responds and must become aware of a building's layout, especially from the outside.

RECOMMENDATION – A classroom’s number or designation should be clearly displayed on or adjacent to its entry door, and also in a window in numbers large enough to be viewed from a distance by first responders.

3. Master key system

One of the reasons originally provided to explain why it took so long for law enforcement officials in Uvalde to burst into the classroom and neutralise the shooter was that the classroom door was locked (presumably by the shooter), and that it took time to try to locate a key which would unlock the door. While this may or may not eventually prove to be true, it is certainly a foreseeable situation which could occur at many institutions if a gunman locks himself and others inside a classroom.

However, it is gross negligence, bordering on insanity, for a vital key, which would be needed to unlock a classroom door in many different types of emergency situations, to be in the hands of only one person – whether that's a janitor at Uvalde, or a dean or department chairman at a university – because valuable time and lives could be lost before such a person with his key could be located.

Providing all administrators and campus police officers with keys which can unlock all classroom doors would reduce the problem, but there may be times when even these individuals may be delayed or away.

Moreover, there are many other foreseeable situations in which a locked classroom door would have to be opened very quickly: for example, a professor inside has a heart attack or stroke, people in the locked classroom are overcome by carbon monoxide or blinded by irritating smoke, a student locked a classroom door to harm another student inside, or a student or teacher locks a classroom door to commit suicide, etc.

The simple and logical solution to address all of these emergency situations, as well as a more common one when a professor simply finds the door to his classroom unexpectedly locked, is to use a system of master keys so that the keys professors have to unlock their own office door will also unlock the doors to all classrooms in the buildings where he or she teaches, and perhaps also other multiple-user rooms (such as a copy-centre room, a storeroom, etc).

RECOMMENDATION – The dean, department chair, and-or top administrators of schools should each have a key to all rooms (not just classrooms) in the building. If professors are issued their own keys – for example, to individual offices, storerooms, etc – these keys should also be able to unlock all classroom doors.

4. Forced entry tool

In Uvalde, law enforcement reportedly had to take time to request that firefighters on the scene provide them with a tool to force open the classroom door in which the shooter had stationed himself, apparently because of concerns about not being able to quickly locate a key which would unlock the door. That tool which the firefighters eventually provided was probably a Halligan.

A Halligan is a large multi-headed crowbar-like tool carried by firefighters and some law enforcement officers to make forced entry when a door is locked or jammed shut. It could be useful – indeed, it could save lives – in a situation in which a shooter is hiding with innocent hostages inside a locked classroom and a key to unlock the door can't be located immediately, the key seems not to work, the classroom door is stuck or its lock has been jammed, etc.

However, the same basic emergency entry tool also could prove invaluable if a professor in a locked office or classroom suffers a heart attack or stroke, if occupants are overcome by carbon monoxide or blinding smoke, if one student is harming another or even engaging in destruction of property inside a classroom, or if a door somehow simply becomes jammed so that it cannot easily be unlocked and time is of the essence.

For all of these many reasons, and to deal with many foreseeable situations where a door must be opened immediately, having an inexpensive Halligan (or the equivalent forced-entry tool) readily available can be important, if not life-saving.

Incidentally, if a college or university uses the simple hotel-motel horizontal latches, discussed in 1 above, to permit classroom doors to be locked from the inside in the event of an emergency, and prompt entry through a classroom door locked with such a latch becomes necessary, there is no need to use a Halligan or other emergency entry tool.

Instead, there are small and inexpensive Anti-Lockout Security-Door Emergency-Access Tools which will permit immediate access without harming the classroom door or its latch. Hotels and motels often keep one behind the front desk for guests who lock their doors and then pass out or call for help. Fortunately, shooters don’t seem to know about – much less carry and use – such devices during their rampages.

RECOMMENDATION – Every institution should have, and school and campus police vehicles should carry, in addition to fire extinguishers, first aid kits and other standard equipment, a Halligan or similar forced-entry tool. Additionally, every college and university building should have at least one forced-entry tool stored, together with a large pictorial instruction card about its use, in the dean's office and-or in other appropriate locations.

5. Magnetic door-open sensor

At least, as initially reported, 19 children and two teachers died needlessly in Texas because a teacher negligently left (or propped) a rear entry door open, thereby defeating the school’s normal controls limiting entry. The negligent teacher later changed her story, claiming that she returned and closed the rear entry door, but failed to ensure that it was properly locked when she closed it.

Unfortunately, both situations – in which a remote door which is supposed to be kept locked for security reasons is left open or at least not properly locked – are clearly foreseeable, so reasonable steps must be taken to guard against these potentially life-threatening scenarios.

To guard against this foreseeable negligence by an instructor or student – one likely to occur despite training sessions and warnings – institutions can and should employ the same simple magnetic door-open alarm, like this one for about US$13, used in many private homes in the US.

Two separate pieces of the device – one mounted on the frame at the top of the door, and the other mounted adjacent to it on the door itself – send a signal to one or more cell phones if the door is opened and the magnetic coupling disrupted. No wiring is needed, since the signal is automatically sent using the institution’s existing Wi-Fi.

