‘Both Sides of Sun Tzu’: A Navy SEAL and Teacher on School Security

Discussion of security in our nation’s schools has the potential to disintegrate into political theater, skirting confrontation of the factors that are most critical to public education.  While imposing a variety of academic accountability measures, the federal government has failed to fully support local decisions affecting the real and diverse contexts in which learning must occur.  States and schools are left to scramble for crumbs, squeezing local tax dollars to follow through on a variety of essential projects.

Top-down, big-government rhetoric is couched in language promoting equity.  What is equitable about communities struggling to address fundamental needs? Politicians engage in debates about how many rounds should fit into magazines in a series of firearms sideshows. But what kind of action is being directed to protect the most vulnerable targets of firearm violence?

The Art of War

As a young Navy SEAL officer, I was once told, “You will soon find yourself on both sides of Sun Tzu.” In The Art of War, the ancient Chinese master strategist presents the theory for what is now referred to as unconventional or asymmetric warfare, wherein a small force can defeat a larger and mightier opponent by turning the latter’s culture, procedures, laws, and inflexibility into vulnerabilities to be exploited. In today’s warfare, the modern violent non-state actor operates out of this ancient guerilla playbook in a contemporary battlefield that involves physical, moral, and cultural elements. The actor exploits laws of armed conflict, rules of engagement, media, the internet, information systems, treatises, bureaucracy, egalitarianism, democratic political values, indigenous cultural attitudes, and so forth. Thus, the savvy modern asymmetrical David attempts to defeat his Goliath not only in violent, symbolic, and costly attacks, but more insidiously, by causing a slow change of the mightier opponent’s cultural priorities.

As a former Navy SEAL leader, I understand how it feels to be on both sides of Sun Tzu. Ironically, instead of finding myself on the mightier side of Sun Tzu fighting shadowy non-state actors and terrorists, today I find myself situated in another asymmetric battlefield. I’m not chasing down sinister cyber warriors. I’m not on a battlefield of violent non-state actors and fourth-generation warfare. My new battlefield is unsuspecting in its innocence and naiveté; it is a public high school classroom.

Unfortunately, our nation’s teachers find themselves located on a potential battlefield today due to gun violence in the schoolyard. So, while guiding my students though a Socratic Seminar on Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, or Leslie Marmon Silko and post-modernism, or Baroque counterpoint in AP Music Theory, I find it both eerie and ironic that a high school teacher is standing here on today’s new bull’s-eye, or “X.” As we all know, irony is a dead scene. However, I’m not sure which is worse: being on the wrong side of the X, or being on the wrong side of Sun Tzu.

The Changing Education Security Landscape

Most educators are ill-equipped to navigate the shifting terrain of safety in schools today. Schools’ physical architecture, porous culture, and loose security policies still reflect the threat of yesterday, leaving many educators feeling alone out on the X with a sense of disempowerment and resignation. Many educators know that they lack tools and techniques to handle this new brand of violent armed intruder. Even more dangerous, some education leaders feel a false sense of security from grossly inadequate crisis response plans accompanied by deadly complacency.

Whereas federal building codes include strict security parameters, most state building codes include few, if any, security guidelines. Strict state fire and earthquake fire codes can double, triple, and even quadruple building costs. This has helped prevent student deaths by fire since the late 1950s, however it has not helped extinguish gun violence in our schools. The annual national gun violence figures have been trending towards a quarter-million injured and creeping towards 100 students murdered, both individually and in massacres, every year.

There are multiple societal factors that can be attributed to school violence, but most defy easy solutions. In On Killing, Lt. Col. David Grossman explains that the film, music, and video game industries glorify the killing culture.  More disturbingly, violent video games have appropriated the very same techniques of Pavlovian and operant conditioning that the military has used to improve firing rates amongst soldiers in combat from 15% in WWII, to 50% in Korea, to 95% by Vietnam. For the moral 50% of the population who finds killing objectionable but can nevertheless still be trained to do it in self-defense, this isn’t such a problem. However, for the 2% sliver that actually enjoys killing, this has alarming potential consequences for the symbolic target of schools.

Even though the probability of a school shooting massacre is low, it is gradually increasing. Moreover, the combined physical and legal risk has never been higher; therefore, we must prepare thoroughly. There can be no gainsaying that today’s uptick in gun violence statistics clearly rings in a new era of change needed in school security. Today’s successful leadership will be that which can negotiate and manage a changing threat in a way that is active, preventative, creative, flexible, and visionary.

