A Gaston County martial arts instructor held a seminar a week ago for teachers about how to respond in a school shooting. First grade teachers, school nurses, and administrators practiced how to defend a classroom should a shooter try to enter, and how to fight back. Similar events have been popping up across the country, run by martial arts gyms, firearms training centers, and even schools, in the wake of Sandy Hook.
Imagine every teacher you’ve ever had—of all ages, shapes, and sizes— wearing workout clothes and straddling pillow-sized martial arts pads with grim expressions on their faces. In one room, Ken Glenn, an instructor at Ryan Hoover’s Extreme Karata in Gastonia, shows 20 educators how to hit.
“First of all, we’re going to work on palm strikes,” Glenn says, slapping his palm. “The meaty part of your hand, palm, and you’re going to work on putting the palm, into the hand.”
Then: “Elbows—drop it on them.” Glenn grunts like a tennis player as he demonstrates hitting the pad with his elbow. The twenty teachers join in, hunched over their pads, grunting, and throwing elbows.
In another room, the organizer of the event, Ryan Hoover, demonstrates options for attacking a gunman bursting through a classroom door.
“You’ve got chairs; you’ve got books; you’ve got scissors. When he comes through that door—bam!” Hoover makes a stabbing gesture. And then looks around the room at his audience. They stand together in a corner of the room, lips clenched, shoulders hunched, arms crossed around themselves.
“Look at you cringing,” Hoover says. “I understand it, I do. You didn’t get into teaching for this. This is not what you got into teaching for. I understand that. But, this is where we are.”
While some shy away from the brutality, everyone has determined that this is essential information, just in case.
“I just want to be able to protect myself and other kids at the school in situations that may come up,” says Ginny Hoppe, a custodian at South Point High School in Belmont.
In October 2008, the Department of Homeland Security created the handbook “Active Shooter: How to Respond.” It instructs the reader, as a last resort, to act as aggressively as possible. Hoover based his seminar on this principle. Events similar to Hoover’s have been held in Maryland, Texas, New York, Tennessee, and Florida among others.
In the other room: “I want you to think in terms of ‘this is a person that’s come and is trying to kill you,’ trying to kill your kids,” says instructor Ken Glenn. “You’re going to do damage to them. I’ve shown you palm strikes, I’ve showed you hammer fists, elbows, beat the head on the ground. You’re going to use all of those.”
“GO! GO! GO!” He shouts in a drill sergeant voice, and the teachers fall on the black leather pads with their fists and elbows.
“This is inadvertently just going to intensify anxiety and a sense of being unsafe,” says Jonathan Cohen, the president of the National School Climate Center in New York.
He worries that in the rush to prevent another atrocity like Sandy Hook, schools will sacrifice their students’ sense of feeling safe for security.
“We’ve known for decades that when students don’t feel safe this powerfully undermines their ability to learn and even develop in healthy ways,” Cohen says.
Cohen agrees schools need to prepare for crises, but he points to social measures, in particular anti-bullying and violence prevention, as the most impactful.
Teresa Little just finished tackling a “shooter”—one of Hoover’s instructors, wearing a padded vest and
helmet, and holding a rubber, orange assault rifle.
“It was out of my comfort zone, but I feel like I could do it,” says Little, a home economics teacher at Forestview High School. “I’m 51 years old and about all the activity that I do is walk. I’m not real aggressive, but I think there comes a time when someone is threatening me that I need to do what I can to go after them.”
“I think it’s completely unrealistic to assume that with one training session someone would be able to physically disarm an opponent who has the intent to kill,” says Ed Monaghan, a Los Angeles-based self-defense expert and martial arts instructor.
Monaghan has taught defensive tactics to police and the DEA officers. He says it takes an incredible amount of practice to prepare for the fear and adrenaline of a real encounter, particularly an assailant with a gun.
“That’s why SWAT teams run scenarios as realistic as possible—the same thing with Special Forces,” he says. “They have to make it as real as they possibly can, because once they get in the field and something actually happens, they’ve run through the scenario before— a million times—and, hopefully, their training takes over.”
But Monaghan says that does not invalidate seminars like Hoover’s; some training is better than none, and it can get educators thinking about options to protect their students.
“You can’t just bury your head in the sand and hope that it will go away,” says Monaghan. “So, building an effective strategy against these things, at least gives you a launch pad.”
In Gaston County, police and the school board have created a task force to update safety standards. Teacher training is one of the components they’re looking at, and Ryan Hoover has been invited to speak. Hoover also plans to bring his seminar to Charlotte.
Ben Bradford joined Morning Edition Host Duncan McFadyen to talk more about school safety.
MCFADYEN: Ben, that seminar in your story showed teachers how to fight a gunman. That’s a pretty daunting concept—is it just this instructor’s idea that this is something we should train teachers, or is it more widespread?
BRADFORD: It’s definitely more widespread. As I mentioned in the piece, there have been similar seminars around the country, including at private schools. I don’t know of any public schools doing it. But, there was general agreement among the teachers, afterward, that it’s something they plan to advocate for at their schools, along with other things that Hoover showed, like ways to lockdown a classroom.
MCFADYEN: Most schools practice lockdown drills, just like fire drills. What do they practice?
BRADFORD: Generally, teachers are taught to hide students in their classrooms, close and lock the door, and move everyone to “the safest part of the room.” I talked to Captain Bill Melton of the Gaston County Police about what that means:
MELTON: We’re saying an area that provides maximum protection. I don’t know what that would be—every classroom environment is different.
BRADFORD [to Melton]: Do you give them examples?
MELTON: Not at this point, not to my knowledge, that hasn’t been done.
BRADFORD: You can hear in Melton’s description one of the big criticisms from the self-defense experts I spoke with: current lockdown procedures are vague, they don’t match what we know about how shooters operate, and sometimes they even defy common sense. At the seminar, Hoover read out one Gaston County protocol that says if students are outside and a shooter enters the building, they should go back inside and lock themselves in a classroom. Hoover says that’s ridiculous; get away from a building with a gunman.
MCFADYEN: What were some of the other ideas they bounced around?
BRADFORD: They also talked about how schools could add basic security to classrooms, like deadbolts to the door, for instance. Now, both Gaston and Charlotte-Mecklenburg schools are in the process of updating their safety procedures. For CMS, that’s mostly adding security cameras, fencing, and intercom systems—making sure no one unwanted gets into a school in the first place. In Gaston County, Capt. Melton, who we just played a clip from, is the co-chair of a new safety task force. They’ll issue new standards in March.
MCFADYEN: WFAE’S Ben Bradford, thanks for joining us.