Today’s shooting and killing of 20 children at Sandy Hook Elementary School in the peaceful, beautiful town of Newtown, Conn.—45 miles southwest of Hartford and 60 miles northeast of New York City—causes us all to take pause and wonder how such a tragedy can happen.
Those of us in the emergency community think of the responders, the tragic and grisly scene that they were forced to endure, and we feel the desire to reach out, pat them on the back and let them know that our thoughts and prayers are with them.
It appears that the shooter was targeting his mother’s class and had a purposeful attack plan. While the details are unfolding, many are trying to make sense out of this tragedy and wondering what they would do it an attack of this nature took place in their community.
I wanted to point out that this type of attack has occurred before and will be replicated again. School shootings have become commonplace for myriad reasons: revenge on bullying, retribution on teachers and administrators, and by individuals trying to make political or social statements.
But what few people talk about is that terrorism and mass-casualty experts have predicted this type of mass killing spree (and larger ones) for years. We dread hearing it, but terror organizations have been espousing it for years: If you want to make a statement and bring a country to its knees, kill scores of its children.
In my mass-casualty incident (MCI) classes, I discuss the little-known incident that occurred in Beslan School Number One (SNO) in the town of Beslan, North Ossetia (an autonomous republic in the North Caucasus region of the Russian Federation) on Sept. 1, 2004. It was a premeditated terrorist assault planned for the first day of school, a day on which it was customary for parents, siblings and grandparents to accompany their school-aged children back to school for the start of the new school year. The terrorists were deployed by a Chechen separatist warlord who demanded recognition of the independence of Chechnya at the United Nations and Russian withdrawal from Chechnya.
To make a strong statement, the assault was aimed at a very vulnerable and easy target: an elementary school where the students and faculty are not physically able to easily repel an attack. The terrorists easily entered an open-access, unsecured school that they had scouted, and took 1,100 people hostage (including 777 children).(1) They used the strongest male hostages to fortify the school and then summarily killed them to eliminate them as future threats.
They also herded the children into the school’s gymnasium and chained several children to basketball hoop assemblies rigged with explosives that would detonate if any of the young detainees tried to escape.
Townspeople soon learned of the terrorists’ takeover of the school, alerted the authorities and began to shoot at the school in an attempt to mitigate the incident.
The hostage situation lasted over three days and ended tragically when, during an assault by Russian security forces, one of the booby-trapped children detonated the explosives and 334 hostages, of which 186 were children, were killed.(2–3)
Although the event led to security and political repercussions in Russia, most notably a series of federal government reforms consolidating power in the Kremlin and strengthening of the powers of the Russian president, the most important outcome for emergency responders was the publishing of the book Terror at Beslan, by terrorism expert John Giduck.(4)
Giduck used contacts inside Russia and personal interviews to present a complete and accurate story of the Beslan School Siege. His book vividly tells the untold story about the victims, the responders to the incident and moment-by-moment actions that took place. More importantly the book highlights the lessons America's school system can learn from the tragedy to protect itself from terrorism. Giduck dedicates two chapters to how we, in America, can prepare for such events.
Today’s tragedy in Newton, Conn., in an elementary school occupied by 700 children, should cause all responding agencies to take the time to obtain Terror at Beslan, read it carefully and work with their school systems to improve school security, practice active-shooter and MCI scenarios, and be prepared for such an event to happen in their community—particularly one involving places where a high volume of children are located.
To obtain a copy of Terror at Beslan, go to one of the two sites listed below:
1. UNICEF (Aug. 31, 2006) Beslan: Two years on. In Web Archive. Retrieved Jan. 9 2007 from http://web.archive.org/web/20090404112922/http://www.unicef.org/russia/media_4875.html.
2. Beslan school hostage crisis. (n.d.) In Wikipedia. Retrieved Dec. 15, 2012 from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Beslan_school_hostage_crisis.
3. BBC News (Sept. 2, 2005) Putin meets angry Beslan mothers. In BBC News. Retrieved Dec. 15, 2012 from http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/europe/4207112.stm.
4. Saradzhyan S. (Feb. 26, 2008) Chechnya vow cast a long shadow. In The Moscow Times. Retrieved Dec. 15, 2012 from www.themoscowtimes.com/special_report/article/chechnya-vow-cast-a-long-shadow/356028.html.