Preparing for the unthinkable
By Laura Grimm
Although the day started with jokes about hot coffee and biceps being dangerous weapons, FBI Special Agent Joseph Malhoit visited MSUM for a sobering topic.
Malhoit, who has worked with the FBI for 19 years, prepared students and staff for active shooter situations on Feb. 15. He started the presentation with a simple question: What do you do if someone acts in a threatening manner?
The first step is to listen to instinct.
“We all have a spidey sense, and it’s developed from the day we’re born,” Malhoit said. “Trust your spidey sense. If something doesn’t feel right, it might not be.”
From 2000–13, there were 160 active shooter events in 40 of the 50 states, as well as Washington, D.C. The first seven years averaged 6.4 cases a year, whereas the second seven years experienced 16.4. The number of cases per year is growing, with 2014 and 2015 each witnessing 20 incidents.
Shootings in educational settings, including K-12 and post-secondary, are the second most common type at 24.4 percent of shootings.
Junior William Oines, a resident assistant, was required to attend as an MSUM staff member.
“Media tends to sensationalize events of this nature, and it can cause worry amongst people who are attending these universities or the parents attending these universities,” Oines said. “So being able to say that the staff here are trained for instances like this gives the campus better coverage and provides a better aura of safety for the campus environment.”
Malhoit emphasized that although shootings are rare, it is important to be prepared. Active shooter events trigger stress and can hinder rational thinking.
“You’ll panic and do nothing, or you’ll panic and do something stupid,” Malhoit said of being unprepared.
“You’re going to lose your ability to cognitively figure things out … You’re going to go back to motor memory.”
Malhoit listed a few items, like tactical pens with a hidden sharp blade, that students and staff can carry in cases of emergency. He also gave examples of everyday items that can be used as makeshift weapons, such as hot coffee or chairs.
“He went more in-depth with things for preparation,” Oines said. “He went over a bunch of items that one can have on them, like pens that were meant as a way to be defended and various other things, as well as just mental training, like always having back-up plans and being constantly aware of your environment.”
However, fighting is not the recommended first course of action. It should be used as a last resort if running and hiding do not work, especially since 69 percent of active shootings end in five minutes or fewer.
“Think of law enforcement as a guided missile,” Malhoit said. “As soon as we get there, it’s done.”
Shootings are almost always carried out by one or two shooters, which makes it easier for law enforcement to completely stop the threat when they arrive. 33.7 percent of shooters commit suicide when confronted with law enforcement.
“As a sociology major, I’d consider relating the increase in events like this to the increase in teen and young adult suicide that’s been going around because often mass shooting is a way of just leading up to their own suicide, particularly since it gives them the opportunity for suicide by cop,” Oines said.
While shooters tend to fit in certain demographics, Malhoit warned that anyone could be a threat.
“The threats are people you know, and the threats are people you never meet until the day of violence,” Malhoit said.
Shootings are almost always premeditated.
“No one wakes up in the morning and thinks, ‘I’m going to kill everyone today,’” Malhoit said.
Potential shooters engage in activities that foreshadow the event. For example, many buy weapons and ammunition shortly beforehand and develop an increased interest in target practice. Some develop an obsession with previous mass shootings and compulsively watch movies like “Elephant” and “Zero Day,” both of which are based on the 1999 Columbine shooting.
“People are drawn to instances like this, and people view (these movies) as a way to try and understand it and heal in the face of tragedy,” Oines said. “However, other people could look at it as inspiration.”
A shooter’s internet history can foreshadow these events, but it is illegal for government agencies like the FBI to monitor what civilians do online.
“What is the government doing about this?” Malhoit said. “Nothing—we have a Constitution . . . The government can’t do it, but other people can.”
Businesses can create “trip lights” that are set off if an employee uses a work computer to research mass shootings or exhibits other foreboding actions online. At home, Maloit encourages parents to be more involved in their children’s lives.
“Think of how many parents, if they’d known, could have gotten in front of some of these things,” Malhoit said.
On campus, students should be aware of their friends’ actions. Future shooters tend to engage in reckless activity, including extreme spending, gambling, drinking and violence.
“If someone’s living like there’s no tomorrow, believe them. Help them,” Malhoit said.
However, Malhoit advises to never make these decisions alone. He reiterated the importance of being aware of one’s surroundings.
“These events can happen anywhere at anytime, even in the wholesome Midwest,” Malhoit said. “You don’t want to be paranoid, but you should be prepared.”
Oines is concerned that active shooter presentations and media coverage may lead to unsubstantiated paranoia.
“While it is always a good idea to be conscious of the environment around you, I’m worried that might lead to people being paranoid or trying to be a hero in a situation that doesn’t always call for it,” Oines said.
Malhoit agrees that some instances do not call for more situational awareness. He warned that being on high alert at all times is bad for health. As an FBI agent who worked in white-collar crime, domestic terrorism and violent crime, he knows that being on alert at all times can wear someone out.
“Pick your zone based on your situation,” Malhoit said.
He described three zones: green, yellow and red, with awareness gradually increasing between them.
For Oines, the presentation presented little new information.
“I’ve gone over this information previously in different (staff) sessions, so I didn’t really gain that much new info around this time,” Oines said.
However, Oines did agree that it would not hurt for students to attend active shooter presentations because having knowledge is never bad. The overall likelihood of a person experiencing a shooting is still low—but with potentially deadly consequences.
“Chances are you’ll never need this, but if you do, you’ll really need it,” Malhoit said.