Educators may be on the disadvantageous side of Sun Tzu due to obvious physical vulnerabilities, but the less-apparent vulnerabilities are perhaps the most hazardous. The asymmetric warfare model helps remind that American education leaders can’t get twisted into knots by the threat of a lone rogue sociopath. We cannot allow the single homicidal-suicidal assailant to exploit our vast culture and our widespread vulnerabilities. We must instead know ourselves and know our enemy.

Study our school vulnerabilities meticulously and honestly; decide what we are willing to change and what we are not. We can’t allow our decision-making processes to become encumbered by the many controversial issues or paralyzed by uncertainty and risk. We can’t allow the rogue sociopath to turn American virtues and values upside down.

Gun vs. Mind

When planning to improve school security, educators need to separate gun fact from gun fiction. When it comes to guns, there is no shortage of the latter. Gun cultural mythology generally exaggerates the capabilities of weapons, and more critically, it exaggerates the capabilities of the people who wield them, and entertainment industries continue to glorify killing. The gun violence archetypes abound, and although sometimes exciting and entertaining, most aren’t factually based.  

Fallacy 1. Gun equals superhuman accuracy. The documented low accuracy of professional law enforcement marksmanship during extremely high-stress situations reveals many problems at once. It is very hard to hit a moving target. It is much harder under duress.

Fallacy 2. Gun equals total control of a situation. Although a gun provides enormous leverage, it does not grant supreme control. Yet there are numerous instances of active shooters scenarios where a large group of people waited frozen in terror and then complied, while the single armed assailant proceeded to engage his victims one-by-one.

Fallacy 3. Gunshot wound equals instant death. There are combat wounded veterans who have absorbed a magazine full of rounds and survived. Given the likelihood of surviving a gunshot wound with basic first aid treatment to control bleeding, it is tragic that school shooting victims have unnecessarily died of blood loss and shock due to delayed treatment of what was otherwise a non-lethal gunshot wound. The 1984 San Ysidro McDonald’s massacre is a tragic example where many of the 21 killed (19 wounded) would have survived had the wounded’s bleeding been controlled, or had SWAT snipers been cleared to fire hours sooner.

Fallacy 4. Gun equals solutions. Guns are tools designed for recreation, hunting, protection, and killing; they have a very practical purpose. Yet, when viewed through the lens of domestic asymmetrical warfare, the gun becomes a deadly psychological problem-solving tool for the rogue sociopath; what is more, if it becomes a problem-solving tool for the American public school, the gun becomes an instrument by which the sociopath is allowed to dictate social change.

Arm Guards, not Teachers

Although I grew up very comfortable with the responsible use of firearms as a boy and then later professionally, I still can’t support arming teachers first when there are still so many other more proactive opportunities for improving our security. Arming teachers is far down my list of recommendations for improving security, per balancing return on investment and risk assessment. Although I am entirely comfortable with the idea at a personal level, the difficulty of applying Kant’s universal imperative makes me hesitate to adopt an armed teacher paradigm.

Law enforcement and military -- and particularly special operations forces -- are highly trained in split-second decision-making when applying a spectrum of force, or rules of engagement. Putting neophyte-armed teachers in this potentially volatile situation takes far more professional training and legal considerations than one may first gather at first blush. The devil lurks in the details of the non-massacre yet high-stress situations that many teachers may encounter through a career of situations where lethal force may be tempting yet not warranted. Moreover, people have quite a different subconscious relationship with someone who is armed -- open or concealed. Since so much of the relationships between teachers and students that foster inspiration and learning take place on a subconscious level, it is a gamble to throw a weapon into this interpersonal chemistry. The only situation in which the arming of educators might conceivably be justified is in remote areas where distance and weather significantly delay first responders’ arrival on scene.

Armed guards provide a nearly statistically unassailable deterrent to school shootings. Most campuses have one or more campus assistants who may even be called campus security. They perform a variety of security and ancillary tasks. At least one of them could be professionally trained to be armed. Campus security staff that is unarmed needs to be called something else. Schoolyard killers are not brave and heroic. They seek the path of least resistance to torment and then shoot children execution-style.

These killings have often been preceded by molestation and brutal rapes perpetrated by shooters. Those with access to actual police records know that the sexual element is often under- or unreported. Rape is such a taboo that the media still self-censors. School districts must take a very hard look at arming at least one of the campus assistants, as otherwise they will serve little purpose when needed most. However, arming security guards is political heresy in California, where parents will let their children watch a million TV and video game murders a year, but balk at having one armed guard protect their children's school.

