For six minutes on Tuesday morning at Rancho Tehama Elementary School in Tehama County, California, everything went as teachers had rehearsed.
A man had crashed a stolen car through the school’s front gate. He was stalking the grounds, armed with a semiautomatic rifle and wearing a tactical vest full of spare magazines. He had already shot his wife and two neighbors dead. He had also wounded a woman and her son as he fired randomly from the car on the way to the school.
The man tried to get inside the school to kill kids and anyone else inside. But he couldn’t, because teachers and staff immediately implemented well-rehearsed lockdown procedures.
Thwarted as he tried to open school doors, the man paced around outside, looking for an unsecured entrance. He shot at walls and classroom windows for six minutes, firing between 20 and 30 rounds.
He managed to hit a 6-year-old child, who is in stable condition. Other children were injured by shattered glass. He took aim at one parent as she dropped off her child late, but missed. No one died at the school.
Without access to a vulnerable target, the man, later identified as 44-year-old Kevin Neal, left the school in the stolen car. He went on to shoot three more strangers, one fatally. He stole another car before police managed to drive him off the road and kill him, ending a 45-minute rampage.
Assistant Sheriff Phil Johnston told local press that the shooting “could have been so much worse if it wasn’t for the quick thinking [of] staff at our elementary school…He couldn’t make access to any of the rooms; they were locked.”
“This saved countless lives,” he added.
School security experts have told The Trace that the kind of practices adopted by Rancho Tehama Elementary School provide a better measure of security than armed guards.
“There’s deterrence, and there’s defense,” John White, a school security consultant, said in a 2015 interview. “Guns provide defense, not deterrence. They don’t make a facility any more secure.”
“When you’re looking for a target for a crime, you don’t ever know if there’s a gun in a facility,” White said. “But you can see that if a door is unlocked or window is open, it’s a soft target.” He said he has never advised a school to arm security guards, instead counselling architectural barriers and regular staff trainings for the worst-possible scenario.
Some teachers and parents worry that lockdown drills traumatize young students, not to mention staff members who are more aware of the reasoning behind the preparations. In a 2014 opinion piece for the Washington Post, Launa Hall, a pre-Kindergarten teacher from Virginia, wrote that lockdown exercises are like “rehearsing for death.”
Lockdown drills became more commonplace after the 1999 Columbine High School shooting in Colorado, and even more so after the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre in Connecticut. The Tehama school staff apparently had their procedure down pat: Johnston said they didn’t even wait for a notice from police to secure the campus.