In September 2008, I wrote an OpEd about the threat of active shooters inside our community’s schools. I warned that terrorists have been considering attacking our schools and have even rehearsed such plans. The responses to my column were predictable. I was fear mongering. This was not a real threat.
Less than two months later, on Oct. 31, 2008, a man with a handgun took 11 fifth-graders hostage in a Stockton Springs elementary school. The episode got some people’s attention and sparked some responsible conversations about bad people in schools with guns.
Those conversations led to a unique tabletop exercise involving multiple agencies using an active shooter scenario on May 30 in Machias. I was privileged to help design and facilitate an exercise directed to explore a community’s response capability to a shooter on a school campus in Maine. We had officials from law enforcement, fire, the forestry department, local emergency management, the county sheriff, the Maine State Police, school representatives and others in the emergency response community. The goal was to push ignorance aside and through bold leadership from school officials have a frank conversation about this horrible possibility. Here is what we learned:
We learned that Maine’s law enforcement professionals are more than capable of handling these situations. Our police officers are expertly trained to take out the bad guys. Countless hours of training, war games and actual situations (such as hostage negotiations) have kept our police officers at the top of their game. If police officers are given enough space and time, active shooters don’t stand a chance.
The question then became, “Well, what does everyone else do?” The answer was, “Provide police officers space and time,” and that is a big job. The officers are training for only a brief moment in the timeline of an active shooter episode — the rest is everyone else’s responsibility.
Prevention is the most important and difficult task in front of our educators, administrators and police officers. Profiling and stereotyping are dangerous political paths to travel when trying to find the bogeyman, especially when dealing with schoolchildren. Preparing our schools to respond to a shooter is not as simple as installing a fire alarm or practicing fire evacuation drills, but we should treat the threat as seriously as we do a fire. Who wants metal detectors and armed police officers patrolling the halls of our elementary schools? We should commit as much training and resources to prevent student harm as we do for a fire. Security policy reviews, tabletop exercises, and full-scale exercise with a shooter as the scenario should be the norm and not the exception.
During and immediately after an attack, communication protocols have to be in place to ensure the safety of the public and the students. The plan must also be cognizant of what the police officers are trying to accomplish, including the management of a crime scene and the eventual building of a case against the perpetrator. While our exercise simulated our communication plan, conducting such a plan in reality can be complicated. Communication plans need to be reviewed and rehearsed to ensure that what the public is being told immediately after the event is accurate and provides officers space and time to handle the situation. Communicating patience and understanding to a scared student or a frantic parent is no easy task and, if done poorly, results in disaster.
Lastly, recovering from such a tragedy has to happen as quickly as the mourning process will allow. This was a solemn conversation to have during our exercise. Plans to bring counselors to the school are in place, but how do we convince parents that it’s safe to let their children come back to school? Whose job is that and how do we communicate it? More importantly, how do we guarantee their safety? Our schools have faced tragedy before, but I would argue that achieving post-event equilibrium in a shooting scenario would take new skills and new protocols.
We are fortunate to have expertly trained and competent police forces that have the tactical expertise to deal with a shooter. We need to support them and our school administrators and educators who are taking this threat seriously. We can support them by understanding the need for policies that help detect the threat and equipment and procedures that deter the threat. But most importantly, we can support them by admitting the threat is real.
Darryl Lyon of Bangor is an assistant professor of military science at the University of Maine’s ROTC program. He is a career military officer and a member of the Maine Army National Guard.