Security consultant Brink Fidler led the staff at the Covenant School in Nashville through mass shooter training in early 2022, teaching them escape and lockdown skills and medical trauma preparation.
On Wednesday, two days after a 28-year-old former student opened fire inside the private Christian academy, Fidler said he saw signs that the teachers had implemented his advice.
Walking through the grade school with police detectives, Fidler noted that teachers had covered the windows and turned out the lights. He saw a medical bag on a desk, ready to be used. Those who could safely get out had evacuated with their students, while others appeared to have locked down and hidden from the shooter.
"They followed every protocol we talked about," Fidler, a former police officer, said in a telephone interview after helping police understand what preparations the school had taken. "They were saving those kids' lives."
Despite Covenant School's planning, the assailant entered the stately stone building by shooting the glass out of several doors. The attacker then killed three 9-year-old students and three adults before police stopped the assault by fatally shooting the 28-year-old.
The rampage has US educators grappling once again with how to bolster their defenses against such a threat, particularly at smaller independent schools often viewed as havens of safety.
It was a reminder that any campus could be the target of gun violence, spurring educators around the country to review security protocols and try to reassure parents.
"There's been a sense of, 'Those problems don't seem to happen in our types of schools,' and (Monday) shattered that," said Sean Corcoran, head of school at Brainerd Baptist School, an elementary school of 330 students attached to a church in Chattanooga, Tennessee.
Corcoran said Brainerd's glass doors were coated in bullet-resistant laminate; it holds several active shooter drills a year; and the local police station can access security camera feeds during emergencies. The school is also installing panic buttons.
But he said the Covenant School shooting exposed how deadly such attacks can be even when school leaders "did everything right."
Security experts who watched publicly released security camera and body camera video from Monday's shooting said the Covenant School appeared to have good safety protocols. The school, which serves about 200 students from preschool to sixth grade, kept its doors locked and evacuated students quickly so hallways would be mostly empty when the shooter reached them.
They said additional safety measures might have helped. If the school doors had been coated in bullet-resistant laminate, it might have taken the shooter six or seven minutes to enter, buying additional time for law enforcement to respond, said Mac Hardy, director of operations at the National Association of School Resource Officers.
Fidler said the school had planned to add a protective laminate layer to the glass door panels but it hadn't yet been installed. School officials could not be reached for comment.
GUARDS AND GATES
Hardy said Covenant did not have a school resource officer whose purpose is to avert or respond to threats such as active shooters.
In parts of the United States, law enforcement and school resource officers were pulled off campuses in 2020, after the COVID-19 pandemic prompted a shift to virtual learning, and also in the wake of protests against police violence that swept the country that year, according to Chris Joffe, a security, safety and medical support consultant.
His company, Joffe Emergency Services, holds disaster and threat-preparedness training for schools around the country and has heard from hundreds of schools since Monday's attack, Joffe said.
An armed guard is stationed at the front gate at Briarcrest Christian School in the Memphis suburbs, according to an email on Tuesday to parents of its approximately 1,750 students in kindergarten through 12th grade, and off-duty local police officers patrol campus during school hours.
Perimeter fencing surrounds the campus and gates are locked after children are dropped off each morning.
"We operate on the premise of, put as many barriers up as you can before an intruder can get into your school," said Briarcrest's president, Caron Swatley.
It is not clear that hardening school security always works. A study published in an American Medical Association online journal in 2021 showed armed guards at a school site did not reduce the number of casualties in a shooting and may even be associated with an increased number of deaths.
Ron Avi Astor, a University of California, Los Angeles professor who studies school violence, said schools need to strike a balance between adopting measures to keep kids safe and doing so much that school feels like prison.
He said small schools in vulnerable Jewish and Muslim communities have created subtle barriers to entry, such as erecting fencing and moving entrances to the back of their properties, allowing schools to protect children without traumatizing them.
"There are choices that can be made here, maybe some middle ground," Astor said. "Yes we want to protect them, but do we want to create environments where they feel like there’s tanks and bazookas everywhere?"