When The Shooting Stops: Recovery From Active-Shooter Events For K-12 Schools

Doug Berglund


Since Columbine, many schools and public safety agencies have focused their attention on improving response protocols to active-shooter incidents.[1] The attention applied to response, while appropriately applied, has come at the expense of a focus on recovery. In spite of the increasing trend of active-shooter incidents at K-12 schools, emergency planning has no national standards requiring a focus on the recovery phase. In some states, requirements for school emergency planning are limited to fire and lockdown drills. Without mandates for emergency planning, the depth and breadth of such plans varies. Barely half the states require a crisis plan for schools, and even fewer provide criteria needed to build a comprehensive plan that will meet all phases of the recovery process.[2] In most K-12 active-shooter incidents, the response is over in minutes, the recovery for school staff and the victims’ families may take years. The planning efforts for disaster recovery in schools must become a priority focus for schools and school districts.

Schools are continuing to operate with a false perception that they are prepared for a crisis such as an active-shooter type event. In reality, most crisis plans—if in place— identify lockdown procedures and a site selected to serve as a relocation facility if the need to evacuate students arises. While both actions are important, they are shortsighted as the means for readiness in the event of an active-shooter incident. This thesis explores the emergency recovery process in several K-12 active-shooter events. The purpose is to examine past events for best practices in recovery and to identify where gaps and challenges in the recovery process were the result of insufficient recovery planning.


The research was driven by the questions: what are the most important elements of active-shooter recovery for K-12 schools and how can we learn from previous incidents to inform measures of effectiveness in recovery? Six sample studies of past active-shooter events at K-12 schools were examined: Columbine High School, Sandy Hook Elementary School, Chardon High School, Rocori High School, Marysville-Pilchuck High School, and Santee High School. The samples were selected intentionally to vary in details ranging from the size of the school district population to the number of fatalities by the assailants’ hand. Also considered was the location of the incidents in relationship to their region of the country. The geographic diversity was also intentional; its purpose was to demonstrate that the risk of an active-shooter incident is not determined by population, economics, or level of preparedness. Additionally, the incidents occur over a span of 17 years prior to the start of this research. The long span of time was also selected purposefully, to examine the impact made by events prior and whether or not those lessons learned had influence on schools’ planning efforts toward recovery.


The research was consistent in that no schools in the selected samples had a comprehensive recovery plan in place that identified all phases of recovery. Common elements of concern witnessed by the schools as they moved through the recovery process were relocation of students and subsequent reunification with parents, length of school closure and when to resume classes, and concern for the mental health of students and faculty coping with the aftershock of a violent incident. Research also revealed a gap between known best practices in emergency recovery planning and the implementation of comprehensive plans to build preparedness for active-shooter events. The research provided evidence that most schools nationwide have access to effective crisis planning tools and guidance supplied through various government agencies, but the practical implementation of said guidance is not being employed. Successful management of an active-shooter recovery is difficult to measure as each situation is unique and recovery time may take years. However, research indicates the transition from phase to phase in the recovery process is less turbulent when plans for the process are in place prior to the incident’s occurrence.


A historical view of the timeline of K-12 active-shooter events in the last 50 years indicates a trend of continued violence against America’s children while attending school. Schools, of their own volition, are not accepting the responsibility to incorporate comprehensive recovery planning into their emergency crisis plans. An active-shooter incident can happen at any school in any city; steps must be taken to ensure compliance with recommendations provided by governments. Several recommendations are proposed through local, state, or national mandates to assure consistency. It is further recommended that states facilitate the mandates through state statutes, possibly by attaching them to state aid funding.

  • Schools must develop comprehensive crisis plans to include a recovery annex.
  • Schools must submit a progressive five-year plan for drills and exercises that incorporate the plan doctrine.
  • Districts must designate an emergency management coordinator with emergency preparedness as the primary job function.
  • All personnel employed by the district must be trained in the Incident Command System to the level of ICS-100 and renew certifications every three years.


Reference List


Ashby, Cornelia M. Emergency Management: Status of School Districts’ Planning and Preparedness. GAO-07–821T. Washington, DC: Government Accountability Office, 2007. http://web.a.ebscohost.com.libproxy.nps.edu/​ehost/​pdfviewer/​pdfviewer?vid=4&sid=2654ef50-5642-4837-b710-18f0dac2a183%40sessionmgr4006&hid=4112.

Ashby, Cornelia, and William O. Jenkins Jr. Emergency Management: Most School Districts Have Developed Emergency Management Plans, but Would Benefit from Additional Federal Guidance. GAO-07-609. Washington, DC: Government Accountability Office, 2007, 1.

Smith, E. Reed, and John B. Delaney, “A New Response,” Journal of Emergency Medical Services, March 18, 2014, http://www.jems.com/ems-insider/​articles/2014/02/a-new-response.html.

[1] E. Reed Smith and John B. Delaney, “A New Response,” Journal of Emergency Medical Services, March 18, 2014, http://www.jems.com/​ems-insider/​articles/​2014/​02/​a-new-response.html.

[2] Ashby, Cornelia, and William O. Jenkins Jr. Emergency Management: Most School Districts Have Developed Emergency Management Plans, but Would Benefit from Additional Federal Guidance. GAO-07-609. Washington DC: Government Accountability Office, 2007, 1.

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