At the 2014 NASRO conference in California, Kristina Anderson, survivor of the Virginia Tech shooting, shared her story and advocacy for safer schools. Michelle Gaye, mother of Josephine Gaye, one of the Sandy Hook angels, spoke at the conference as well. These speakers reflected on some of the violent tragedies in schools that are forever burned into our collective memory. Read more about the conference here. The only thing that we can do now is learn from these horrible events and make schools a safer place for students. From a law enforcement perspective there are many lessons that can be taken from these terrible tragedies. Here are three major realizations that have been gleaned from the Columbine, Virginia Tech, and Sandy Hook shootings that can be used to make schools safer today.

1.  Law Enforcement should NOT wait for SWAT to arrive before entering the school.

This was the fateful lesson of the Columbine Shooting. Law enforcement began to arrive on scene within minutes but remained outside of the building securing the perimeter of the school. First responders later reported a feeling of helplessness as their commanding officers instructed them to wait for SWAT to arrive and they were stuck outside listening to the gunshots. In the end, 13 people were killed and 24 were injured, not counting the killers.

The attackers killed themselves after they heard law enforcement enter the building. The lesson here: don’t wait for SWAT to engage the threat. This event led to a transition in law enforcement training to small team tactical entry. (The ALICE Training Institute teaches that this solution is not enough and offers solo-engagement training called RAIDER, which is only available to police and security forces).

2. Law Enforcement must enter the building as quickly as possible.

The tragedy of the Virginia Tech shooting illustrated the importance of a timely response and immediate penetration of the building. Before the Virginia Tech attack began, two SWAT teams were on campus and police were already on campus investigating a double homicide. When calls came in about the shooting, officers only had to travel across campus to Norris Hall. Officers arrived at the hall 3 minutes after the attack began. Police attempted to enter the first doors, which were chained closed. They moved on to the second set of doors, also chained. The third set was chained as well. Finally, the fourth set of doors was only locked, not chained. Law enforcement shot the lock and entered the building 8 minutes after the attack began; which meant that 5 minutes of the attack could have been prevented. The attacker killed himself after hearing that the police had entered the building. The lesson we learned from this tragedy is that law enforcement needs to enter the building as quickly as possible through the first entry that they find. They should use any means necessary to get into the building and engage the threat as quickly as possible.

3. Civilians are the real first responders, so civilian training not just law enforcement training, is necessary to save lives.

The Sandy Hook tragedy still weighs heavy on our nations’ hearts. This horrific attack on early elementary-aged students was a reality that most never thought possible, the callous murder of 5 and 6 year old children in one of the safest locations that exists, a school. This specific event illuminated our naivety that this type of attack could never happen and it exposed a weakness in that national thought towards school safety: the belief that police and law enforcement were always the first responders to an attack. What we have come to realize is that the civilian populations onsite are the real first responders. They are the students, staff, administrators, and SROs, and these people all need to receive survival training.

ALICE training—alert, lockdown, inform, counter, and evacuate—is civilian training based on proactive response options that can increase the likelihood of survival during violent intruder events. We recognize that during these terrible events, the actual first responders must be authorized and empowered to make life-saving decisions rather than just wasting precious moments waiting for law enforcement to arrive and save them.

We have come a long way in dealing with active shooter situations, particularly in law enforcement response. Our next biggest challenge is making sure that civilians are better trained to make their own life-saving decisions.

To learn more about ALICE Training, click here.