Article Published; Fairburn, R., & Grossman, D., “Preparing for School Attacks.” The Police Marksman, Nov/Dec 2006.

Preparing for School Attacks
by Richard Fairburn and David Grossman  

For those in the emergency response community who thought school attacks were a thing of the past, the recent active shooter incident in Montreal, Canada, and disrupted attack in Green Bay, Wisconsin signaled a loud wake-up call. Just a few days later, hostages were taken in a school in Bailey, Colorado with tragic results and a principle was killed by a student in a Sauk County, Wisconsin high school. The Bailey, Colorado incident was horribly ironic in that a SWAT team from neighboring Jefferson County (the agency in charge of the Columbine response) was called upon to make the hostage rescue assault.

Our school children are at risk from both angry students and determined terrorists. After the Columbine high school attack of 1999, many police agencies adopted and trained some form of “Rapid Deployment” tactic for responding to an active shooter. But, with lack of use and the memory fade induced by time, many departments have allowed their “edge” to become dull. We must program school protection permanently onto our emergency response hard drives.

Understand the Problem

At the end of the 20th Century, the United States suffered a number of high-profile school attacks perpetrated by students. The Columbine attack made the most national news, but was only one of a significant string of violent assaults that continue today. 

The police response to a school attack committed by a student or students is a daunting task. Confusion and panic are rampant at these events and merely identifying and locating the attacker(s) can be a huge problem. However, few of these attackers are hardened killers. In several cases they were brought under control, putting a stop to the killing, with nothing more than verbal commands from an authority figure. The boys at Columbine had trained themselves well enough to exchange gunfire with the police and even clear a malfunctioning weapon to get back in the fight. But, most school and workplace shooters are seeking easy targets, not a gunfight. 

The world watched what happened September 1, 2004, at Beslan, Russia with stunned disbelief, but it has happened in many other nations. Turkey has had over 300 schools destroyed by terrorist attacks. Pakistan, Algeria, and many other nations, in addition to Russia, have experienced brutal school massacres committed by terrorist groups. The groups perpetrating these attacks shared common motivations ... the same motivations that brought us the attacks of September 11, 2001.

One of the most tragic and devastating terrorist acts in Israel was the Ma'alot school massacre in 1974 in which 21 Israeli children were murdered in a brutal terrorist act that set the stage for many subsequent attacks on schools. As a result of this incident, Israel has lived for thirty years with armed security in every school, armed guards on every field trip and sporting event, armored busses and armed security on those busses. Can anyone comprehend what it would cost the United States to have that kind of security for every school, every field trip and every bus in America? You think your school, city, state or nation has budget problems now? 

Col. Grossman (one of the authors of this article) co-authored an article published in the Harvard Journal of Law and Public Policy, which stated that if a series of active shooter terrorist attacks happened in the US, as they have in Israel, we will arm our selves and get on with life – just like Israel. But, you can't arm the kids! Even Israel can't arm its children. If a major terrorist attack on a school is successful, the terrorists can impact every family and every school in America, disrupting our economy and way of life unlike any other conventional attack. It is our job to prevent that and to protect our kids. 

A police response to a terrorist attack may need to be very different from what would work with a incident committed by students. In an August 2002 Pakistani incident, one armed guard drove off four armed terrorists attacking a Christian school. On the contrary, the attackers at Beslan in 2004, were heavily armed and determined to achieve a huge body count ... which they accomplished. One well armed responder might drive off or delay a small-scale terrorist attack, but a well prepared terrorist team could overwhelm all but a military-level response team. The possibility of terrorists in the United States assembling 30 armed attackers without detection is very remote, but even this remote possibility must be taken into consideration.

The sky is NOT falling. This is only one of many things terrorists could do to us. If we over react; if we change our way of life because of the threat of school massacres, then we give way to fear and the terrorists get the victory they desire without having to fire a shot. So, we must strike a balance between preparing for an unthinkable horror without giving way to unreasoned fear. We must respond with a balanced and reasoned "all hazards" approach to this threat. The odds of a school attack in your community are admittedly low. The odds of any given police officer being shot making a traffic stop today are also low, yet we train for that eventuality on a regular basis. If the risk is high, we must train and prepare, no matter the likelihood. To ignore the threat is to live in denial. Consider these “Five D’s:”

In order to avoid falling victim to DENIAL:

  • DETER - Have alert, visible and armed security on site. Train and equip response teams to a high standard and make their capabilities known (though the details of their response techniques should remain classified). Convince the potential attacker they won’t succeed in killing innocent targets if they come to your locale.

  • DETECT - Like Detectives, be ever vigilant for “clues.” Virtually every school attacker, student or terrorist, conducts extensive reconnaissance of their target. They will analyze the availability of ingress and egress points. Questions will be asked about the site’s security preparations. They may photograph and/or sketch the area. Both human and video surveillance can help you pattern these recon missions.

  • DELAY - Harden the target with security checkpoints and random security patrols. Drill lockdown procedures to remove easy targets from their potential kill zone. Make sure the lock-down procedure includes the means to lock the doors to areas of refuge. Avoid the urge to evacuate anyone into an area not proven to be safe from potential snipers or bombs.

  • DESTROY - If they still choose your site as their target ... you must respond quickly and forcefully. An analysis of active shooter incidents by co-Author Richard Fairburn suggests that even a Rapid Deployment team is unlikely to assemble in time to save lives.(1) In most incidents, the only chance available to save lives is an instant response by on-scene personnel or the first arriving officer. At this point we are not just seeking to defeat the attackers. One of the lessons of the 2004 Russain school massacre, as outlined in John Giduck's excellent book, "Terror at Beslan" is that we must attack immediately, with maximum violence, and no intention of pulling back or giving up ground. Attack the enemy hard and fast and DESTROY them before they destroy more innocents.


