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School Safety Scare: Not Every Teacher Is Going to Be a Hero

<p>The majority of U.S. educators are not adequately trained to deal with a crisis such as a school gunman, experts say.</p><p></p>
Image: John Masterson
John Masterson and his wife talk to the media. Mr. Masterson confronted a shooter at a middle school Tuesday morning, something experts say most educators are not trained adequately on.Roberto E. Rosales / Albuquerque Journal via Zuma Press

The majority of educators across the United States are not adequately trained to deal with a crisis such as a school gunman, experts say, in a week when another school shooting — and the teacher who prevented it from being worse — made headlines.

John Masterson, a social studies teacher at Berrendo Middle School, in Roswell, N.M., talked a 12-year-old student who had shot and injured two students into putting down his shotgun before the boy fired any more shots. His actions were praised by officials as heroic, and a sobering reminder that teachers need to be prepared for the worst.

Again and again, teachers have been put in the line of fire. Masterson is the third example in as many months: His bravery comes less than three months after a Nevada middle school teacher was fatally shot apparently trying to shield students from a gunman; and a month after a Colorado student burst into his school wielding a gun, targeting his debate team coach.

Not nearly all teachers are trained in confronting such danger.

"There are very few mandated requirements that teachers receive this kind of training," said Ronald Stephens, executive director of the National School Safety Center. "They're certainly getting more, but probably not anywhere close to enough."

"You could go to a million different trainings and I don't think it would ever prepare you for the experience you're going to have and the intensity of the experience."

While some states have laws requiring training for situations beyond fire drills, including active shooters, there is not yet a federal mandate for teachers nationwide.

Even schools that are doing drills for active shooters vary in how much training they provide.

"Most schools across the country are now doing drills for lockdown situations, which would be active shooters, but what we're seeing is inconsistencies in how well they're doing those," said Chris Dorn, an analyst for Safe Havens International, a non-profit that helps schools improve crisis preparedness.

And a lack of legislation on the issue means officials can't force schools to do more drills.

"They can suggest best practices, but unless there is specific funding tied to that school or district that comes from the government, they can't really mandate that," he said.

Ryan Heber, 41, a science teacher at Taft Union High School in Woodland Hills, Calif., knows first-hand what it feels like to be face to face with a gunman, with little training: He confronted a 16-year-old student gunman who entered his classroom in January 2013. Coincidentally, his high school had given training on active shooters for the very first time just hours before.

Despite being grazed in the head with a bullet, Heber managed to talk with the student and get him to surrender — but it wasn't due to the brief training he had had, which he said wasn't on his mind at the time.

"You could go to a million different trainings and I don't think it would ever prepare you for the experience you're going to have and the intensity of the experience," he told NBC News.

"That being said, I always think it's good to have training because in those moments of chaos, maybe you can find some clarity in some things you learned and maybe along the way some of that would help save somebody."

One classmate was injured in the incident. Having lived through the experience, Heber is a proponent of educators being armed — with the knowledge of what to do if they are in similar situations.

"I definitely think schools should have a plan," he said. "Even law enforcement, they're trained, and they still struggle with some of these issues. So to think that assuming teachers are ready for an incident like this would be really hard to do."

Factoring in teacher-student relationships

Two states that are leading the way in crisis preparedness at schools are New Jersey, which requires schools do lockdowns and drills for various emergencies throughout the year, and Virginia, which requires schools to have threat assessment teams trained by the state — teams that provide a centralized system for reporting students who are showing signs of potentially becoming violent.

"Schools need to be prepared for a wide variety of crisis situations. In preparing for a wide variety of situations, they usually are more prepared for gunman and active shooters," Dorn said. "It's very, very statistically unlikely that the average school will have a shooting, but we know pretty much every school has problems with custody disputes or allergic reactions."

It is not clear whether Masterson, the New Mexico teacher, received training or did drills before Tuesday's shooting. Calls to his school and the superintendent were not immediately returned.

"You want to look at your tone of voice. You want to try to talk some reason and judgment into the person."

Heber and Masterson's method of diffusing the situation — engaging the shooter — was a brave and risky one, the experts said. While police officers, members of the military and hostage negotiators get hundreds of hours of training on how to talk with violent suspects, teachers are unlikely to have that kind of background.

When dealing with a student gunman, a teacher's natural skill set at talking to students may not necessarily translate into them being able to talk the violent student off the ledge, said Joel Dvoskin, a psychologist with the Threat Assessment Group, an organization dedicated to workplace and campus violence prevention.

"If the student likes a teacher, it's not the skill set, it's the relationship that would give the teacher an advantage. If the student doesn't like the teacher, it would go the other way," he said. "Further, in the face of a gun, people are not very well able to predict their behaviors, especially if they haven't received explicit training on how to remain calm in a crisis."

He cited research that found police often shoot less accurately at suspects than they do during target practice.

But Heber and Masterson are not the first educator who has gotten a gunman to relinquish a weapon simply through words. In August, a Georgia elementary school bookkeeper spent 20 minutes talking with a suicidal gunman, ultimately getting him to surrender without hurting anyone.

Faculty and staff who successfully engage shooters are "very careful" about what they say, and take a non-confrontational stance, said Stephens, of the National School Safety Center.

"You certainly don't want to ever be blocking a door," he said. "You want to take a look at how close you are to the individual; you don't want to invade their privacy. You want to look at your tone of voice. You want to try to talk some reason and judgment into the person."

Heber said his conversation with the gunman followed those rules, and he brought up experiences he and the student had shared in the past to change the 16-year-old's mindset away harming more people.

But with so many factors unique to each situation, including whether a shooter is suicidal, placing them on the highest end of the violence spectrum, teachers should not be expected to confront gunmen.

"It's a high-risk, high-stakes situation that requires a lot of finesse and a lot of grace, and certainly a good deal of judgment," Stephens said.