Safety & Security (Protecting Campus Resources)

Fear Itself

Winston Chruchill changed the course of history when he convinced the British people that the seemingly unstoppable German military could be stopped, vowing to “fight in the streets” if need be. While the dangers to Great Britain were unprecedented in the nation’s history, Churchill understood the dire need to replace the fear that gripped England with a burning desire to defeat very deadly and heavily armed foes. Though the challenges we face in higher education security are far less daunting than what the British faced in World War II, I believe we could take a cue from Churchill’s approach. Though he needed to inform the British people of many frightening facts to unite his country, he understood the need to create resolve instead of abject fear.

Focus on Survival

While people who experience first-hand incidents like mass casualty school shootings will typically experience significant fear, inadvertently teaching people that they are likely to die in a school violence incident is completely counter to what law enforcement officers, fire service professionals and military personnel are taught. Trainers in these fields teach trainees that they can and should focus on surviving deadly encounters. In short, the men and women who face the potential for violent death on a regular basis are taught that they can survive almost anything. Campus violence training should be no different in this regard. Campus officials should diligently try to put themselves in the shoes of the recipients of messages being received by target audiences.

During more than 40 campus security assessments since the Aurora, CO, theater shooting and the Sandy Hook Elementary School attack, we have encountered a startling number of campus employees who tell us they are quite afraid that they may be killed in an act of campus violence. For example, we have had numerous campus employees tell us that they expect to die if there is ever an active shooter in their school. As with commercial aviation crashes, many people presume that most occupants of planes that crash die, when in reality the data tells a completely different story. Just as the majority of building occupants in mass casualty school violence incidents survive, Ben Sherwood, author of The Survivors Club: The Secrets and Science that Could Save Your Life tells us that 95.7 percent of passengers survive commercial plane crashes. The intensive media focus on mass casualty plane crashes shapes our perception because the media coverage we see usually involves those rare instances where most or all of the passengers on a downed plane are killed.

Change Preconceived Beliefs

Similarly, media coverage of the Sandy Hook incident has often included statements that there was nothing school officials could have done to prevent the deaths that occurred. I have had dozens of K–20 educators tell me that they had accepted this view as a fact prior to our training. One Connecticut schoolteacher whose child survived the Sandy Hook incident told me that she had been so gripped by fear after the attack, she felt nauseous at the start of every school day. She told me that she had felt she had no control over her fate. She had resigned herself to the idea that she and her students would likely die if a gunman came to her school. At the end of the training she reported that once she learned evidence-based concepts to enhance survival, she felt considerably more control over her own safety and that of her students. While she understands that no measures can offer a 100 percent guarantee, she now knows there are things she can do to dramatically improve safety in her classroom.

Campus officials and community public safety officials should consider thoroughly the messages they send when it comes to campus safety topics. A careful balance can improve the effectiveness of these efforts. Keeping in mind that information that might not cause anxiety in one student or campus employee could create conditions of near panic in another can also be critical. It can be extremely challenging to achieve an appropriate balance that helps raise awareness appropriately while not “shutting down” people with confusion or fear.

Craft the Message

Take care not to increase fear as we try to raise awareness. Carefully considering not only what information is presented, as well as how it is presented, can considerably impact survivability. Inaccurate or sensational media coverage has already done extensive damage to the ability of school employees, parents and students to react effectively when catastrophic events occur. Significant research exists to provide a crystal-clear message. Excessive fear and subsequent panic really can kill.

This article originally appeared in the April 2014 issue of College Planning & Management.

About the Author

Michael S. Dorn has helped conduct security assessments for more than 6,000 K-12 schools, keynotes conferences internationally and has published 27 books including Staying Alive – How to Act Fast and Survive Deadly Encounters. He can be reached at www.safehavensinternational.org.

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