If a door remains open when it shouldn't, an employee can be dispatched very promptly to close it. In addition, if an outside door opens and then closes, an employee can be dispatched to find out why, and to be sure it is securely locked again.

RECOMMENDATION – Every external door designed to be locked to prevent unauthorised entry (but not exit) should be equipped with a simple magnetic door-open sensor which transmits a signal via Wi-Fi whenever a door is opened.

6. Texting via cell phone in an emergency

Uvalde reminded us of the importance of people, trapped and hiding during an active-shooter situation, being able to provide important information during an emergency (for instance, the location and description of the shooter and his weapons, where there are injured, whether others are hiding, etc) even if that vital information was largely ignored in Uvalde.

This ability to communicate vital information silently is especially important if there are one or more trapped persons who are hiding, playing dead, or otherwise unable to talk.

Text messaging provides one means to accomplish this because it is entirely silent, and most students and faculty through experience have learned to finger type very quickly.

In many ways, sending text messages, rather than using voice communication, is also better for those receiving the messages because texts can easily be grouped, searched and sorted, while voice or oral recordings cannot.

Since text messages require far less bandwidth, information in text form can be transmitted more reliably, even if communication channels are far from ideal (for example, if the signal strength is weak). Moreover, as needed, the messages can easily be supplemented, corrected, annotated, etc by institutional authorities, or by others receiving them.

However, to make text messaging work in an emergency, the address to which the text messages should be sent must be almost as well known (or very quickly looked up) as general emergency numbers, and the recipients of the messages should be persons trained in handling and responding to text messages in such stressful situations.

RECOMMENDATION – Students and faculty should know how to communicate via text messages during a shooting situation, and the recipients of these text messages must be trained in how to best handle them.

7. Stopping bleeding deaths

Bullet wounds caused by an AR-15 or a similar rifle, apparently the firearms of choice of mass shooters in the US, can cause a victim to bleed to death in only a few minutes, long before trained medics can arrive.

That's why public health experts have created the Stop The Bleed Coalition to raise public awareness of this problem which has become more serious and foreseeable as shootings at education institutions have multiplied.

The coalition points out that “uncontrolled bleeding is a major cause of preventative deaths. Approximately 40% of trauma-related deaths worldwide are due to bleeding or its consequences, establishing haemorrhage as the most common cause of preventable death in trauma and, while the average time to bleed out is 3-5 minutes, the average time for first responders to arrive (much less to even begin controlling the bleeding) is seven-10 minutes”.

For these reasons, the coalition and other experts recommend that colleges and universities should have ready-made and easy-to-use tourniquets which can be applied immediately by lay persons to prevent massive blood loss until medics can arrive and take over.

Indeed, the organisation has even developed Stop The Bleed kits containing tourniquets, other necessary supplies, and clear instructions. These kits are widely available from many suppliers. The kits are designed to be mounted in public places where either or both can be used in an emergency by people with no prior training.

As just one example, the University of Maryland in Baltimore has some 250 Stop The Bleed kits.

However, if such kits are too expensive, schools, colleges and universities can at least easily stockpile some home-made tourniquets for use in the event of a shooting, or other emergency causing arterial bleeding, and provide simple pictorial information on university cell phone information apps about how to fashion a tourniquet in an emergency situation from materials commonly found in a classroom or office.

RECOMMENDATION – To reduce the rapid deaths by uncontrolled bleeding caused by high-speed bullets from an AR-15 and other similar weapons, institutions should have a sufficient number of Stop the Bleed Kits or home-made tourniquets readily available, and provide instructions via cell-phone apps or otherwise to help teachers and students control arterial bleeding in an emergency.

8. School information apps

Many colleges and universities have cell phone apps – or other means by which students can store data on their cell phones and-or smart watches – which provide information about the institution, its schedules and personnel, important internet links, contact phone numbers and email addresses, etc.

However, it’s just as important that they have ready and immediate access to instructions about what to do if they hear gunshots, or otherwise become aware of an active shooter at the school or nearby, who and how to contact them in the event of an emergency (including how to send silent text messages to the designated official), and probably also how to provide limited assistance to gunshot victims until trained help is able to arrive.

All of this information should be incorporated within the institution’s existing information app, or by similar means, so it will always be immediately available on cell phones in the event of an emergency.

RECOMMENDATION – University apps should have information about what to do if an active shooter is present or suspected, and perhaps how to assist victims of shootings or accidents before trained help can arrive.

9. One-way peepholes in offices and other doors

In the case of the professor at the University of Arizona who was recently shot and killed in his office by a dangerous former student, the university had ample prior warning of the heightened risk and, therefore, of the need to use extra care.

There had been reports that the student had harassed several students on campus in addition to an earlier case of domestic violence. Indeed, because of this information, the university had, in fact, tried to bar the shooter from its campus.

The professor might be alive today if his university had taken the simple precaution of installing a one-way peephole (cost about US$5) in his office door. Had it been installed, the professor might well have recognised the dangerous student – because his picture had been circulated to all campus employees – or noticed that he was carrying a gun and not opened his office door, which, because of the heightened threat, he might logically have temporarily kept locked.

