Lessons Learned from the Seattle Pacific University Shooting: an Interview with Cheryl Michaels

Emergency preparedness doesn’t happen overnight – nor does it happen in a vacuum.

On June 5, 2014, a man armed with a shotgun killed 1 student and injured 2 more at Seattle Pacific University.  While much has been discussed and lauded about the university’s security operations center — how it was able to lock the entire campus down within 15 seconds of receiving notification of shots fired, and a mass notification system alerting the SPU community was delivered in minutes, the planning and preparations for such an event had actually been going on for more than a decade.

Join this recorded webinar to hear host Cheryl Michaels as she discusses:

  •  the culture of preparedness SPU developed;
  • the response by the university, police, EMS, and the media;
  • as well as the various actions taken during the ongoing recovery phase.


Justice Clearinghouse Editors (JCH): You’ve talked a lot the role of SPU’s planning and preparedness and how that influenced both the university’s and local law enforcement’s responsiveness to the shooting. Can you share a bit about how the university has approached disaster preparedness, in general, and how that has become an integral part of your planning processes?

Cheryl Michaels: SPU has definitely embraced the whole-community, all-hazard approach to emergency planning. In 2001, following the Nisqually Earthquake, the University began a risk assessment of the hazards the University could face and developed a long-term management plan for disaster preparedness and response. Risk management expert Gordon Graham defines risk management as “the process of looking into the future (short or long term) and asking what can go wrong and then doing something about it to prevent it from going wrong.” I would also add, mitigate the impact if/when the event does occur.

Our risk analysis focused on our community’s vulnerability to specific hazards and identified the common components in different emergency scenarios. Planning and resources could then be dedicated to those risks. This allowed us to build a plan around core functions that would be needed in most disasters, such as leadership structure, communications, medical first aid, psychological first aid, evacuation and sheltering/lockdown.

While some emergencies may have hazard-specific components, we found that in preparing for one emergency scenario, it influenced our ability to prepare for other types of emergencies. For example: SPU developed a psychological first aid response team for our earthquake planning. This in-house team of 60+ faculty and staff trained annually to provide immediate care following a natural disaster.  The written plan did not specifically address the use of this People Response Team in a shooting. However, within a half-hour of the shooting, the team was mobilized to provide this care for the students, faculty, and staff that were in the immediate area of the shooting. The immediate need was addressed and we avoided the delay of bringing an out-sourced response team to campus.


“It’s during a time of crisis, with so much attention focused on your organizational response

that your values will be tested.”

Cheryl Michaels


JCH: People often say that you can try to plan for everything – but that inevitably something gets missed. What did you and the university learn from going through this horrible event? How did your experience shape your ongoing and subsequent disaster preparedness efforts?

Cheryl:  First and foremost – we learned what an amazing community SPU has. As a faith-based institution, our individual and institutional response was grounded in our values. In fact, it added a new dimension to the media’s reporting and became a story in and of itself. Dr. Dan Martin, President of SPU wrote of our community response “… the Seattle Pacific community responded to the tragedy by doing what came naturally. We gathered together, cried together, prayed together, cared for one another, and trusted God. Students organized themselves into prayer and support groups, held candlelight vigils, and ministered to the needs of their classmates.”

As I reflected on this, I thought of two insights I’d like to share. It’s during a time of crisis, with so much attention focused on your organizational response that your values will be tested. In responding to a tragedy, demonstrate these values consistently in all your actions; it’s these principles that will remind your community of the qualities you embrace personally and professionally. Second, there is a great deal of healing that comes from grieving together. Create many opportunities for your employees, their families, and the greater community to support one another. In 2015 there were over 50 school shootings. Each incident was a reminder for our community of own experience. Be sensitive to the impact of these other tragedies will have, acknowledge these events and offer your community opportunities to gather together in support as they need.

While we didn’t think of everything, the most immediate life safety response components were in place and activated very quickly. Campus buildings were remotely locked down fifteen seconds after our operations center received the first notice of the shooting. Within the next minute, our mass notification system had been activated, security officers dispatched to the scene, police were given the exact building address, and intelligence gathered from video surveillance.

For those things not considered beforehand, our planning and preparedness actions created a capacity to deal with the unexpected. I mentioned the People Response team before as an example of applying one emergency response element to another scenario. Another example involves the retrieval and return of personal property. After the police had completed their crime scene investigation they turned control of the facility back over to the University. Our planning had not taken into consideration the logistics of collecting and returning employees’ and students’ property that they’d left when they evacuated the building. We quickly decided to use our lost and found property procedure. Security staff were able to document the property collected and the location the property was retrieved from. As individuals returned to campus for their belongings, we were able to match the contents with the owner for a very seamless process.

The University’s commitment to emergency preparedness was validated and never wavered following the shooting. SPU continues to invest in the planning and implementation of our preparedness actions each year.


JCH: Unfortunately, shooting events continue to be ever-present in the news. If a school, university or workplace is thinking about starting a plan for how to respond to a shooter on their premises, how would you advise them in terms of getting started? 

Cheryl: A recent study of 888 individuals by Everbridge found that 69 percent of organizations view an active shooter incident as a potential top threat, but 79 percent replied that their organizations were not fully prepared for this type of event.

