When someone opens fire at a school, should students intervene?
It's a question being raised after two shootings in which students lost their lives after choosing to take action. Kendrick Castillo, 18, died in Tuesday's shooting at STEM School Highlands Ranch outside Denver. He was shot and killed when he tackled one of the shooters, giving other students a chance to flee.
Last week 21-year-old University of North Carolina Charlotte student Riley Howell met the same fate when he knocked a campus shooter off his feet.
"When we're talking about school shooters, almost always, if anybody's going to get shot, it's the intervener. That's why we put police officers in Kevlar vests," says Frank Zimring, a professor of law and criminal justice studies at the University of California Berkeley.
In the Colorado and North Carolina shootings, Zimring says each intervention likely saved lives.
One of the Colorado students who charged the Highlands Ranch shooter along with Castillo said at a press conference he had "no hesitation" about jumping into action to try to thwart the attack. Zimring, who studies gun violence and mass shootings, says teenage "machismo or heroic ambition" likely played a role in that decision. And while that bravery is admirable, Zimring says intervention is always the least-preferable option.
"From an authority or risk-management standpoint, it is only when contacts with authorities who are armed and trained, or escape or hiding, is not possible, when it really becomes a situation where intervention might be necessary," he tells Here & Now's Peter O'Dowd.
Federal agencies like the Department of Homeland Security recommend the "run, hide, fight" method in active-shooter situations, with "fight" coming as a last resort "only when your life is in imminent danger."
In a CNN interview, Castillo's father John said other students survived because of what his son did, and he will always remember him as a hero. But there is also a part of him, he said, that wishes Kendrick hadn't put himself in harm's way. The two even had a conversation about what to do if a school shooting occurred, with John telling Kendrick he didn't "have to be the hero," according to NBC News.
It's a feeling that cuts to the core of another thorny question: how people who intervene in shootings are remembered. Does celebrating them publicly encourage others to take life-threatening action, instead of running or hiding?
After a school shooting like the one in Colorado, Zimring says celebrations of heroism can be the only solace parents have if their child died trying to stop an attack. But when it comes to shaping public policy, he says it's best to "de-emphasize the possibilities of heroic intervention" given the risks involved.
"Otherwise, we're going to have to dress all our kids in Kevlar vests. And that's a country that none of us want to live in," Zimring says.
This segment aired on May 9, 2019.
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