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How prepared can we be if evil strikes again?

Wednesday - 12/19/2012, 3:09am  ET

By PAULINE ARRILLAGA
AP National Writer

(AP) - When gunfire erupted at an Oregon shopping mall last week, Shaun Wik knew instantly what to do: Run for the door. And so, when Wik heard a man he believed to be the gunman shout "Get down on the ground!", the 20-year-old fled instead. And he lived.

In Arizona, on a January day two years ago, Mary Reed reacted the way her reflexes told her to when Jared Loughner opened fire on a meet-your-congresswoman gathering at her local Safeway. Reed shielded her then-17-year-old daughter, taking a bullet in the back.

They were two responses that came from very different places. For Reed, 54, it was purely instinctive. "I didn't think about anything," she said. "Mine was just that mammalian part of your mind that protects your child."

Wik's actions, though, weren't merely a fight-or-flight response. As a sophomore in high school, he had learned about the Columbine massacre and was taught to always have an escape route. When it mattered, he did.

Even as we struggle to figure out what happened at Sandy Hook Elementary School _ who did what and why _ the sad frequency of attacks by men with guns is creating a growing school of thought based on a simple premise: Be ready for the bullets. These mass shootings, but also bombings and terror attacks, have fueled a need, rational or not, to be prepared for the worst in whatever form it may come and know how to act when it does.

The city of Houston, one of the nation's largest, has even produced a video advising residents of what to do should they encounter an "active shooter." It is called "Run. Hide. Fight." and was released in the days after a gunman opened fire in July at a midnight "Batman" movie screening in Aurora, Colo., killing 12 people.

After a spate of school shootings that included the 1999 Columbine massacre in Colorado and the 2007 shooting at Virginia Tech, schools heightened security, developed new guidelines for spotting potentially threatening individuals and implemented so-called "lockdown drills" to better help students know what to do in the event of an emergency.

And with Sandy Hook, it seems to have marched forward: Have we gone so far down this rabbit hole of mass murder in America that we must make sure our first-graders are ready with escape routes, too?

The response inside the school, authorities said, seemed to be a mix of the two notions of preparation and instinct _ as teachers, a school psychologist, a principal risked, and in some cases lost, their lives to protect the children in their care.

Lockdown drills were part of the routine for the nearly 450 kindergartners through fourth-graders who attended Sandy Hook. Earlier this year, principal Dawn Hochsprung tweeted a picture of an evacuation exercise, showing little ones bundled in winter coats standing outside the school, quietly in line behind their teachers. Hochsprung died Friday at the gunman's hand.

And while nothing can ever prepare children for what happened at Sandy Hook, having a specific procedure to follow probably did help keep the youngsters calm and focused _ and could potentially minimize the effects of the trauma down the road, said Stephen Brock, a professor of school psychology at California State University, Sacramento.

He recalled in recent days hearing a little girl in Connecticut on the radio "talking about how the teacher told them to go to the corner of the room away from the doors and windows so the animal couldn't get in."

"In her mind, it was probably a ... lion or a tiger," Brock said. Nevertheless, "they followed procedures that they had been drilled in before. By responding appropriately, it can make the situation appear less threatening if there's something that they can do to keep themselves safe."

Not unlike adult survivors of these awful tragedies, children also have their own innate tendencies that help influence their response. Even if they can't make their own decisions to hide or escape _ they know instinctively who can: the adults around them, to whom they look for cues about how to behave.

Think of a child at a park who falls off the swing set, Brock said. If they look over at Mom and she's upset, chances are the child will get upset, too. If not, "They'd wipe ... off their knee and go out and play some more," he said. "Young kids are going to have their threat perception significantly dictated by how the adults around them are behaving."

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