SOS: Safety of students — Area police, fire, school officials develop response to active shooter
JEFFERSON -- It is sadly not an exaggeration to say U.S. schools are under a relatively new form of siege in the form of students entering their own school buildings, heavily armed, to murder fellow students.
Although it has not happened here, Jefferson County school officials, law enforcement and emergency responders are already saying, “Enough.”
During a firmly presented, thoroughly organized, succinct meeting on public safety Monday evening, representatives of the School District of Jefferson; members of the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Department; Jefferson fire, EMS and police departments, as well as other area emergency responders, made it clear they may well be the most well-prepared responders for such incidents not only in the state, but the nation.
Jefferson School District Superintendent Mark Rollefson said he wished it was possible to turn back time a few decades to eras when things like the school violence of Columbine and Sandy Hook were not so prevalent, but that is obviously not possible. Facing that reality, area educators, law enforcement and emergency responders are teaming up to fight the menace that is the threat of modern-day school violence.
“I feel a sense of solidarity in (local law enforcement and emergency responder support),” Rollefson told about 50 people in attendance at the session held at the Jefferson Performing Arts Center, some of whom brought their teenage children with them.
Rollefson stated at the beginning of the session the meeting would shed considerable light on what local leaders are doing to make schools safe, but they would not tip their hands in all areas.
“Some things we will share tonight and some things we won’t,” he said.
Among the many matters addressed were the basic prevention of school violence, as well as proper reaction to it, data and trends, available shelter, school lock-ins, evacuation plans and perhaps the evening’s overriding theme -- that of “Run, Hide, Fight.” The subject of anti-bullying was also prevalent at times because so many school shootings in recent years seem to have resulted from a student feeling abused by peers.
Addressing the “Run, Hide, Fight” concept more in-depth, Rollefson and others said the data gleaned from recent school shooting incidents indicates students should first run from the danger. If they can’t, they should find a place to hide. If that doesn’t work, they and teachers, should fight the threat.
Jefferson County Sheriff’s Department Deputy Bill Dandoy may be one of the most well-trained law enforcement officers in the United States when it comes to neutralizing school shooters. To date, Dandoy himself has trained approximately 2,500 people in the Jefferson County area in the concepts of school safety in dangerous situations, right down to teaching hands-on self-defense techniques. He said all the school districts in Jefferson County are now trained in how to address active-shooter scenarios.
“The world can be a dangerous place, but we are taking steps to make it less so,” he said.
Dandoy, visibly choked up at one point while talking about the Sandy Hook school violence of December 2012, said the “fight” portion of the defense is perhaps the most challenging, but these fights are winnable.
“These active shooters are not built for battle,” Dandoy said. “They crumble at the least resistance ... Teachers will be defending their classrooms. I urge you to talk to your children. We are living in a different age. None of us here in this meeting, while we were in school, had to face these threats. We need to be proactive on this and we in law enforcement, fire and emergency planning take pride that we are out front.”
Jefferson police Chief Ken Pileggi was animated and passionate in describing his department’s role in preventing and/or handling a school shooter situation. He said for his department in any such incident, it would be “all hands on deck.”
Pileggi described his department’s training; coordination of efforts among police, sheriff, fire and EMS; communications; central command; how to target the threat; dealing with media and parents; and placement of barricades and blockades, among many other concerns.
“We have all the equipment and training. We are ready to go,” Pileggi said. “You will hate to hear this, but we don’t train for ‘if it’s going to happen,’ we train for ‘when it’s going to happen’ and we have a very solid plan and foundation in place. We are a very structured organization, so we make some great decisions.”
Pileggi said, unlike some members of law enforcement in the recent Florida school shooting that claimed 17 lives, Jefferson County law enforcement has its plan and “we are going in.”
“We are going in and we are going in hard -- until we neutralize that threat or that person,” Pileggi said.
Rollefson gave direct advice to parents to pass along to their children, that being, if they see something suspicious to say something to an adult about it. He said students should always listen to their teachers’ directions.
“That is a very vital piece of this,” he said.
It was noted the school district has the final say in how school shooter situations should be handled at all levels and district officials, law enforcement and emergency responders are all in agreement about existing plans and methods of handling emergencies.
“We are going to stay out in front of this,” Dandoy said, adding the high level of cooperation among the different agencies involved is what makes everything work so well.
Pileggi implored parents to stay away from any school that would come under attack or be faced with any other kind of emergency, such as a tornado. He said the instinct of any parent is to go to where their children may be in danger, but this is the wrong thing to do in school emergencies because it hinders effectiveness of law enforcement.
“You have to trust us,” he said. “You can’t take these precious law enforcement and emergency responder resources away by coming to the school. You have to trust us that we will get your baby back safe. That wait-time can be terrible, but you have to trust us.”
The final piece of the “Run, Hide, Fight” framework, according to Rollefson, is “notify.”
This notification portion of the approach includes a plan for reunification of students, staff and the community after the danger has passed. School district and local law enforcement communications specialists have plans in place for getting the community back on track after any situation of extreme stress.
“We have a handle on this,” Pileggi said.
“We want to get it into everyone’s heads that, when it’s done, everyone is notified to get everyone where they need to be,” Rollefson said, adding debriefing will also be part of the conclusion of the process.
In response to a parent’s question, the expert panel said local EMS staff members will soon be coming on board to provide basic life-saving techniques to educators and others.
Pileggi and Dandoy assured those present that Jefferson County law enforcement is “way ahead” of most of the rest of the U.S. in their training and preparedness to handle school shooting situations -- and they are passionate about it.
“We don’t want to be paranoid, we want to be prepared,” Dandoy said. All involved are constantly allowing their approaches to adapt and evolve.
“God forbid it happens,” Pileggi said, “but if it does, we’re ready to go. We have something special here. We have a plan in place and I’ll be scared, but I’m coming in. Our commitment is 100 percent.”