Although Machiavelli warns his prince about being seduced by idealism, on the present issue of gun violence in American schools, we must balance ideals and practical solutions. Providing strategic and tactical solutions to protect a school against the threat of an external or internal active shooter threat is quite a different problem than when security professionals protect officials, VIPs, convoys, fixed installations, energy systems, public events, supply chains, and so forth. The highly porous, dynamic, and open culture of a school is an extremely complex and uncertain situation to manage.

In On Killing, an expert in the psychology of death, Lt. Col. Dave Grossman, reminds: “Death and debilitation by disease or accident are statistically far more likely to occur than death and debilitation by malicious action, but the statistics do not calm our basically irrational fears.” In On the Fear of Death and Dying, Elisabeth Kübler-Ross argues that the human subconscious mind cannot perceive its own natural death and presumes that it must be instigated by an external cause. All of these psychological factors collude and complicate rational reaction to thwarting gun violence in the schoolyard.

School Murderer Profiles

There is a degree of variance in the past profiles of shooting massacre killers; some have been pedophilic adults as in the Amish town of Nickel Mines, PA, whereas others have been pre- and young teens, as in Jonesborough, AK. However, according to Michal Dorn in his book Innocent Targets, all younger killers shared the following qualities:

  1. Perceived feeling of injustice and grievance (70% had been bullied)
  2. Obsession with violent video games and media violence
  3. Persistent themes of violence in schoolwork
  4. Access to guns

Then there are the things that none of them do:

  1. Varsity sports
  2. Student Bbdy leadership
  3. Community groups like church, 4H, etc.
  4. Boy Scouts
  5. JROTC
  6. School band (a handful were forced to join by parents, but soon dropped out)
  7. None willingly participate in structured activities where they must submit to discipline

There is existing research into the criminal pathology of active shooters. There are already school counseling, peer mediation, peer counseling, and anti-bullying programs. There are informants and anonymous tip programs. There are also law enforcement Psychological Emergency Response Team programs. There are healthy school climate programs. There are existing programs that confront the television and violent video game epidemic, such as the Stanford Medical School 10-day TV Turn-off challenge, which has boosted test scores and reduced bullying and obesity in double-blind studies. However, we still need more collective action to synergize these disparate efforts into a systematic program. I refer to this collective effort as psychological engagement, which is perhaps the most critical component of a sound deterrent strategy.

Educators need to be trained how to report students who express particularly violent themes in schoolwork or in discussion. The psychological phases for killers involve: fantasization and ideation; planning; preparation and execution of attack.

U.S. Secret Service argues that it’s hard to tell which phase a potential killer is in; nevertheless, returning work to a student with violent themes gives the student the sense that he has received permission to proceed to the next phase. Unfortunately, this has occurred more than once. A teacher read a student’s paper that was a fantasy about collecting chemicals from the science lab and then poisoning his family. The teacher returned the paper to the student. The fantasy then turned to reality. Educators need to feel empowered by the many uncelebrated success stories of teachers who have led law enforcement to obtain warrants to conduct home searches, but this must be handled very discreetly.

According to David Grossman’s analysis, more school massacres have been prevented than have been successfully carried out.

The lockdown concept is controversial amongst security professionals. The term alone is not a panacea. Regardless, planning to use entirely unsecure rooms for lockdown is grossly negligent. It has proved tragic when teachers and students lock down in a room with glass doors or low-lying windows, and wait there hoping police arrive first. The deadly Columbine library is a lesson never to forget.

Crisis Response Plans must consider designating on- and off-safe areas for evacuations. Evacuation to accessible parking lots is also unwise, since attackers could easily pre-stage a devastating car bomb. Evacuation is uncomfortable to contemplate; nevertheless it is a necessary consideration.

Strategic Recommendations

Following are strategic recommendations for improving school safety that merge case studies, lessons learned, theories, programs, and practical security industry experience. Every active shooter situation has a different calculus; however, a sound school security program should be founded on sound bedrock strategy with an emphasis on prevention. Throughout the daily phases of campus schedule, there needs to be a plan in place to:

  • Discourage targeting through physical security, counter-surveillance, and psychological engagement programs.
  • Provide early warning of planned targeting through physical security, counter-surveillance, and psychological engagement programs.
  • Immediately detect active targeting through physical security, counter-surveillance, and psychological engagement programs.
  • Accelerate lockdown, assessment/evacuation to designated on-site and off-site safe areas.
  • Safeguard and account for students and staff to maximum extent possible.
  • Professionally manage reunification.