Make a Plan

Since very little innovative thinking occurs under combat conditions, we must plan and train for the next fight before we’re in it. Rapid Deployment tactics are a prime example. Some have criticized the actions of the police responders at Columbine, yet no police agency in the country had ever anticipated a school attack of that magnitude ... until it happened. The responders at Columbine reacted as they had been trained and, quite frankly, the complications of that incident might not have allowed a significantly different response irregardless of their training.

Most schools and response agencies now strongly recommend a policy of “lockdown.” When we consider how both fire alarms and bomb threats have been used to evacuate victims into the “kill zone” of a prepared outside ambush, perhaps a lockdown is the best initial response to any school threat. Lockdown drills, like fire drills, are now mandated for schools in some states.

Pre-plan your site. Staging Areas, Command Post locations and Reunification Sites should be pre-determined. All resources scheduled to respond to your school should be part of periodic drills ... actual hands-on drills, not tabletop exercises. 

Choose and Train your People Well


Armed security in your school will go far to deter an attack, but if an attack comes, these officers may be the first to be targeted. So, we need a certain type of officer as a School Resource Officer (SRO). At the risk of insulting some, we must state a fact. Some officers are assigned to schools because they are ineffective on the street. Choose your best officers to protect your most valuable property ... your children. SROs must be intelligent, alert, inquisitive and congenial, yet be ready to shift into “combat mode” in an instant. We need “sheepdogs” to protect our “lambs.” Warriors, not wimps guarding our children.

Train your SROs to respond effectively to a threat either alone or as a two-officer team, joining up with the first arriving patrol officer. Consider the controversial option of pre-positioning protective gear and a carbine for these officers in a secure on-site location. We owe these guardians the best survival odds we can provide.

Train Rapid Deployment techniques to the rest of your department. This training should be as stressful and realistic as possible including difficult surroundings, live role players and paintball-type gunfight simulations. Team training must be refreshed at least annually to maintain these perishable skills. 

Train your first-line supervisors to quickly take command at a school violence incident. The supervisor’s first duty is to conduct a rapid problem assessment and sort through the confusing flood of initial intelligence. Their quick analysis of the situation will drive a hasty risk assessment to determine if a response by a single officer or Rapid Deployment team has a chance to reach and neutralize an active shooter. In most cases, we must take immediate action to stop the killing. However, if the on-scene commander identifies a situation like Beslan, with numerous, heavily armed attackers, a delaying action may be the best he can achieve with limited resources. Adding responder bodies to the pile in a noble, yet futile gesture may make the problem even worse.

Stay Vigilant


Once you scale up your school security preparations and response plans, keep them current. Motivate your people to stay sharp and be alert. School attacks, like other violent crimes, tend to ebb and flow in their frequency. We are all shocked back to a high state of awareness after an attack occurs, but the calm periods may require even more vigilance. Our enemies use the lulls to conduct reconnaissance and plan their moves. Remember the DETER and DETECT aspects of our Five “D”s.

The situation is very much like fire protection. The probability of a student being killed or seriously injured by violence is significantly greater than the probability of being killed or seriously injured by fire. No child has been killed by school fire in North America in over a quarter of a century, but in the 2004/2005 school year, 48 people were murdered in American schools. These are usually random acts of violence, or shootings by students as opposed to acts of terrorism, but the defense against terrorist attacks in our schools, as outlined in this article, is largely the same as the defense against school shootings.

Thus, our children are dozens of times more likely to be killed by violence than fire, and thousands of times more likely to be seriously injured by violence as compared to fire. Yet, in any school you can look around and see fire sprinklers, smoke alarms, fire exits, and fire extinguishers. If we can spend all that money and time preparing for fire (and we should, since every life is precious) shouldn't we spend time and money preparing for the thing that is far more likely to kill or injure a child?

The most negligent, unprofessional, obscene words anyone can ever say are: "It will never happen here." When someone asks, "Do you really think there will be a terrorist act or a school shooting here?" Just point to the fire exit and say, "Do you really think there will be a fire here?” No, we don't think there will ever be a fire here. But we would be morally, criminally negligent if we did not prepare for the possibility. And the same is far, far truer of school violence."

About a month after the 9-11 terrorist attacks Col. Grossman was training a group of special operations troops who were headed to Afghanistan. A Special Forces (Green Beret) sergeant came up during one of the breaks and said, "Colonel, we're going to Afghanistan, and we're gonna kick their tails. While we're over there, you tell all those folks you teach, don't let them come kill our kids."

Our servicemen are over there dying for us every day, trying to keep the terrorists on the defense, or as one Marine put it, "To keep it ta hell over there!" The troops believe in what they are doing, and they only ask one thing: "Watch my back and do your job ... don't let them come kill my kids." THAT is what this article is about, and THAT is what WE should be about.

Every day, millions of parents hug millions of kids, their most precious possessions, and send those kids to school, trusting US to keep them alive. So don't just read this article and the books recommended here(2), apply them! Be like the firefighter: put the risk in perspective, pray that it will never happen, know that it COULD happen, and work with all your heart and soul to prevent it from happening. 

It could be YOUR child or grandchild's life that you save.


(1) Report: “Rapid Deployment as a response to an Active Shooter Incident,” Illinois State Police Academy, 2003.

(2) Michael and Chris Dorn's book "Innocent Targets" is required reading for those who would like more information on terrorist attacks on schools in many nations. For more in depth information about the most recent and horrific school massacre in Beslan, Russia, John Giduck's definitive book, "Terror at Beslan" is essential reading.