How officials prepare campus to deal with a mass shooting

Media Credit: Keegan Mullen | Staff Photographer

University Police Department officers receive a two-hour block of active shooter training in the special police officer academy before joining the department and are required to attend annual preparedness sessions.

The recent deadly school shooting in Parkland, Fla. – along with 12 shootings on college campuses in the first nine weeks of the year – have led many to ask if a similar incident could happen at GW.

The University’s top security official said the security office regularly trains faculty and police on how to react in a mass shooting and that officials are reviewing safety procedures following the Parkland shooting – which they do after almost every mass-casualty event. Security experts said universities are limited in how they can prepare for this kind of event, but they said laws to limit gun purchases would be more effective than proposals to arm teachers and faculty.

The Parkland shooting has reignited a fierce nationwide debate about gun control, with student activists calling for stricter laws and gun-rights advocates proposing arming teachers.

“We’ve reviewed our policies and procedures and we think what we have in place right now works,” Darrell Darnell, the senior associate vice president for safety and security, said in an interview Friday.

But Darnell noted that often the after-action report, released by law enforcement months after a major shooting, is useful for officials to glean lessons from incidents around the country.

How GW prepares
The University provides emergency response handbooks, offers non-mandatory training courses and requires orientation sessions for faculty to prepare them for emergencies, Darnell said.

He said University Police Department officers receive a two-hour block of active shooter training in the special police officer academy before joining the department and are required to attend annual preparedness sessions on the subject.

Security officials also conduct quarterly walkthroughs with Metropolitan Police Department officers at major buildings like the Science and Engineering Hall and the Marvin Center, Darnell said. The procedure was implemented following the 2013 shooting at the Washington Navy Yard, when Darnell said MPD officers did not know the layout of the building, decreasing their effectiveness in responding.

He said GW has hosted four active-shooter training exercises in the last five years, which MPD and District government officials attended.

“We think that we’re doing all that we humanly possibly can to protect our students, our faculty and staff, and we’ll continue to do that,” he said.

The University’s emergency response handbook includes information on how community members should react to a shooting in its “violence/active shooter” section. The document recommends the “get out, hide out, take out” method, which advises students to find an exit strategy, and if one is not available, find a safe place to hide. As a last resort, students should attempt to incapacitate the shooter by “acting aggressively,” yelling or throwing objects.

Darnell said an FBI study conducted in 2013 showed that the vast majority of school shooting incidents are over within five minutes, but law enforcement takes about eight minutes to respond.

“What we’re trying to do is narrow that gap and with the training that our officers take on how to respond or we can notify MPD and get assistance,” he said.

Obstacles to prevention
The University faces unique challenges as an open, urban campus in protecting its property because there are no barriers to keep would-be shooters off campus, Darnell said.

“I don’t have a gate that we can close and say, ‘nobody gets in and nobody gets out,’” he said.

Darnell said UPD and MPD have worked together in the past to respond to emergency situations by splitting procedures and de-escalating the situation quickly, pointing to the January shooting outside GW Hospital.

“Our officers responded to the scene,” he said. “They directed MPD officers when MPD officers got there, and it worked the way it was supposed to work.”

But communication between UPD and MPD has come under scrutiny in the past. There was a “breakdown in procedure” between the two agencies in responding to a pair of gun threats on campus in 2013, and the University and MPD sent conflicting information about a barricade situation on 19th and K streets in 2015.

UPD officers are likely to be the first to respond to an active shooter situation, Darnell said, but UPD officers aren’t allowed to carry weapons. He said officers’ primary goal in an active shooter situation is to get as many people as possible to safety. He declined to directly say if UPD officers would be expected to confront a shooter without a weapon, saying they would be expected “take whatever action they think is necessary to mitigate the situation.”

“We’ve given them the training that they need to protect themselves and hopefully get as many people out of harm’s way that they can,” he said.

He said the relatively low crime rates in areas near campus – particularly the number of weapon related incidents – justify policies that prevent officers from carrying weapons. Crime on campus decreased nearly a third from 2011 to 2016.

David Rosenbloom, a public health professor at Boston University, said steps like banning the sale of assault weapons and instituting universal background checks for gun purchases would be effective, especially when campus officers are not allowed to be armed.

“None of the armed guards have prevented any of these things,” he said, referring to mass shootings.

He added that only some of the officers at BU are armed, but all of them are fully trained to carry guns. Universities like Northeastern and Tulane permit some campus police officers to carry weapons.

Debate on arming faculty
Amid an intense debate over gun control, President Donald Trump and the National Rifle Association have both proposed arming teachers to deter shooters and stop incidents as they occur. Experts have widely panned the policy, saying it won’t dissuade school shooters and adds other safety risks.

Darnell said studies indicate that arming community members, whether faculty or students, wouldn’t deter mass shooters because many intend to die in the shootings anyway. But he said the University considers everything “humanly possible” to protect the community.

No one is permitted to carry guns on campus unless they receive “prior authorization” by the UPD chief or are a military official or federal security agent already authorized to carry weapons, according to the University’s firearms and weapons policy.

John Banzhaf, a public interest law professor, said arming at least some teachers should be considered a viable solution to hinder gun violence, along with other deterrence proposals like active shooter trainings and defense sprays.

“We know that many of these shooters do not intend to survive, many of them do intend to be shot down by a cop,” Banzhaf said. “It’s simply common sense that if you’re going to be shot down by history teacher, it’s less glamorous than the cops.”

Arkansas, Mississippi and Georgia are among 10 states that allow concealed weapons on college and university campuses, according to research by the National Conference of State Legislators.

Carlton Larson, a professor of constitutional law at University of California, Davis, said guns on campus can cause safety issues if the guns were to be misplaced, discharged accidentally or potentially stolen.

“Even well-trained police officers do not do this well, and the time and money it would take if we were talking about arming everybody would be extraordinary,” Larson said.

Daina Eglitis, an associate professor of sociology and international affairs, said arming teachers is a distraction from more serious gun control proposals and would create more potential for lethal accidents and misunderstandings.

“Schools are not prisons, teachers are not prison guards and weapons do not belong in the classroom,” she said.

Brielle Powers contributed to reporting.

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