Principals must ensure that school site emergency teams are not just committees that permit things to exist only on paper. We must “pray for peace, and prepare for war”: weakness emboldens the potential shooter. Schools must have rigorous plans and tactics in effect for emergencies across the entire spectrum of the daily school schedule.

Following are tactical recommendations organized by physical security and then emergency protocol.

Physical Security Tactical Recommendations:

  • Security Assessment: Conduct thorough physical security assessments to understand your own physical security vulnerabilities. There are plenty of resources for developing these checklists. Know your school.
  • Tiered Security Readiness System: Consider developing tiered security readiness systems as used by military, government, State Department, and other agencies. Security levels of routine; heightened; lock-out (or shelter in place); and lock-down provide leadership with clear triggers and ensuing protocol to help manage uncertainty. Develop a matrix that manages status of doors and windows, gates, vehicular and foot traffic, communication, triggers, and authority to raise and lower readiness states. Ideally, there should always be controlled single point of entry.
  • Mylar Security Window Film: Glass breaks and shatters easily. Security Mylar security adhesive film of 4 mil thickness and higher can make windows very slow to extremely difficult to penetrate without proper tools. Reflective Mylar also reduces targeting and reduces energy costs in warmer climates. The better answer is to replace glass doors, but they should be first on the list to cover.
  • Walkie-talkies: PE and band teachers on outside fields should be issued walkie-talkies to maintain robust communication with the main office.
  • Security Guards: Regularly armed security guards are one of the strongest, if not the strongest, deterrent.
  • Metal detectors: If used, move them around. Keeping them on the same location is a waste of time. Only employ them if there is an armed security guard or police present. An unarmed person should never attempt to disarm an armed or potentially armed individual. It has proven fatal to school staff.
  • Vehicle Access: Gates wide enough to permit vehicle access need close monitoring. Ideally, they should not be open.

Emergency Protocol and Tactical Recommendations:

  • Counter-surveillance: Train staff and campus assistants to vigilantly watch for the signs of active physical, electronic, and phone surveillance. School Resource Officers can provide materials.
  • Signal: Ideally, lock-down signals can be initiated from more than one location with a panic button alert in the event the office is attacked. Lock-down code word signals should not be used to avoid adding unnecessary confusion. It should be clear who has authority to initiate the signal to prevent hesitation.
  • Communication and Teamwork: Ensure teamwork all across the campus during an emergency -- for example, ensuring lockdown alert single redundancy where neighboring teachers call or text each other to ensure their colleague heard the signal. No matter how advanced the signaling technology, security ultimately depends most on the human element.
  • Lockdown and Fire Alarm: Previous attackers have used fire alarms as a weapon to trick students and staff into leaving a safe position. If fire alarms go off during a lock-down, stop, assess and evacuate from designated safe area only when absolutely necessary.
  • Drills: Rigorously rehearse lockdown-specific drills in smaller leadership cells in order to refine emergency protocol outlined in the school Crisis Response Plan. A combined semi-annual fire, earthquake, lockdown, and on-site evacuation drill is inadequate and provides a false sense of comfort.
  • Tactical Movement: As per the Move2Safety model, it is advised that teachers and staff be trained in basic evasive tactical movement. They can be trained in low-crawling, moving in short bursts to cover and concealment: “I’m up, he sees me, I’m down.”
  • Mobile Phone Hazards: Teachers need to ensure students’ mobile devices are powered off to avoid compromise, avoid targeting from a “friend,” and inadvertently detonating a hidden radio firing device as used to detonate explosives. In an emergency, everyone must pay 100% attention to the changing situation and be prepared to react. It is recommended that parents use restraint and not call children, school, or 911 as it instantly cripples the networks.
  • Secure Room Defense: Teachers need to be trained how to fortify their classroom for a heightened defensive posture beyond the usual “lock the door and close the blinds” -- for example, barricading doors with filing cabinets, bookshelves, and heavy furniture. Arrange furniture to confuse, channelize, and delay a determined shooter who breaches a secured door.
  • Last Resort Offense: Although it is controversial, expose teachers to a spectrum of offensive countermeasures for use against an attacker who breaches a locked door in a designated safe area. Their use is ultimately up to the teacher’s judgment, training, and instinct. The Department of Homeland Security reminds us that you always have “the right to fight for your life.”
  • Secure and Safeguard Weapon: It is imperative that if an active shooter is successfully brought down and separated from his weapon, that weapon needs to be secured. There could be a police officer running around the corner, and holding the shooter’s weapon is an invitation to be shot.
  • First Aid: Teachers and staff should be trained in basic first aid and bleeding control. Tourniquets are back after a brief hiatus. Direct pressure is always best.
  • Consultation: Avoid the IKEA syndrome wherein you fall in love with the works of your own hands. There may be parts left over, and your Crisis Response Plan may not be as good as you think. If budgets permit, consider seeking an objective outside security consultant.
  • Self-reliance: Take responsibility for your own security. In the words of former Navy SEAL and Secret Service officer Matt Maasdamm, before the police arrive on scene, “you are your own first responder.”

