Escape, enhance, engage: strategies for handling school violence

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Todd Cammarata

Mr. John Baker giving a presentation to TAHS students

April 20, 1999 was just another day in the small town of Littleton, Colorado. Columbine High School was preparing for the first lunch shift of the day. Then, the unthinkable happened. Two students opened fire on students at the school, killing 13 people before committing suicide themselves.

On Friday, March 6, teachers and staff at Tyrone Area High School heard an unsettling sound: gunshots in the halls. Fortunately these shots were not a result of a tragic event like Columbine, but were blanks shot during a training exercise to educate staff on what to do if a violent act should occur.

Mr. John Baker, a US Army veteran, law enforcement officer and security expert for the past 27 years, spoke to Tyrone students and staff about what to do in a shooting situation, and the fatal mistake that the students in the library of Columbine made that day.

Baker said that the students who were murdered in the library at Columbine were a mere few feet from a door to escape, but instead did what they were all taught to do: go into lockdown mode and hide.

After examining Columbine and other similar events, experts have concluded that there is no one correct way to respond to an event like this. Baker also spoke of the Virginia Tech shooting, where the only students to survive were those who escaped out a classroom window.

Baker told students the importance of situational awareness. “Knowing what is going on around you is imperative,” he said.

When possible, the first and best option is escape. Had the students at Columbine had better situational awareness, they might have easily escaped to safety and avoided tragedy.

A diagram of Columbine High School's library.
A diagram of Columbine High School’s library.

According to Baker, if escape is not possible then the next option is to enhance your defensive position. Barricade doors and reinforce locks if possible.

Finally, as a last resort, Baker encourages people to engage the perpetrator in order to disengage and run. He told staff and students to throw things at the perpetrator–staplers, books, sweatshirts, really anything that can be thrown at someone to disrupt what they are doing–and then run.

“The number one thing I want people to take away from it, I think, is the feeling of being empowered and realizing they can do things to help them survive some really bad situations, while at the same time not being afraid of the ‘what if.’ Knowledge truly is power,” said Baker.

Superintendent Cathy Harlow said that multiple TASD administrators worked together to make this training a reality.

“Several TASD administrators attended violent intruder training during the summer of 2014. Based on their experience, we felt the training would be very beneficial for our entire staff,” said Harlow.

Multiple teachers felt that the training was very helpful and changed the way that they would deal with an intruder situation.

“One of the key elements that we learned was the time factor on how long the situation usually would last,” said English teacher David Rutter. “That allows us to have that strong game plan and strategy in order to ensure everyone’s safety.”

This isn’t a Texas Chainsaw Massacre rehearsal. If you teach solid strategies and place people under a little stress… it’s amazing how they can learn.”

— Baker

Baker says that the purpose of the simulation is to help the teachers. “I don’t think you need to scare people and gross them out with fake blood and all kinds of props. This isn’t a Texas Chainsaw Massacre rehearsal. If you teach solid strategies and place people under a little stress… it’s amazing how they can learn.”

After the training, high school students were brought in for an assembly headed by Baker. He asked the students where they thought Pennsylvania would rank for number of school shootings in high schools and colleges combined. Shouts of “top 25” or “top 10” were heard. Baker revealed that Pennsylvania ranks third behind California and Texas.

“It scared me to think that Pennsylvania was third,” said 10th grade student Haley Wagner. “It made me think about how a school shooting could happen anywhere.”

Baker is very confident in his trainings and the success that comes from them. “I do feel this type of training is very successful. Of course the true measure is not what do I think, it’s what did the participants think.”

Tyrone teacher Cummins McNitt felt the training was very helpful as well. “If someone wants to inflict harm on others, it’s pretty difficult to defend against…[but] I believe this training will help us keep the harm to a minimum.”