Responding to an Active Shooter: Premeditated High School Attack Mitigated by Fast-Responding Employees

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A former student of Aztec High School in New Mexico walked through the doors of the school on December 7th armed with a gun and never exited; neither did the two students he shot and killed.

Following the deadly shooting, investigators learned the 21-year-old suspect planned his attack in detail. A thumb drive located on the body of the suspect included a timeline of the event:

1 – 6:20 Work
6:20-7 Pack up
7: 7-30 Prep
7:30 – 8 Walk
8 Die

At 6:51 a.m. on December 7th, the suspect wrote a note also found on the thumb drive:

“If things go according to plan, today would be when I die.
I wait until the school buses are detected, then head out on foot disguised as a student.
I go somewhere and gear up, then hold a class hostage and go apesh**t, then blow my brains out.

Work sucks, school sucks, life sucks.

I just want out of this s**t.

F**k this state, it really is bad. Think I’m insane? I’m actually more rational, peaceful and less loony than a majority of the citizenry of this entire region.”

The suspect followed through with his plan and at 8 a.m. he entered Aztec High School disguised as a student. He then proceeded to a second-floor bathroom to prep for the massacre. While prepping, he was encountered by a student, who he fatally shot. The suspect then left the bathroom, entered the hallway and killed a second student. Both students were shot and killed at random. Upon hearing the gunfire, the entire school went into lockdown.

Substitute teacher, Kathleen Potter, hid 17 students in a secondary, small room within the school’s computer lab and barricaded that door with a couch. The suspect attempted to enter the secondary room, but when unable to do so, began shooting through the wall – miraculously missing all the students inside. The suspect then proceeded to the hallway and killed himself.

School custodian, Thomas Hill, is credited with saving multiple lives during the shooting. As detailed in a story by KOB4 out of Albuquerque, NM, within minutes he located the suspect.

San Juan County Sheriff, Ken Christesen stated that, “Within the first few minutes of the shooting, custodian Thomas Hill was able to locate the suspect. He proceeded to follow the shooter while screaming at teachers in certain parts of the school to lock their doors, warning them of the gunman’s presence.”

The sheriff said Hill risked his own life to make sure teachers could protect their students. “He heard the shots, spotted the shooter and following him, screaming at the shooter as he pursued him, yelling at the teachers to lock down we have an active shooter,” Christesen said. “He continued to yell and follow and warn others. These people are true heroes that they’re right here in our community.””

Katie Potter secured herself and students. Thomas Hill responded by confronting the shooter. These responses are two of the three recommended actions when confronted by an active threat, according to Firestorm Partner, former Secret Service Agent and CEO/Founder of Secure Education Consultants, Jason Russell.

Active Shooter Response

When confronted with an active shooter situation, three actions can be taken: evacuate, secure or confront. Without training, people choose the option that is most familiar to them, as opposed to the most logical option for that specific scenario. The three actions must be understood conceptually to make the right decision in the moment. The three responses – evacuate, secure and confront – differ from the common ‘flee, hide or fight’ options.

Evacuate: Leave the area and distance yourself from the problem. Evacuating provides a sense of control more than the common ‘flee’ or ‘run’ option.

Secure: Locate cover or concealment, whether this means a locked or barricaded door. Within that locked room, find another barricade to add further protection. This option differs from simply hiding under a table or desk. Hiding does not provide protection.

Confront: Evacuate and secure may not be viable options during an incident. The last response is confrontation. In an active shooter situation, you must think about confronting the intruder.
If confronting an intruder is the only option, you must know how to defend and protect yourself and those around you.

“When a trained and empowered staff follow well-established protocols in a school with well-designed and employed physical and technical security features, the building becomes a safer place for everyone.” – Jason Russell

Jason Russell, Firestorm Partner and CEO/Founder of SEC

Due to quick action, multiple lives were saved at Aztec High School. Is your organization prepared to respond to an act of violence? Firestorm follows a PREDICT.PLAN.PERFORM.® methodology. In the predict phase, we identify behaviors of concern. In the plan phase, we create actionable plans. In the perform phase, we test to determine weaknesses, strengths and gaps.

Identifying Behaviors of Concern

The suspect in the Aztec High School shooting was not unfamiliar to law enforcement. In March of 2016, he was interviewed by the FBI after making suspicious comments on an online gaming site. According to officials, he was seeking advice on where to purchase an assault rifle to conduct a mass shooting.

Investigators determined there was no criminal activity after the suspect alleged the comment was intended to troll the internet and was not a real threat.

In November 2017, the suspect legally purchased the gun he used in the deadly attack.

Learn more about preparedness and don’t hesitate to contact the Firestorm team regarding questions or if you are interested in exploring the identification of behaviors of concern before they lead to violence.

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Firestorm® Solutions, is a Novume™ Solutions company (Nasdaq: NVMM), and is a leading crisis and risk management firm and America’s CRISIS COACH®. Since 2005, Firestorm has assisted clients in transforming crisis into value by responding to some of the largest and most complex crisis events as well as combining best-practice consulting with proven crisis management expertise. Firestorm empowers clients to manage crisis and risk through assessments, audits, program development, insurance partnerships, training and advisory services using the PREDICT.PLAN.PERFORM.® methodology.

Firestorm assesses, audits, develops, trains and tests strategies and programs encompassing emergency response, business continuity, crisis management, and crisis communications/PR. Firestorm demonstrates thought leadership in workplace violence prevention, cyber-breach response, insurance-related services, communicable illness/pandemic planning, predictive intelligence, and every preparedness initiative.

Firestorm provided crisis management and crisis communications services to Virginia Tech after the shootings and continues to provide services to keep tens of thousands of employees, customers and students safer.

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