Next week will mark 18 years since the attack at Columbine High School.  While not the first school shooting, lockdown (or lock out) as an active shooter or response plan was embraced after Columbine with a noble goal: keep attackers away from students.   We have learned a great deal about active shooter-type attacks over the last 18 years and know now that lockdown is not the active shooter defense best practice.

The lockdown concept for active shooter defense was adapted from prisons, where offenders are locked in cells to protect the guards.  As a precautionary security protocol, this type of compartmentalization can be very effective, but as a response to an actual active shooter-type attack, lockdown is not a best practice.  There are three core fallacies to the effectiveness of a lockdown/ lock out as an active killer response plan.  They are:

  1. The attacker is always somewhere else
  2. Students are always in classrooms 
  3. All classrooms can be secured

Fallacy # 1:  The attacker is always somewhere else.

The goal of a lockdown is to compartmentalize people away from the attacker.  But what if the attacker already has direct contact with people?  Lockdowns do not help the people who are at the greatest risk – those having direct contact with the killer.

A guiding principle of emergency planning, is to first help the people who are at the greatest risk.  Using lockdown as an active shooter or active killer response plan does not meet this most basic goal of preparedness.

A lockdown offers no protection from direct contact.

Fallacy #2:  Students are always in classrooms.

The effectiveness of a lockdown is predicated on students being inside classrooms so the attacker may be denied access to them. Students do not magically arrive in their designated classrooms, sit in place for eight hours and then disappear.  They arrive in varying degrees of clusters, meander to their first hour, regularly change rooms, eat lunch, move about the campus and depart; unless of course they are involved in after school programs.

Students are not always in classrooms.

In an active shooter type attack, the killer, not the school, dictates the time and location of the attack.  Plans and training should absolutely account for students being in classrooms, but these they should also account for arrival, dismissal and transition times.

Fallacy # 3:  Classrooms are designed to be secured.

There is no universal classroom design that was created with security in mind.  Due to building renovations, it is rare for classrooms to be standardized throughout a school, much less a district.  To use lockdown as a standardized active shooter plan when the room that is supposed to be secured is not standardized is lazy and dangerous.

Most classrooms cannot be secured.

Even if the door can be locked from inside the classroom, which is rare, there are still major vulnerabilities such as vision panels on doors, interior windows in hallways and wall material that cannot stop a typical 9mm pistol round.   Very few active killers have an exit strategy, they expect to die or be captured.   When killing people inside a room means more to an attacker than his own life, it is unlikely a classroom door will stop an attack.

This is not to suggest that securing students in the classroom is not sometimes the best option.  It is.  Whether it is a precautionary action in response to possible danger or because evacuation of the classroom is not possible due to the location of the attacker or the physical limitations of the students. Clearly there are times when staying inside the classroom is the best option. In these instances, it is imperative that teachers be familiar with impromptu target hardening strategies such as barricading or tying off door handles.

More and more schools are ensuring their classrooms have minimal vision panels and require that classroom doors be locked during instruction.  These are excellent security enhancements, but locked classroom doors do not solve fallacies 1 & 2.  Active shooter-type attacks are dynamic and, when they occur, there is no one magic physical security solution that can protect an entire school.  This is why current the best practice provide options to account for the level of contact with the attacker, the location of students and the students’ ability to evacuate.


Why Survival Options are Needed

All leading federal preparedness and response organizations; including the U.S. Department of Education, U.S. Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Health and Human Services all recommend the option-based Run-Hide-Fight system for K-12 Schools. This recommendation is detailed on Page 62 in the “Guide for Developing High Quality School Emergency Operations Plans.”


This brief video illustrates why these Survival Options are needed:

A Necessary Paradigm Shift

A recent report by the FBI highlights that shooter attacks are on the increase.  The problem is not going away and we must continue to improve preparedness capabilities.

Lockdown is not working.

The security premise of a lockdown is compartmentalization; which is a singular tactic.  It is a dangerous fallacy to believe a door will stop an active killer.  Simply put, killing people inside the school means more to the active killer than their own life, so preparedness efforts must look beyond a simple lockdown.

Since Columbine we have had 18 years of heartbreaking tragedies and it is time for leaders in education and public safety to embrace the reality that protecting students from an active killer requires more than locking a door.   This article is also available as a 10 minute training course.  You can view the course for FREE here.


About the author:

Brad Spicer is the founder of SafePlans, a leading provider of all-hazards preparedness solutions; including a DHS designated anti-terrorism technology and national active shooter prevention and survival program. If you would like to receive updates about articles, like this one, please follow Brad on LinkedIn and sign up at SafePlans.

If you are interested in viewing SafePlans’ Security Awareness For Educators (SAFE) eLearning course at no cost or obligation, please contact us.


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