More generally, universities might consider installing inexpensive one-way peepholes in the doors of all offices, classrooms, restrooms, storerooms and any other rooms where a person might be able to hide in the event of an active shooter on campus.

Although many professors choose to leave their office doors open – or at least unlocked – during normal working hours, they might want to be able to lock the door while working late at night and-or over weekends and holidays. With a peephole, they would then know who is knocking on their door during those periods, and make an informed choice about unlocking it.

A peephole would also permit professors who had locked their office doors – when an active shooter alert had been sounded or gunfire heard – to be sure that someone subsequently knocking on their door to tell them it was safe to come out was in fact a law enforcement officer or a university official, and not the gunman himself

Those who took refuge in a classroom without glass in the door, a restroom or storage room, etc – whether or not it had been locked or barricaded, or simply kept closed – would likewise know when it was safe to come out.

RECOMMENDATION – Doors to offices, restrooms, storerooms and even some classrooms should have one-way peepholes installed.

10. Limited availability of guns

Although the issue of firearms on campus is controversial to many, having at least one gun available to confront an armed shooter could be considered, especially if the response time for armed first responders may in some situations be in excess of five minutes – as it is especially in rural areas, and-or if campus police (with their shorter response time) are not armed.

Some 20 US states have programmes which permit a small number of specially trained teachers to carry a handgun while in the classroom.

Signs advising “Warning, some professors are armed” should provide a significant deterrent to a potential shooter because neither students nor outsiders will know the number or identity of those armed, and an armed professor may be able to stop, or at least contain, a shooter before law enforcement personnel arrive, if such action is necessary.

In a similar programme for commercial airline pilots where non-law-enforcement professionals are likewise permitted to be armed while working, apparently no innocent person has ever been injured. Most would agree that a professor with a gun, even if not well trained, is more likely to be able to stop or contain a shooter than one who is not armed.

If permitting even a few professors to be armed in their own classrooms is regarded as out of the question, educational institutions might wish to consider a simple alternative. Those with legal firearm permits could at least be permitted to bring their handguns to an administrator’s office where the guns would be stored in a safe of the type typically found in prisons and police stations for temporarily storing handguns.

This way the handgun would be readily available in the event of an actual shooter emergency, but could be taken out for use in an emergency only with the approval of the administrator.

RECOMMENDATION – Universities without an armed-teacher programme should study those programmes long in effect and perhaps adopt a similar one. If not, they might consider permitting teachers who already have permits to bring their handguns with them, but require that they be stored in a suitable gun safe in the office of an administrator, and not be used – even in a shooter emergency – without the supervisor's permission.

11. Non-lethal weapons

The many professors who are not permitted to have firearms in the classroom, or who don’t wish to use them – for instance, out of fear that innocent people might be injured or that they may be legally liable for shooting someone accidentally – need not be completely defenceless against an armed intruder.

Although not as good as a handgun, there are effective non-lethal defensive weapons, which professors can carry with them and-or keep in locked gun safes in their classrooms, which will be much more effective than using chairs, tables, poles and other objects teachers have sometimes been forced to resort to.

One possible non-lethal defence device is a canister of bear spray. Many such canisters are designed to shoot more than 20 feet with enough power to stop a charging grizzly bear. Aim is not critical, since spraying anywhere near a shooter will disable them. Unlike with a firearm, there is virtually no danger of an innocent person, or even the intruder himself, being killed or seriously injured.

Another possible non-lethal defensive weapon is a paintball pistol which can be used to fire one or more pellets of coloured paint into the face of an armed intruder at a considerable distance. While it may not have the stopping effectiveness of bear spray, it is likely to at least disorient the shooter so that he or she can be stopped. It is also likely to be effective at a much greater distance than the bear spray canister.

Apparently it is even possible to combine the two concepts – an irritant disabling spray and a gun to shoot it long distances – into a third non-lethal defensive choice for teachers who do not want to be completely defenceless should an active shooter attack their university or college.

Several such devices, ranging in price from US$147 to US$319, are available.

As with the other non-lethal defence alternatives, precise aim is not crucial. There’s little chance of death or serious injury to anyone, and they all can be used from a distance, even when a teacher is behind a desk or other barrier.

RECOMMENDATION – Professors who cannot – or are reluctant to – carry a gun should consider effective but non-lethal defensive weapons which can be kept safely locked within a gun safe in a classroom desk or closet.

In summary, to limit the carnage caused by active shooters, as well as the massive resulting potential legal liability, colleges and universities, both in the US and abroad, should consider taking a number of simple and inexpensive (and therefore reasonable) steps to reduce the risk, and the harm which is expected to be caused this year by active shooters.

John F Banzhaf III is an emeritus professor of law at the George Washington University Law School. Although best known for using legal actions to successfully attack problems such as smoking, obesity, government corruption, illegal discrimination, etc, he has also served as a security officer and as a security consultant. Several of his proposals to improve security and public safety have been adopted by his own university and elsewhere, and he has visited universities around the world and talked with professors there.