Perhaps analysis paralysis or concerns that the scope is too big, or lack of support are barriers these organizations face. An organization won’t begin without accepting the mindset behind the barriers. Then, to borrow from Stephen Covey, “begin with the end in mind.


  1. Create the vision. What would an institutional response to an active shooter look like? What elements need to be in place? List out the life-saving components, capacity, and processes. Don’t concern yourself with the cost at this stage. Communication should be at the top of this list. You want the ability to tell your community about a danger so they can take personal action to protect themselves. You want a communication strategy with the police and fire to relay accurate information quickly as well as a communication plan for the organization’s leadership. How will leadership respond when they’re notified? What decisions do you know they will have to make during the response and recovery phases? Consider mitigation tools that create an environment where individuals can take protective steps (for example, get behind a locked – not barricaded – door. What actions will your in-house first responders take? How often will you practice your response? Who will practice; will it just be the in-house first responders or will the entire organization take part?
  2. Next, develop a master plan. Begin applying the cost to the components but don’t worry about the total cost yet or where the funds will come from. We would all love to have unlimited funds to implement our vision in year one. This is where many people get hung up because it can’t be done all at once. Your plan should take the long view. It will take years to prepare and it’s more cost-efficient to implement your plans over several years. For example, some physical mitigation components will need to be replaced over time. A multi-year install means the institution doesn’t take a financial hit to replace these parts at the same time. You spread the cost of installation and replacement over several years. It will also take several years to build a culture of preparedness. Individuals may be reluctant to participate in training but over time, with leadership support, it will be an important part of your organization. Your plan should lay out where you want to be in ten years, twenty years, etc. Divide your estimated cost by the years. Write a plan with established priorities to be implemented on an annual schedule with an estimated funding requirement, per year.
  3. Take your plan to your administration and solicit buy-in. Hopefully, you’ve already been having these discussions with your administration. While you’re developing your plan, consider ways to share your concerns. Bring in subject matter experts to discuss the risks. Share examples of other organizations and the impact of these tragedies. Present your master plan and discuss how it will address the risks you’ve identified.
  4. Now that you have your administration’s support and funding, work the plan. Evaluate your plan after every drill and every real incident. Make adjustments as needed. Perhaps your plan states you will spend $200,000 in year 3 for video surveillance or a public address system but your organization is facing a short-fall. Adjust your goal and spend $100,000 in year 3 and then $100,000 in year 4.  Year after year, move the bar forward on your master plan.



“A recent study found that 69% of organizations view an active shooter incident as a potential top threat,

but 79% replied that their organizations were not fully prepared for this type of event.”

Everbridge 2016 Research Study, “Active Shooter Preparedness



JCH: Looking back over your planning process, are there things you wish you had done differently? Prioritized certain activities in a different order?

Cheryl: An organization cannot know which crisis it will face first. Or, where in the multi-year implementation, which year it will occur in. We set our priorities for certain mitigation and preparedness components at the very beginning in 2001 and after a re-evaluation in 2007. We prioritized locking of doors, mass notification, and training for everyone in the organization. Given our situation, everything that was needed was in place.


JCH:  It’s been 3 years since SPU experienced their shooting. How has the shooting changed/impacted/influenced your school and its organizational culture?

Cheryl: SPU’s culture of preparedness has only become more ingrained after the shooting. Individuals are more aware of their surroundings and more apt to call campus safety if they have a concern than before. No one asks to opt out of campus wide drills (we conduct two to three a year) even though they interrupt business and classes. In 2015, SPU received the King County Executive’s Award for Community Preparedness. SPU President Dan Martin said, “The SPU community places a high importance on emergency planning and preparedness, and we continue to work on updating and improving our response in a time of crisis. We do have an extraordinary community here at SPU, and this award goes to the many hardworking staff and faculty members who are dedicated to making our campus as safe as possible.”  Three years after the shooting SPU remains just as committed to its community’s safety.


JCH: The Justice Clearinghouse community is made up of the whole spectrum of justice professionals: from cops to prosecutors to probation, victims’ advocates, courts, etc. If you could provide any advice to them – in terms of ensuring schools, universities and organizations – are better prepared for the potential active shooter, what would you say?

Cheryl: I remember being a new parent, and armed with a list of questions I interviewed each potential pre-school regarding their safety protocols. Back then, I was concerned about medical responses, fire drills, and earthquake preparedness. Justice professionals, with our additional insight to the dangers of active shooters, and the increase in hybrid targeted violence should be asking our schools and organizations about their procedures and their capacity to respond to these events.  At a minimum (especially for schools), there should be ANSI Grade 1 locksets on each door and security film on glass storefronts and other spaces vulnerable to access by breaking glass. Door locks and security film are the low hanging fruit and the most cost-efficient for the return; as far back as Columbine, no one has been shot if they were behind a locked (not barricaded) door. Creative alternatives, such as belts around automatic door openers offer a false sense of security and may violate fire code if they prevent a person from egressing a space. Door locks are the minimum safety standard that we should expect from our schools, and ideally our organizations. I strongly recommend reading the Sandy Hook Advisory Committee Final Report, in particular, the section on classroom security standards.


Click Here to Watch “Lessons from the Seattle Pacific University Shooting.”



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