Thursday, March 5, 2009

Active Shooters

When I started thinking about what to write as the inaugural post for this blog, I did not imagine it would be on this subject. I figured it would be on the educational component of the stimulus package, the place of adjuncts on college campuses, the midterm grading blues, or some other timely issue. But when I arrived on campus this morning I had an email from university administrators instructing the faculty of Upper Midwest State University (UMSU) that they had to take an online "active shooter" training program to prepare us in the event a deranged student launches an attack like those at Columbine High School, Virginia Tech and other educational facilities. So this is the topic that has occupied my mind today (when I haven't been grading midterms).

Honestly, I have no problem with the administration and public safety creating a plan of action in case such a terrible event were to happen. It demonstrates a responsibility to the people of the institution and an attempt to protect the university from lawsuits. In fact, I feel more confident knowing that the institution is thinking about this potential problem than if they said or did nothing.

It is in the public discussion and gravity they give the issue that bothers me. For the past year or so UMSU administrators have blown a lot of hot air over constructing these plans, arguing--as they did again in the online training program today--that "active shooters" are "considered one of the most dangerous threats on a college campus." No one has identified who "considers" it to be so--I have little doubt it is the private companies specializing in selling related services--but it seems like hyperbole to me.

To be a "most dangerous threat," frequency, immanence, and gravity seem like prerequisites. Such an event would be grave indeed. But these tragedies do not occur often, despite the vivid press coverage. Even the Center for Personal Protection and Safety, who produced the required video, likens the probability of being in such a situation to being struck by lightening (a Google search revealed various probabilities between 1:84,000-600,000). So these events are not frequent, and without specific cause, it is irrational to live with a sense a shooter is imminent.

If an active shooter scenario is a "most dangerous threat," then why does the training stop short of the most important component, according to the film: rehearsal. Through the film we are instructed to be aware of our surroundings and to prepare for potential active shooters but that only by rehearsing will we be fully ready to confront the crisis if one appears. (I particularly appreciated the strategies to use to take out the assailant.) However, other faculty and staff I talked to who went through the training largely skipped through the slide show, coming out the other end no better off than when they began the program.

Universities must acknowledge that they are pursuing a low-cost strategy for a low-probability scenario and not create a simmering sense of dread. It is far more likely that I or a student will be hit by a car walking to class (or hit someone driving to class), or have to evacuate a building because of a fire. With an office in an administrative building, I am most concerned about fire. Even more so since I learned that we are not allowed to have classes meet in my building because it does not meet the fire code. (So it is ok to have loads of faculty and administrators with only a couple exits, but not an additional 20-30 students?) Yet I have never been instructed to participate in a fire drill, either in my office building or the buildings in which I teach.

As academic institution move forward on this issue, I encourage them to do so with honesty and a sense of realism.

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