Program Design Considerations: Security program design considerations could include:

  • Maximize return on investment for facility upgrades, materials, and training based on risk assessments.
  • Coordinate with law enforcement where appropriate.
  • Practical and simplest solutions provided for leaders and school team.
  • Integrate emergency protocol into daily routines as much as possible.
  • Coordinate promulgation of policy, strategy, and tactics though appropriate correspondence channels from district to administrators, faculty, staff, students, and community.
  • Minimum impact on daily campus life.
  • Transparent to students, providing comfort through authentic security.

Why Fund School Security? In spite of the moral reasons for improving school security, the numerous other budget priorities school districts must juggle can cause the probability and risk calculation to become blurred.

Following every school shooting involving serious injury or death, school districts face a second round of attacks: a sense of grief, guilt, and survivor’s remorse often leaving many survivors with lasting PTSD; and an enfilade of costly litigation from families of both killed and emotionally scarred students. Although the probability of a school shooting is low, both data and theory show the chances are gradually increasing for the foreseeable future. Beyond the deadly physical and psychological risks, the potential legal damage is also increasing.

School districts can help manage both physical and legal risk by demonstrating:

  • Robust security policy
  • Comprehensive strategy
  • Effective protocol and tactics
  • Staff training
  • Rehearsal frequency
  • Raised priority as measured by dedicated budget
  • Steps taken to decrease facility vulnerabilities
  • Documentation of above
  • Sound decisions during actual emergency
  • Professional management of aftermath

Although there is no denying that there is always the threat of spurious litigation for even non-lethal scenarios, school-shooting suits will ultimately be weighed against professional testimony. Any upright security expert will make it understood in court that there are few school security tactics that are ultimately undefeatable. Schools can’t be defended in the same manner as military bases, weapons storage depots, and hardened installations. Therefore, schools can only be expected to demonstrate they did everything that could be reasonably asked to protect their students. School districts need to be able to demonstrate they supported their schools in this effort.

With increased national and media attention to school security, there are already efforts to study this social problem. School districts need to ask themselves in which case study they expect to be included: the district that addressed their vulnerabilities and did their best in an emergency; or the school district that failed to address its vulnerabilities and failed to react competently in an emergency. Although the media half-life of school massacres is short, the legal memory is permanent.

Conclusion: Thomas Jefferson wrote to James Madison in 1787: "Above all things I hope the education of the common people will be attended to; convinced that on their good sense we may rely with the most security for the preservation of a due degree of liberty."

I deeply respect the composite American virtues: to question authority and doctrine; to be emboldened by a sense of self-reliance; to be empowered by our own critical thinking; and to be guarded by vigilance. However, these virtues are increasingly challenged in our society today by their correlative vices coupled with a degenerating irresponsibility. Our virtues become criss-crossed and uprooted when we allow ourselves to trust gun mythology and ideology; to be weakened by layers of dependency; to be disempowered by a litigious, intellectual zombie culture; and to be made vulnerable by laziness, complacency, and denial. Sun Tzu would warn us against allowing the rogue sociopath to let us become our own worst strategic accomplice.

Let previous school shootings serve as our lesson today. Let more schools stay on the active side of this menace. Under the best circumstances, more schools can negotiate this changing landscape of school security and avoid slipping down the wrong side of Sun Tzu.

Schools are a glass house. Stepping foot onto most school campuses is a nightmarish experience for a security professional; I know this from personal experience. Federal and state agencies can’t begin offering grants for facility security upgrades and security-oriented professional development fast enough. Floating above in a cloud of denial is irresponsible; partaking in political theater on the issue of security for our nation’s children is far worse, and risks shattering lives across America.