Understanding the Difference: Active Shooter vs. Active Assailant in K-12 Schools

Picture of Tara Gibson By Tara Gibson


school police officer active assailant protectionIn 2019, the United States has seen many active shooter incidents adding up to more mass shootings than days this year according to a gun research group. These tragedies have sparked both fears and anxieties in businesses, K-12 schools, higher education institutions, local and state governments, and communities across the country. In the K-12 education field there has been a shocking increase in school shootings from the years prior with 24 reported in 2018, killing and injuring 114 students, faculty, and staff. The implementation of effective school safety initiatives is growing as the years pass by using preventative measures, mental health awareness, and school safety technologies to protect students from school threats and active assailants.

Although when you think of a school shooter your mind may go to the verbiage ‘active shooter’, an active shooter is also considered an active assailant. To further explain, we’re going to break down the importance of understanding the difference between an active shooter and an active assailant.

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Defining: Active Shooter vs. Active Assailant

What is an active assailant? U.S. government agencies define an active assailant as “an individual actively engaged in killing or attempting to kill people in a confined and populated area”, according to the Alice Training Institute. You’ll find that an active shooter is defined in the same way, but there is one stark difference. An active shooter uses firearms to cause death or harm to their selection of victims, whereas an active assailant could be attacking a group of people with several different weapons including knives, bombs, guns, and even cars in some cases. Essentially, the words ‘active assailant’ reflect any and all threats to a group of people, whereas an active shooter is specifically an individual attacking a group using firearms.

Active Assailant Attacks on K-12 Schools

Although active shooters at K-12 schools are highly publicized and known across the country, there have been other mass attacks by active assailants that were and are just as terrifying.

Back in 2014 an active assailant with two knives went on a rampage at a Pennsylvania high school, stabbing 21 students and a security guard. This student was just 16 years old. He was arrested and later charged with four counts of attempted homicide and 21 counts of assault. According to BBC News, the injured, some with serious stab wounds, were as young as 14. Just last month in China a 40-year-old man stabbed 8 primary (elementary) school students to death and injured 2 others in a horrific knife attack. According to the South China Morning Post, “Knife attacks on schoolchildren are a regular occurrence in mainland China, with the perpetrators often saying they are motivated by a desire to take revenge on society.”

In January of 1999, an explosion in a high school locker in Kansas City resulted in 11 students being sent to the hospital, according to School Security. In Minnesota, eight young boys confessed to building three homemade bombs, two of which were placed at a local elementary school. Even the Columbine High School attack included the use of homemade bombs which were set to go off, but fortunately failed.

The Rise of Active Assailant Attacks

There have unfortunately been many attacks on soft targets over the years by active assailants. A soft target is considered a location that is vulnerable due to a lack of security and protection but is often busy and populated by large groups of people. Some examples include public venues, malls, movie theaters, houses of worship, and events. 

CBS News tells us that in August 2017 James Alex Fields Jr. drove his car into a crowd of anti-racism protesters during a white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, killing one and injuring 28. He used his car as a weapon to intentionally kill or attempt to kill those who were present at the Unite the Right rally. Back in late June he was sentenced to life in prison for this deadly attack. Another car attack occurred in October 2017 when Sayfullo Saipov rented a Home Depot pickup truck and drove through a bike path along the Hudson River in New York City. This active assailant killed eight people and injured another 11. 

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On May 22nd, 2017, a suicide bomber entered Manchester Arena where an Ariana Grande concert was taking place. The explosion killed 22 people and injured more than 50, many of which were young kids attending the concert. 

Protecting K-12 Students from Active Assailants

There are a few ways K-12 schools can protect their students from active assailants. A school must be prepared for any attack, not just active shooter threats. 

  1. Plan Ahead
    Planning ahead for school safety threats such as a knife attack is extremely important. Conducting assessments of your school climate can help determine if any crises may occur, and if so what kinds. Implementing a school safety team with different responsibilities is also helpful in an emergency situation, as everybody on the team has a specific job. This could be escorting students out of the building or sending out mass notifications to school personnel and first responders. 

  2. Communication
    Communication is key in an emergency. If there is an active assailant on school premises, alerting students, staff, faculty, and most importantly 9-1-1, can help save lives. Implementing panic button technology has been proven to help improve response times as well as deliver important information to first responders with the touch of a button. 

  3. Practice School Safety Drills 
    Practice makes perfect! Your K-12 school should practice several types of school safety drills for different types of active assailants. A bomb drill would require students to exit school grounds quickly and efficiently as opposed to an active shooter drill, in which your school would likely go into lockdown. Your school safety teams can identify where more training is needed by conducting several types of active assailant drills. 

Start planning and practicing school safety and be prepared for any and all active assailant threats. 

School Safety Drill Kit

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Written by Tara Gibson

Tara is a Marketing Coordinator on the Rave Mobile Safety marketing team. She loves writing about all things K-12 education, and manages the Rave social media channels. When she's not working, she's taking care of her smiley, shoe eating, Instagram-famous fur baby, Enzo!


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