MU Police Department class on school shootings emphasizes group action

Monday, February 27, 2012 | 4:35 p.m. CST; updated 1:01 p.m. CST, Wednesday, February 29, 2012

COLUMBIA — Andrea Young remembers walking to class on the Virginia Tech campus that morning.

At 9:30, she went to her technical writing class in Shanks Hall. A classmate noticed an alert on the Virginia Tech website: Someone on campus was armed.

Leading causes of death for ages 15-24

The leading cause of death among people ages 15-24 are:

  1. Motor vehicle accident (death rate is 17.8 per 100,000)
  2. Accident of some other type (10.9 per 100,000)
  3. Assault (all homicides: 11.2 per 100,000)
  4. Intentional self harm (suicide: 10.1 per 100,000)
The data are from 2009.

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Loud speakers blared announcements that no one could understand because of echoes and feedback. Someone came into the classroom and said to stay inside for safety — people had died.

In the end, 33 people died and 25 were counted among the injured. April 16, 2007, would be remembered as the date of the deadliest school shooting in U.S. history.

Most of the violence had takenplace just a block from where Young took shelter with her classmates. She wonders how she would have reacted if she had been in Norris Hall, where many of the shootings took place, instead of Shanks.

"It would be a foreign situation," she said. "You never know what you’re going to do until you're in that situation."

Imagining the unimaginable underlies a new MU Police Department-sponsored class called "Citizens' Response to Active Threat Incidents." It explores ways to respond to a shooting or violent situation at school, work or in public.

MU Police Sgt. April Colvin, who will teach the class, and other MU officers attended training through a company called Response Options and studied a program called ALICE, which stands for alert, lockdown, inform, counter, evacuate. It has been used in elementary and high schools and was tweaked slightly for the university setting, but the concepts are the same. Other Missouri schools that have used the training include Southeast Missouri State University and the University of Central Missouri.

Colvin said she will try to give students, staff and faculty the tools they need to make decisions on their own. "The goal of the class is to let you know that you don't have to hide and wait," she said.

Part of the class is a discussion of what could occur in such an event, and the other part is a simulation of a shooting. Colvin said that a school shooting is not like a hostage situation where people can try talking to the shooter. A shooter's goal is to shoot as many people as he or she can, so the key is to find methods of distraction.

The best thing to do is leave the building immediately. If that's not a safe option, Colvin said, the class encourages people to secure the room they're in.

There's also the "active threat" part of the class where an "attacker" comes in and participants react.

Colvin said throwing an object could be a distraction to subdue a shooter or help someone escape. The natural response to getting hit by an object — such as a book or a piece of trash — is to flinch, moving the gun from a target. That's the time to take group action, which is taught during the simulation part of the class. Police may not arrive immediately, so participants are taught to consider swarming the assailant and attacking. 

"Safety is everybody's responsibility," Colvin said. "(Police) can't be everywhere at once ... Be prepared to act when the time comes."

Still, are people likely to remember what they learn in the class in an actual emergency?

"I think they are likely to remember the conflicts," she said. "When you actually physically do (the exercises), it will drive the point home."

Split-second decision-making

According to 2009 data from the Division of National Vital Statistics, a person who dies between the ages of 15-24 is most likely to be the victim of a motor vehicle accident. The second leading cause of death in the age group is from some other type of accident. Assault (homicide) ranks third, but the number of school shooting homicides is not provided.

In the unlikely event of a school shooting, what makes the difference between acting — or not acting — to stop a gunman? 

In an article published by the American Psychological Association last year, Zeno Franco and Kathy Blau of Palo Alto University and Philip Zimbardo of Palo Alto University and Stanford University write that "most people are capable of heroism with the right mindset and under certain conditions that call for heroic action." It could be a friend, a teacher, a student or anyone who has deeply held standards for behavior in a given situation. 

In the article, called "Heroism: A Conceptual Analysis and Differentiation Between Heroic Action and Altruism," the authors write that when physical risk is a factor, it comes down to split-second decision-making. The choice is made in "complete aloneness, even if it is in the presence of others."

Sorting through what happened

Andrea Young lost three friends in the Virginia Tech massacre.

She is now 26. After graduating in 2007, she worked at a lawyer’s office and taught piano in the evenings. Recently, she got married and moved to Chesterfield, Va. Two weeks ago she started a job at Capital One in property and real estate management. Life has moved on. Still, she said she sometimes thinks of the tragedy. Related incidents bring back memories, including a shooting last year in a parking lot on Virginia Tech’s campus.

"I think what (MU is) doing is excellent," Young said of the new class.

"Virginia Tech was unprecedented. You just don't expect something like that to happen," she said. "If there had been an initiative in place…it might have benefited Virginia Tech."

Colvin will teach the next class, which is free, from 5:30 to 9:30 p.m. on March 22 at the MU Police Department. She encourages as many people as possible to sign up for the class because the simulation is more realistic with a crowd. 

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