Taking the Tactical Mindset to School

If I were to mention the words "first responders" to my fellow members of the law enforcement community and then ask them to name those who are first responders, I would probably get very similar answers, but I would like to add another group of people to the list—teachers. No, teachers don’t wear uniforms, have special protective gear or drive vehicles that are equipped with emergency lights and sirens. And, with the exception of maybe a course in first aid or CPR, the majority of teachers in the U.S. have no training at all in any type of emergency response techniques or tactics. Yet, for around seven hours a day, five days a week, nine months out of every year, we entrust the safety of our nation’s children to our teachers.

The prevalent thought in this country is that teachers aren’t first responders. If they need to handle an emergency at the school, they call 9-1-1 and get the real first responders to come and handle the problem. For most emergency situations that occur at a school, this is a relatively sound plan, but when it comes to responding to an active deadly threat incident, that plan falls very short.

In these instances, there can be no doubt that our teachers are the first line of defense for our children. It is no longer adequate to place all of the responsibility for our children’s safety in the hands of our teachers and not take the time to properly train them to accomplish that task. Nor is it acceptable to simply tell them, "Lock your classroom door, turn out the lights, hide in a corner and pray that the attacker doesn’t pick your room."

Teachers need to be instructed on the different techniques and tactics that can be used to mitigate an active deadly threat incident, or at least increase the chances of survival for their students and themselves. Due to our training, experience and expertise, there is no group better suited for preparing our teachers in response to these threats than the police. The nation’s law enforcement officers are better prepared to respond to an active shooter than we have ever been. Unfortunately, we have also learned that many of these incidents are over before we can even get there to help.

Creating "Tactical Teachers"

In an overwhelming majority of cases of an active deadly threat incident, both inside schools and at other locations in the U.S. since 1966, we have learned that the shooter will continue on their mission until coming into contact with someone who would try to stop their rampage.1 This intervention then ends the threat in a high percentage of the situations. Since we know that in best-case scenarios, the first police officers arriving on scene will not be at the school for a period of at least several minutes, it becomes clear that enhancing the tactical response of our teachers is critically important to reducing the number of students and teachers who are killed or injured in an attack.

I am not suggesting that we create "SWAT teachers" or even "teacher-cops," but more that we train our educators to be "tactical teachers." These tactical teachers would have the knowledge and tools necessary to do more than simply lock the door, hide in a corner and hope for the best. By going into the schools and providing our teachers with some simple tactical mindset training—such as "if/then" thinking and Boyd’s OODA loop theory (Observe, Orient, Decide and Act)—and a sampling of some basic defensive tactics they can use if a physical confrontation becomes necessary, we can enhance both their capabilities and chances of survival if an active deadly threat were to occur. As most of our educators have not had any training of this type, a little will literally go a long way toward increasing their tactical and situational awareness. So much useful information could be disseminated in as little as a four-hour block of time that a solitary police instructor could conduct training for an entire school or school district during a single teachers in-service day.

While the training can be as simple as a lecture presented to the teachers during a portion of their in-service day, it certainly doesn’t have to stop there. A teacher training program is limited only by the ambition of the school administration and the willingness of police trainers. The budget of both entities plays a role as well, but I believe everyone would agree that when the training is this important, a way to make it happen can and will be found. In my experience, this type of training is well received by the schools. School administrators clearly recognize the need for this type of training and preparedness. Teachers are receptive, attentive and very interested in learning tactics that will serve to better protect them and their students. And everyone benefits from the channels of communication and networking that are established between the schools and police departments through conducting this type of program. You can rest assured that once the teachers experience this type of training—which they typically do not see—they will be looking for more.

What Should You Teach?

The question that arises then becomes, "What do we teach?" The simplistic answer to that question is: you teach whatever you can. Of course, that is never as easy as it sounds. First, you need to get buy-in from the school district’s administration. This involves getting them to give you some of their time. Much like the police, school district personnel have their time stretched very thin. They, too, are required to maintain certifications and legally-mandated requirements that demand time allocations. So, in order to insert yourself into some of their valuable time, you need to become a salesman. Schedule a meeting with the school district superintendent. Go into that meeting ready to explain the importance of active threat training for the school. Have a plan of action ready to go for when the superintendent asks, "What do you suggest we do?" My recommendation is to start by arranging a tabletop exercise for the school district’s leadership personnel.

If pre-scripted and properly administered, you can run an active threat tabletop exercise in about two hours. Include the superintendent, the principals of each school and the directors of the other school district divisions (maintenance, transportation, food services, security, healthcare, etc.) as participants. It never hurts to invite the head of the district’s teacher’s union and school board members to observe as well, but do this only with the consent and agreement of the superintendent. Most school districts have some sort of school safety committee that meets on a regular basis. Since most, if not all of the aforementioned school district staff attend these meetings, they become an ideal time for the suggestion of a tabletop exercise.

