Former University of Nebraska-Lincoln lecturer Randall Bowdish was prepared to discuss what to do in the event of an active shooter — as he did at the beginning of the semester for every class he taught.
But when he walked into his 26-student classroom in January 2016, he noticed what he thought to be a major security flaw.
There was no lock on the inside of the door.
“I looked at the door and said, ‘Oh, well this isn’t good,’” Bowdish said.
“Run, Hide, Fight” is the well-known phrase introduced by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security that has been adopted by a number of businesses and institutions, including UNL. It outlines what to do in the event of an active shooter.
DHS encourages people to run, if possible, as a first option when confronted with an active shooter. If escape is not possible, DHS recommends finding a hiding place outside of the shooter’s view that can be locked or barricaded with heavy furniture.
Bowdish said the lockless door left him with his hands tied in handling active shooter situations.
“When it came to the hide aspect, we were kind of screwed,” he said.
Bowdish and his class continued to go through the protocol and focus on how to fight if confronted with a shooter, rather than discuss where to hide during a shooting.
He used his military background from serving in the United States Navy for 25 years to give advice on preparing for an active shooter situation. Bowdish told his class to throw whatever objects they could at the shooter, something he described as “seizing the initiative.”
While he said he felt his classroom would be well-prepared with his advice in the admittedly low chance of a school shooting, he couldn’t say the same thing about similar UNL classrooms without interior locks.
“Most of the classes are not prepared,” he said. “They would be at the mercy of the shooter.”
Bowdish emailed the UNL Facilities Service Desk in January 2016 notifying them about the lack of a deadbolt or locking feature inside his classroom. He requested that a bolt be installed so his classroom may “safely implement the university’s ‘active shooter’ procedures in the event of an active shooter incident.”
Later that week, the Facilities Service Desk forwarded Bowdish’s request to the facilities structural supervisor and door specialist Steve Childers. Shortly after Childers received the request, he forwarded it to then-UNL Police Department Assistant Chief of Police Todd Duncan for review.
In an email sent to Bowdish on Jan. 15, 2016, Duncan said UNLPD was working with UNL Facilities to evaluate fire code requirements, door hardware options and security.
After this email, Bowdish received no update on his request’s progress for more than three weeks. Bowdish sent a follow-up email to Duncan on Feb. 9, 2016, to inquire about the progress of the door bolt.
Two days later, UNLPD Chief of Police Owen Yardley responded to Bowdish’s request. Yardley said that, after consulting with UNL’s Building Systems Maintenance Building Code Official, UNLPD had been advised that fire code prohibits the use of deadbolts in classroom spaces.
Bowdish said this is an example of administrative inaction that could culminate in tragedy if not addressed.
“The university has an obligation to provide a safe learning environment,” he said. “[A school shooting] probably won’t happen, but if it does, it’s catastrophic.”
Later that spring, Bowdish wrote a thesis on the topic entitled “Active Shooter Security at the University of Nebraska: The Case for Training and Door Locks.”
In his thesis, Bowdish used five university shootings from across the country to discuss the security deficiencies he believed threatened UNL’s student body.
One such shooting took place at Purdue University in 2014, which resulted in the death of a teaching assistant. In the wake of the shooting, the university introduced a number of sweeping changes regarding campus safety.
These changes included installing door locks, emergency alert beacons and desktop pop-up alert windows in classrooms across campus.
A report from the university’s ad hoc panel evaluated Purdue’s security feedback following the shooting, and stated that providing locking hardware for many of the university’s more than 40,000 doors should be taken into serious consideration.
For Bowdish, the case for installing door locks is black and white.
“We need to be proactive rather than reactive,” he said. “These things only seem to become salient when there is a tragedy.”
For others, however, the issue lies in a gray area.
Yardley is no stranger to the discussion surrounding the installation of locks on campus. Throughout his tenure at UNL, he said he has been exposed to both sides of the issue.
Before the 2007 Virginia Tech shooting killed 32 people, Yardley said there was a national push to remove locks from the inside of classrooms. This discussion stemmed from a concern that people could use the locks to commit crimes inside the classroom, such as sexual assault and robbery.
Another argument against the installation of door locks, according to Yardley, is the possibility of locking students out of a classroom in the event of an active shooter.
On Feb. 28, 2018, Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School student Josh Gallagher took to Twitter to express his outrage at a teacher who locked him and other classmates out of a classroom after shots began to ring out in the adjacent building.
Im a victim of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas shooting. Please read my story below as I present the truth about a teacher Mr. Gard (Jim Gard) who calls himself a hero, and how the media portrayed him as hero when in reality he is the opposite. pic.twitter.com/MH70M6Sqhe— Josh Gallagher// MSD STRONG (@JoshBGallagher) March 1, 2018
In a South Florida Sun Sentinel article, the teacher, Jim Gard, said he was following protocol in choosing to lock the door.
“I looked back down the hall and no one was around — no one,” Gard said in the article. “You have to close the door. That’s protocol. We have no choice.”
From Yardley’s perspective, the discussion surrounding door locks is fluid. He said there is currently no solution when it comes to finding a definitive answer on the subject. Interior locks could be helpful to deter shooters outside of the classroom, but Yardley wondered how people would react to scenarios in which an assailant locked themselves inside the room.
“Then you ask, ‘Well, why were there locks on the door? Why did we allow someone to barricade themselves in the room?’” he said. “It’s going to be a gray area for a long, long time and there is not a solid, concrete answer.”
Instead, Yardley said the best way to prevent school shootings is to be proactive and aware. He added students should report troubling behavior as soon as they become aware of it.
“Most school shootings, I don’t think there has been an exception here, there’s been information ahead of time,” he said. “To me, being proactive and being ahead of it and preventing it from happening is the best way.”
According to UNL building code official and Fire Marshal Richard Firebaugh, someone must be able to exit a classroom under any circumstances.
“Fire code starts with a basic premise that no matter where you are in the building, no matter what language you speak, you should be able to make it out of the building without special tools or knowledge,” he said.
Overall, Yardley said he believes the university has been effective in dealing with safety and security issues on campus.
“I think it’s a campus that’s pretty cohesive in working together to solve problems,” he said. “I think they have a lot of safety and security programs in place that currently exist to identify problems so they can be addressed before they escalate.”
Despite this, Bowdish remains adamant in his belief of the importance of implementing more safety features at UNL.
“The price of a lock pales in comparison to the value of a life,” he said.
This article was originally published in the April/May 2019 special edition of The DN.