An Emerging Approach

Campus safety concerns rise amidst the rise in gun violence

News headlines provide an unfortunate reminder of the continued rise of active shooter incidents on campuses throughout the country. On the University of Nevada, Las Vegas (UNLV) campus in November 2023, three faculty members died, and another was critically injured when a former professor opened fire in a building housing the business school.

In September of 2023, a shooting at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill left one faculty member dead and triggered a campus-wide lockdown until the suspect was apprehended. A former Nashville Covenant School student shot and killed three children and three adults in March of 2023 with more than 180 students present. A shooter killed three and injured five others at Michigan State University early last year.

According to Gun Violence Archive, in 2023 in the United States, 620 mass shootings left 644 people dead and 2,586 injured. The Washington Post reports that since the 1999 high-profile Columbine incident, there have been more than 389 school shootings and approximately 357,000 students have experienced gun violence.

These are alarming statistics students are facing on school campuses across the country. Gun violence now surpasses car crashes as the primary cause of death for U.S. children and teenagers, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Wonder database.

Inherent Environmental Challenges
Schools and universities face the overwhelming responsibility of protecting students, faculty, staff and visitors from gun violence on campus. Administrators are tasked with seeking solutions to combat this threat, while simultaneously maintaining quality of life and campus engagement. They also must address the many challenges of this unique landscape.

  • Campus size and sprawl make it impossible to restrict individuals from walking on campus at any time of day or night.
  • Most individuals can easily gain access to campus communal areas, including libraries, student unions, study halls and classrooms.
  • Active shooters are often current or former students or employees who easily blend into existing school groups and carry access cards/credentials to areas prohibited to the public.
  • Fundamental to every school culture is a desire for strong community engagement rooted in student independence, involvement, and physical and psychological comfort.

Canine Detection Reduces Risk
Traditional security methods including armed guards, access control and screening technology are meaningful elements to any multi-faceted security plan aimed at detecting and deterring firearms. However, gun sniffing canines are proving to be a highly-effective mitigation tool to active shooter incidents within a variety of environments – from entertainment venues to retail stores, to medical centers and schools.

Key benefits include:

  • Accurate, clear and immediate detection capability, with higher than a 90% success rate.
  • Speed and stamina to cover large areas.
  • Capability to unobtrusively move through crowds and around obstacles.
  • Versatility to deploy to various locations within the same day and redirect as needed.
  • Ability to create a welcoming environment without an intimidating appearance.

In the early 2000s, the Pentagon’s Defense Advanced Research Project Agency (DARPA) spent $19 billion attempting to build detection technology to replicate canine effectiveness. The canine prevailed every time.

How a Dog’s Nose Knows
A canine’s sense of smell is estimated to be up to 10,000 times more sensitive than that of a human. Compared to the six million olfactory receptors in our noses, dogs have an amazing three hundred million. A much larger portion of their brains are dedicated to analyzing scents, so they uniquely pick up odors at the molecular level. It is the difference between smelling spaghetti sauce cooking on the stove and separately identifying the individual odors of tomato, onion, garlic and each herb that makes up the sauce.

Firearms detection canines first learn to detect all commercial and military grade explosives, as well as homemade explosives. Then, they complete additional training specific to odors associated with firearms, imprinting on low-explosive powders, as well as gun cleaning solvents and other related odors. This enables dogs to indicate the presence of a firearm, whether it has been previously fired or not.

The Right Fit
Not every dog is a firearms detection dog and not every firearms detection dog is right for a school campus environment. This is a unique landscape and culture that requires the right fit. Schools must maintain student quality of life and strengthen retention through greater peace of mind. At the same time, accurate and discreet firearm detection capability is paramount. There are several areas school security staff should consider when evaluating a firearms detection canine.

Breed, socialization and health. For campus deployments, there are a variety of breeds that can be a good fit, such as German Shepherds and Labrador Retrievers. The deciding factor should be based on an organization’s preference and desired level of deterrence. For example, Labradors are an excellent choice for fostering a comfortable environment for students because of their softer appearance. Regardless of breed, the dog must be well socialized and carefully vetted to meet rigorous health, temperament and obedience standards. It is essential that the dog indicates the presence of odors associated with firearms using a calm and passive “sit” response – never through a bite or bark response.

Comprehensive training. It is critical that any dog working on campus complete a comprehensive training program and continued sustainment training tailored to the specific operational environment. As noted, imprinting on low-explosive powders allows dogs the ability to detect a loaded or recently discharged weapon. To detect concealed and unfired firearms, which is an extremely important nuance, dogs must also be imprinted on gun components like metals, oils and cleaning solvents.

Independent testing and certification.The North American Police Work Dog Association (NAPWDA) sets industry recognized evaluation criteria and serves as a meaningful metric. Similar independent evaluation standards include the International Police Work Dog Association (IPWDA), Department of Homeland Security SAFETY Act and others.

Experienced single handler. Canines do not work alone. They must be paired with a dedicated and experienced handler trained in incident response, de-escalation and community engagement. When teams have a single-handler and a single-purpose, it reinforces a strong and unique working bond. This enhances success in the field and provides an important familiarity with the deployment environment. Rotating teams or rotating handlers with the same dog, is not best practice.

Host a meet-and-greet. Schools and universities should consider hosting meet-and-greet sessions with faculty, students and other members of the campus community to learn about the firearms detection team and program. This provides an opportunity for all stakeholders to become familiar and comfortable, quelling any misconceptions or concerns about the team’s role at the school.

Safeguarding students in school is the highest priority, requiring forward-thinking leadership and a multi-faceted approach to security. There are many strategies that will help reduce the likelihood of an active shooter incident occurring on today’s school campuses, but there is no one-size-fits-all solution.

Tens of thousands of canines are working hard across the globe to help keep us safe in our everyday life. Over the last half century, hard work and ongoing research have further refined canine detection capabilities so that today’s dogs are well positioned to provide a next-level era of safety and security.

This article originally appeared in the March / April 2024 issue of Campus Security Today.


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