Utilize the tabletop exercise as an assessment tool to determine the school district’s level of readiness for an active threat situation. This assessment will serve as a guide that will help to direct the decision making process as to what type of training is needed. Once the training needs of the school district are identified, they can then be prioritized into a training program. The school district may have a very strong and functional lock-down/lock-out procedure in place, for example, but have no plan in place for parent-student reunification or alternate actions that can be taken other than lockdowns.

In addition to the broad-scope procedural issues that will be covered during the tabletop exercise, the type and amount of training that individual teachers and staff have received about active threat incidents also needs to be addressed. In many instances, this may boil down to a case of "some training is better than no training." Start small. If there hasn’t been any district-wide training on active deadly threat incidents, propose to the superintendent that you be given an hour or two during the next school district in-service day to present a lecture-based training session that provides an overview of the currently recommended active threat response techniques.

Ultimately, though, the type and amount of training that the police can provide to the school district is limited only by the desire of both the school district and the police department to conduct it. My recommendation is for the police trainer(s) to first create an "a la carte menu" of training options, isting all of the various topics associated with active threat response that they can bring to the school. You can literally make a list of topics. They can be as simple as a one-hour tactical mindset lecture, as complex as defensive tactics certification programs and everything in between. With a little extra effort, police trainers can take existing programs that they have already created themselves, or programs available through other entities, and create a program specifically tailored to their school district’s needs. You then present this list of options of the school and let them pick and choose what they feel is appropriate. The training program can be scheduled throughout the school year or even over the course of multiple school years.

Police officers can provide our teachers with simple tactical mindset training in as little as a few hours during a district’s in-service day. PHOTO AP/MICHAEL DWYER

When training teachers in schools, local law enforcement also gets to hone their skills in a realistic environment.

Department vs. School Training Costs

Of course, at this point in the process everyone’s attention has turned to cost—both for the school and the police department. Ideally, you want to try to keep the cost as low as possible (read: free) for the school district. We’re already asking them to give us time out of their in-service schedule, which is also costing the school district the salary for every teacher in the school. Granted, our time is not free either and is no less important. In many instances, though, we can be more flexible with our time and scheduling. If possible, we can schedule the police trainers to conduct the training during their assigned shifts, requiring only that they be assigned to the school for all or part of their shift that day. Otherwise, the police department bears the cost of overtime or compensatory time for the police trainer. In cases where the training is only a few hours, the cost should be acceptable to the police department. If the school elects to request more extensive types of training programs, it is certainly reasonable to ask them for compensation to cover some of the expense. School districts typically have at least some money allocated for this type of thing in their budgets and you, as their hometown police department, can probably provide it for a much lower cost than a privately contracted consultant. Hopefully, both the school district and the police department will recognize the value of this training and will work with one another to ensure that the cost is met in a way that is acceptable to both parties.

The benefits of local law enforcement agencies instituting an active deadly threat training program for their schools are many. Law enforcement trainers get to hone their skills and expand their core audience beyond fellow officers. By default, they also gain mastery of the critical skillsets surrounding active threat response, which they need to maintain and stay current with in order to properly instruct in the schools. The teachers and school staff gain beneficial training and experience on theories and tactics which they have not previously had exposure to. Interoperability between other public safety agencies also occurs, as both fire department and emergency medical services personnel become involved when conducting tabletop exercises and readiness drills at the schools. Interoperability between the schools and their police departments will also increase and stronger lines of communication will be established.


We can no longer simply assume that our schools are safe havens that are taboo targets for those deranged people or groups who might seek to visit harm upon them. As law enforcement, we are responsible for maintaining the safety and security of the communities that we are sworn to protect. We are the experts in responding to critical incidents and resolving them as safely and quickly as possible. The nation’s teachers are charged with educating, sheltering and protecting one of the most precious commodities we have: our children. It is incumbent upon law enforcement to do everything we can in order to ensure our teachers can carry out that task. When it comes to an active deadly threat incident occurring in a school, the teachers in that school truly are the first responders during those critical initial minutes of the attack. Instituting an active deadly threat response training program at your community’s schools is the logical step to take in making sure our teachers are up to the task. If your agency is already involved with training the teachers in your schools about tactical response techniques, you should be LOM commended. If you aren’t, what are you waiting for?

LIEUTENANT TIMOTHY TROXEL is a 20-year veteran of the Upper Moreland Township Police Department in Montgomery County, Pennsylvania. In that time, he has served 10 years in patrol, three years as a detective and six years as a patrol sergeant. He is currently the department’s range master/lead firearms instructor as well as the training coordinator. He is certified as an instructor for firearms, defensive tactics (through PPCT), OCAT and patrol response to active shooter (through the NTOA). Lt. Troxel is also a state-certified EMT and a member of the International Law Enforcement Educators and Trainers Association.


1. New York Police Department. Active Shooter: Recommendations and Analysis for Risk Mitigation (2011). New York: New York City Police Department.


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