How to Survive a School Shooting

How to Protect Yourself During a School

Having just launched this website yesterday, I was hoping to spend the week writing fun, light-hearted introduction pieces. However, in the wake of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas school shooting yesterday, where 17 people were murdered, my plans have changed. I’m not going to retell the tragic events, that should be told by the students who lived through it. They are making their voices heard on Twitter with trending hashtags like #DouglasStrong and #DouglasShooting. Read their experiences. 


Today is February 15, 2018, and to date, we have endured 18 school shootings this year in America. That equals a school shooting roughly every 60 hours. And we continue to do nothing about it. Our politicians offer generic platitudes to families of victims and survivors to assuage their own guilt, shrug, and go back to their lives.

I remember Columbine. It was 1999, and I was a Sophomore in high school. I remember watching the news and thinking how unheard of and tragic it was. I also remember feeling afraid to be in school for the first time in my life. In the weeks following Columbine, we were all a little jumpy, no matter where you went to school. Our teachers ran drills with us, counselors did their best to help us work through our anxiety, and we tried to sift through a collective trauma that affected every student across the country.

I remember a time before school shootings, when being in school offered a refuge from the world. Where we learned things, made friends, and sometimes had fun. But sadly, anyone born on or after April 20, 1999 will never know that world.

School shootings have reached epidemic proportions in our modern American era, so it is important for you to know how to best protect yourself should a shooter enter your school. And the fact that I just wrote those words makes me sick to my stomach. 

Understand Your Danger Response

It is well understood that there are two main ways humans respond to imminent danger: fight or flight. Meaning, you will either fight what is putting you in danger or run from it. Your danger response is triggered by sights and sounds that seem threatening. This sends a signal to your brain (the amygdala and hypothalamus) that triggers your nervous system and turns on your danger response.

Once it kicks in, your body will be flooded with adrenaline. This will cause your breathing to speed up, your blood pressure to increase, and your blood vessels to dilate. You may also notice your other sense, like sight and hearing, become sharper. All of these changes are meant to help you fight or flee in a focused manner. 

But there is an often overlooked response outside of fight/flight that many people experience: freeze. Those who respond to danger by freezing  find themselves feeling panicked instead of focused. If you’ve ever experienced a panic attack, you know what I’m talking about. Your brain and nervous system trigger the same response that helps you remain physically active during moments of danger, but when you freeze, those responses become crippling. Instead of your thoughts becoming more clear and your focus feeling sharper (which aids in problem-solving) your mind becomes fuzzy and it becomes more challenging to make decisions. Some people may experience a momentary freeze response before they are then able to fight or flee, but for others, they become unable to help themselves.

Knowing how your body responds to danger will not only help you better manage the situation, it can help you help others. If you have a fight or flight response, you can help those who freeze find a safe place and maintain calm. If you are someone who freezes, being aware of what is happening to your body can help you “snap” out of it and channel your anxiety into a fight or flight response instead. 

OK, now that you have determined your danger response, let’s talk about the next steps.

Stay Calm

When your danger response kicks in, there may still be confusion about what you are experiencing. Staying calm will help ease your confusion much more quickly. However, if you are in imminent danger, as in, you can see the shooter, run. Do not try to calm yourself, just run. If you are in a secure location, take a few deep belly breaths to settle your nervous system. If you can, try to gather your peers and remind everyone to stay calm. Follow any instructions given to you by your teacher, silence your cell phones, and quickly discuss a strategy with your classmates. If you are all able to maintain calm, you can better decide how to proceed. 

Call 911

If you are with a group of students, don’t just shout “someone call 911,” designate a caller. Point to someone, make eye contact with them, and direct that person to call the police. Don’t just assume someone else in the school has called for help, call 911. It is better to have too many people calling than no one. 

Get Out

Now that you have gathered everyone around you, made a plan, called the police, and are in a different area than the shooter, get moving. Leave the building if possible. climb out windows or leave out doors if you can. If you can’t get out, move to a room that offers places to hide or ways to barricade the door/windows. Always run away from the noise as calmly and quietly as you can. If possible, stay together. If, during your escape, you are noticed by the shooter, run as fast as you can in a zigzag motion and do not stop, always keep moving. 

If you are in the same area as the shooter, look for ways to hide and/or shield yourself. If you can, do so quietly and quickly. If you are spotted by the shooter, run. Run fast and zigzag if possible. Do not look back, just run. If you cannot escape, fight. It is possible to survive gunshot wounds and in the chaos, the shooters accuracy will decline. Try to put the fear of getting shot out of you mind and fight. If you fight, remember to aim high. Hit them with any makeshift weapon you can grab (a chair, a flagpole, books, etc.) and try to hit the gun out of their hands. If you don’t have a weapon, aim for the head, eyes, nose, neck or shoulders. If you are with other people, attack as a mob. 

Help the Injured

If you are able to reach safety and anyone in your group has been shot or injured, do your best to stabilize them and stop any bleeding. If you have access to a first aid kit, use it. To stop bleeding, wear gloves if possible and apply pressure to the wound. If you can, elevate the wound above the person’s heart, this will slow the flow of blood and help minimize how much they lose. If the person is bleeding heavily from their limbs, tie off the area with a shirt, towel, jacket, or anything that can act as a tourniquet. Always tie off the limb “above” the wound, meaning, make sure the tie is between the wound and the heart. Do your best to maintain calm and to help the injured  person stay calm as well. Do not leave them alone, stay with them. 


This is what might be the hardest part. If you are in a safe place, wait where you are. This can seem counter to what your body is telling you to do, but remaining calm and quiet will help assure your and your peer’s safety. Wait for police, paramedics, or other trusted adults to come and get you. If you can do so safely, contact your parents and tell them where you are. This would also be a good time to call the police again. Tell them who and where you are, they may be able to give you an update on what is going on. 

Speak Up

Once you are safe and removed from the situation, speak up about your experience. Share videos, tweets, Facebook or Instagram posts, do everything you can to help the general public understand what you just went through. If you feel something needs to change, that you deserve to be safe a school, now is the time to fight for what you believe in. A lot of politicians, especially those who take money from gun lobbies like the National Rifle Association, will tell you now is not the time to “politicize” this tragedy. Every single time there is a school shooting, their answer is “not now,” “pray instead,” but really what they are doing is avoiding having a conversation about gun control. Do you know why? Because they have a lot of money to lose. 

Click here to see if your representatives take money from the gun lobby.

So, fine John McCain, Marco Rubio, Paul Ryan, and all the other lawmakers getting rich from the NRA, we won’t talk about gun control in the wake of the Douglas High School shooting. But plenty of time has passed since Columbine (1999). How about Virginia Tech (2007)? Or what about Sandy Hook (2012)? There was a school shooting in 1966 (University of Texas, Austin), can we talk about that one yet? 

The time to wait is over. 

The time to talk is NOW.


Tell your representatives that your lives and safety are worth more than their NRA bribes. 




Hey all! My name is Amy Sutherland (she/her), and I have been passionate about sexual health since before I hit puberty. I've spent most of my adult life working as a writer focusing on health and wellness. More particularly, women’s reproductive health. 

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