December 14 marked the five-year anniversary of the immensely tragic Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, in which 26 children and educators in Newtown, Connecticut were killed by a gunman. Officials throughout the country have reflected back on Sandy Hook and the teachers who died to protect children. “There was something about Sandy Hook,” said Telena Wright, superintendent of schools in Argyle, Texas, whose district has stepped up security measures since that shooting. “It was such a massacre that I think it captured the attention of school employees and school administrators and police officers that work in schools across the nation.”
Given its timing, the anniversary of the massacre provides somber punctuation on a difficult year that was mired in extremely violent tragedies. However, as we close out the year by coming together with our loved ones, we can approach the new year with a sense of resolve: We truly can work together to prevent – or at least mitigate – targeted violence.
Preventing Tragedy: Where Preparedness Saved Lives
In mid-November, a gunman embarked on a shooting rampage in a small, unincorporated town in northern California. The attacker, who had already murdered several individuals, including his wife and two neighbors, attempted to enter Rancho Tehama Elementary School. But preparedness prevented a potentially enormous tragedy, with school officials crediting their drills, quick action by staff and parents, and a measure of good fortune for ensuring that no one was killed.
A father and his 5-year-old daughter were standing outside before school when they heard a sudden pop. While the father thought it was a firecracker, the sound was jarring enough that some children dropped to the ground. When the school secretary heard two more bangs, she announced a total lockdown.
A teacher called for all individuals to get inside. Everyone quickly made it into classrooms, except for one young girl who remained across the playground, too scared to move. A parent ran to the child, scooped her up and ran her inside. He looked out the window, and the teacher told him to move away. The blinds fell back into place as he stepped back, and bullets began smashing through. All the while, the children didn’t move or make a sound. Just as they had practiced.
Lockdowns like the one that helped save lives at Rancho Tehama Elementary, along with active shooter training, are now as commonplace as fire drills. Buzzers and locks have fortified school doors that were once left wide open. The sight of police officers, even in elementary schools, is now common. Some districts now even allow staff members to carry weapons at school, which they believe provides an added layer of security. The administrative actions that day may have saved countless lives. It was a tremendous testament to importance of preparedness.
Our Commitment: Providing Critical Support
Our firm experienced its own success stories in preventing targeted violence in 2017. On numerous occasions, we were able to develop sufficient information that a subject was deemed an imminent threat to our clients, requiring complex case management plans. As just one example, one of our subjects attempted to solicit another individual to hire someone to kill his soon-to-be ex-wife. We supported our client by providing ongoing personal protection, maintaining a liaison with the courts and family, and accompanying the subject with a personal escort to a court-ordered mental health facility.
We designed workplace violence prevention programs for a major DHS law enforcement and regulatory agency, and for numerous small-, medium- and large-sized companies. We provided case consultation psychological services for federal agencies, defense contractors and Fortune 500 Companies by using our psychological, social media and law enforcement liaison experience. We even established a 24/7 hotline for our clients to handle subjects whose behavior had been potentially escalating toward violence.
As part of our workplace violence prevention training this year, we have conducted threat management team trainings for auto manufacturers, defense contractors, federal agencies and the space industry. We have incorporated the unique concept of psychodrama, in which we illustrate actual cases our clients have experienced by using a live actor playing the role of the concerning employee. This training enables departments to work together in an interdisciplinary process and interview.
As our firm continues to support the private and public sectors in designing and training targeted violence prevention programs, we always emphasize that perpetrators of workplace violence incidents typically do not make direct threats prior to an incident. We know all too well that they do, in fact, exhibit behaviors that concern others. Unfortunately, in most cases, such behavior is never reported to security or law enforcement. Underreporting warning signs of workplace violence can be even more problematic with companies or government agencies that have security clearances as part of their critical national security mission.
The success of consistent workplace violence prevention programs relies on comprehensive assistance to help employees with their problems – through counseling, treatment or other early intervention. The goal should be to help employees restore acceptable behavior or, if unsuccessful, to remove them from the workforce before they can do harm.
Available Resources: Citizen Engagement Matters
Our federal government has developed highly useful resources on targeted violence for the general public. In the summer of 2017, DHS unveiled its Active Shooter Preparedness Program webpage, reminding all of us that shooter incidents are often unpredictable and evolve quickly. The site introduced a highly effective active shooter video that provides realistic, operationally relevant advice on how to react to an active shooter.
The website has a clear message: “Anyone can play an integral role in mitigating the impacts of an active shooter incident,” underscoring that DHS aims to enhance “preparedness through a whole community approach by providing products, tools, and resources to help you prepare for and respond to an active shooter incident.”
2018: Stepping Forward with Resolve and a Clear Purpose
We reflect with profound sadness on the tragic acts of targeted violence that occurred this year, from the sniper attack in Las Vegas to the church massacre in Sutherland Springs, Texas. But we can take some solace in the fact that many acts of targeted violence were prevented in 2017 based on lessons learned and best practices established in the aftermath of previous tragic incidents.
Nothing we can do will bring the victims of targeted violence back to life or alleviate the unspeakable grief experienced by those victims’ loved ones. The least we can do is honor those individuals by working tirelessly to save as many lives as possible – wherever and however we can. By implementing preventive programs based on lessons learned from the past, 2018 truly can mark a positive turning point in our society’s struggle against targeted violence.