Expert: Plan for 'when,' not 'if' school shootings occur

Hamilton Co. active shooter training well attended

CINCINNATI - Greg Power didn't quite know what to expect when he arrived at the Hamilton County Education Service Center in New Burlington Thursday morning.

As superintendent of the Little Miami School District in Warren County, he was there for "Active Shooter Training" being held by the office of Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine.

"Sometimes you don't know what you don't know," Power said before the four-hour session began. "If there are changes and things that we can do to make the environment more safe for our kids, then that's what we're going to do."

Representatives from 20 school districts and a dozen police agencies in southwest Ohio crowded into a small conference room to learn the latest techniques to prevent school shootings and how to plan to handle them if they occur.

There was no talk of arming teachers, designing better security systems or how many surveillance cameras should be placed in school buildings.

Instead, Training Officer James Burke of the Ohio Peace Officer Training Academy led a discussion on people skills such as awareness, communication and cooperation.

Similar sessions are being held throughout the state in the wake of the Columbine, Virginia Tech and Sandy Hook school shootings that have claimed dozens of lives in recent years.

Police training has considerably changed since those tragedies.  The initial arriving officers now focus on neutralizing the threat instead of waiting for more manpower to arrive.

Burke stunned many in the crowd as he bluntly stated that education needs to change as well by planning for "when" a shooting incident will occur, instead of "if" it will take place.

"When you make that shift in your thought process for "when" somebody comes in and tries to do something like this, this was a sobering four-hours," Power said.

According to Burke, there are a number of active shooter risk factors that have emerged over time.

     * Male
     * Age 14-20
     * Troubled home life
     * Mental health problems
     * Psychotrophic drugs
     * Poor academic performance
     * Being on the social fringe
     * Frequent anger or rage

If someone with those characteristics decides to act out, Burke said they do so in five phases.

     * Fantasy Phase -- Dreaming about the shooting, headlines and news coverage
     * Planning Phase -- Deciding where, when and how an incident will take place
     * Preparation Phase -- Acquiring materials to carry out the plan
     * Approach Phase -- The suspect has made his plans and has decided to act
     * Implementation Phase -- The active shooting situation begins

The 1999 Columbine shootings were carried out by Eric Harris and Dylan Kleibold. Burke said that assault was planned for over a year but many people missed signs of what was to come.

He played a 911 call for help from a teacher who was huddled with students in the library as gunfire began to erupt in the Littleton, Colo. school.

The call began with the words, "I'm a teacher at Columbine High School. There is a student here with a gun and he just shot out a window."

Seconds later, it was clear that something was dreadfully wrong.

"The school is in a panic and I'm in the library," the teacher said.  

She continued with the words, "And I've got," then paused and screamed, "Under the tables, kids."

The room in Hamilton County was silent as the terror in the woman's voice was clearly evident to everyone.

Burke used the call as the basis for urging educators and police to personally get to know as many students as possible and regularly communicate with them -- especially the ones that might appear distressed.
"Not one person is going to see all these warning signs," he said. "It's going to be three, four or five different people and if communication is not there to put all those pieces together before the shooting, it's often times missed until the follow-up investigation."

More and more school districts are developing new protocols for school shootings that include action, instead of passively waiting for police to arrive. That includes lockdowns of buildings, barricading doors or windows and even fleeing if that's possible. However, another option is being suggested as well -- fighting.

"If nothing else is stopping them and they're coming through that door, I absolutely want you to fight with everything you have," Burke said. "They're not going to be the ones to show your kids any mercy."

As the session wound down, Burke said he was offering options that those in the class could take with them to enhance their existing crisis plans.

"Form a plan that best fits your facility and your building," he urged.

Christina Blair, assistant superintendent of the Kings Local School District, said she came to the session knowing that the knowledge she gained was going to give the district the ability to alleviate some of the fear of shooting situations.

She said anybody going to enter schools to do damage is way ahead of those in the building, so the training allows the district to put a plan in place to be ready for anything.

"I really think the word of the day was 'options,'" Blair said toward the end of the seminar. "We have different options out there that we need to look at because there's not one set pattern that the situation is going to dictate what we do."

Princeton City Schools had three representatives in attendance -- Security Director James Freland, 6-12 Administrator Steve Castator and High School Attendance Officer Stephanie Lowry.

Freland, the former police chief of Springdale, said what he heard reinforces the plan Princeton already has in place and provides additional ideas for making the schools safer. He was also quick to endorse the idea of fighting back.

"Sometimes there is no other recourse but to fight," he said. "You have to really fight for your life and get out of the school and try to survive that situation."

However, he added that teachers are not expected to be police officers, so it might be difficult to change their attitudes in that area.

Increased awareness of students on a day-to-day basis is the main thing Castator took away from the training.

"Things that we should be looking for as we interact with kids every day," he said. "What might be something that would trigger a person to make a decision to go to that level?"

Lowry focused on the need to plan and communicate that plan with the staff, teachers, parents and the community.

"If you see something that isn't right, if you hear someone talking about something that they're going to bring to school or make a threat to somebody, feel free to come to staff and just tell them," she said.

Burke closed the training by reminding participants of four words the Department of Homeland Security has been using since 9/11 -- "see something, say something."

As he headed back to Little Miami, Power's mind was racing with the works that lies ahead.

"When you begin to think about kids and people and staff and you think about that mayhem and tragedy coming into one of your schools, it's a very sobering moment and unsettling moment," he said.

Power added more professional development will be offered and more collaboration and coordination will be done with safety services.

"We have to plan for the worst and work for the best," he said.

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