AUGUSTA, Maine — In late October 1995, a 17-year-old student walked into Gardiner Area High School with a hunting rifle and a knife. He detained school staff, then went outside and fired a shot into the air, causing students who were evacuating the school to flee across athletic fields.
A Maine State Police negotiator spent 20 minutes talking to the youth by cellphone, eventually convincing him to put down his weapons and surrender.
Rep. Timothy Marks, a Pittston Democrat serving his first term in the Legislature, was one of the state troopers who responded to the incident. Retired after 25 years with the Maine State Police, Marks said if a similar situation occurred today, the police approach would be much different.
“Since Columbine [the 1999 mass shooting at a Colorado high school], the philosophy totally changed,” Marks said. “Instead of setting up the perimeter, you form a squad and go in and take care of the threat. It was opposite of what I was trained in 1986 in the academy. … A guy in a school with a gun is a threat, so you shoot him.”
Gun threats in Maine schools remain rare. In 2008, an armed man held a class hostage at an elementary school in Stockton Springs. In 2009 and 2010, students with loaded handguns were arrested at Maine high schools. But the 1995 incident in Gardiner remains the closest thing to an “active shooter” scenario at a Maine school.
“Active shooter response” strategies are now a common part of comprehensive emergency plans that Maine school boards must approve annually since the Legislature passed a law requiring them in 2007. Their emergence illustrates how much Maine’s focus on school security has shifted since Columbine.
Last month’s mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., renewed questions about whether Maine schools are as safe as they can be — and what role firearms play in addressing that concern.
The Maine Education Association, a teachers union, argues that firearms detract from school safety. In a Dec. 21 response to the National Rifle Association’s call to place armed security officers in schools, Lois Kilby-Chesley, the union’s president, said, “We should not be wasting time discussing misguided ideas about filling our schools with firearms.”
Kenneth Trump, president of the National School Safety and Security Services, also advises against arming school staff, citing concerns about liability, ongoing training and an elevated risk of accidental shootings.
But Sen. David Burns, R-Whiting, also a former Maine state trooper, believes allowing trained school employees to carry concealed weapons in schools merits consideration as a public safety option, especially as a way to “buy time” for first responders rushing to a crisis at a remote school. Burns submitted legislation that would make it legal for school staff who undergo rigorous screening and training to carry concealed weapons.
“Rural schools have fewer resources,” he said. “Law enforcement is stretched thin. They are just as adept, but they have so much area to cover, and it’s difficult to have a quick response. … I consider this the last line of defense when you wait for emergency response.”
Final wording of the bill is not complete, but Burns hopes his proposal will prompt a “comprehensive discussion” that considers all options to ensure school safety.
Gregory Potter, superintendent of Regional School Unit 19, based in Newport, has created a Google site that compiles some of those options, which he shares with other educators. He said policy makers must be cognizant of the negative impact well-intentioned efforts to beef up security could have on student achievement.
“I think it’s about a balance, a serious discussion of the risk, but at the same time we want our schools to be open, inviting, safe and exceptionally positive learning environments,” he said.
Dwane Hubert, a division director who oversees preparedness for the Maine Emergency Management Agency, said he believes the state’s schools are better prepared for emergencies than they were five years ago, when he started at MEMA.
Hubert provides resources and advice to schools working to craft emergency preparedness plans. He said the most cost-effective way to ensure a safe environment is to “instill a culture that preparedness is important and have everybody in the school on board.”
That means enforcing existing policies, such as keeping doors locked even when it’s inconvenient and not assuming that cameras or barriers guarantee safety.
“Equipment is only as good as the culture of school,” he said.
Hubert also encourages schools and public safety officials to develop, practice and revise emergency response plans regularly.
In April 2011, Brunswick High School conducted the state’s first large-scale active shooter response drill during a regular school day. Raven Dolham, now 18 and a senior at Brunswick High School, was in the building at the time of the “active shooter response” scenario, but he said it didn’t make much of an impact.
“When we knew they were practicing, it kind of became background because we knew it was a test,” he said.
Dolham said he generally feels safe in school and rarely thinks about security. “I haven’t had a cause to think that school wasn’t safe or something to worry about,” he said.
A Brunswick police school resource officer assigned to the school enhances safety, Dolham said. However, arming school staff would have the opposite effect.
“I would not feel safe if I knew a teacher was carrying a Glock at any time,” Dolham said. “I would feel more like in a prison encampment.”
Aidan Perkinson, 11, a sixth-grader at Brunswick Junior High School, agreed. “I would feel a lot less safe,” he said. “I think it would be only a matter of time before one of them went a bit crazy, and we would have a school shooting, and the shooter would be a teacher.”
Perkinson said the school resource officer and thick, locked doors make him feel safe in school. “It’s about as safe as it gets without being overly protective,” he said.
Pointing out that rural schools often can’t afford school resource officers, Burns suggests that a teacher or other school employee who completes the comprehensive training his bill requires could provide a similar sense of security to what school resource officers offer.
President Barack Obama included proposals in his Jan. 16 list of responses to the Newtown shooting that would fund an additional 1,000 school resource officers nationwide, but how those officers would be paid after the grants expire creates leeriness.
Dolham’s sister, Aurora, said she feels safer at Brunswick High School than she did at Brunswick Junior High, largely because the high school is a much newer building. That observation highlights one of the challenges that school administrators face, according to Potter.
Schools in Maine differ markedly in age and design, he said, creating a wide variance in what it would cost to adapt some buildings for optimum safety. Although Obama’s Jan. 16 plan also offers grants to schools for emergency planning, finding a fair way to meet each school’s unique needs requires a local solution, Potter said.
“I would like to see local school boards have more options for facility and training enhancements,” he said. “Sometimes simply replacing a set of doors in a key location can help.”
To create a culture of safety, Raven Dolham said, school and community officials must mix security precautions with empathy for students who struggle outside school.
“If you are subjected to beatings and bullying, you are more likely to become that person,” he said of people who commit violent acts. “If you’re brought up in a family where you’re shown love and care, you know how to care for people, will show compassion and won’t want to take out rage and anger because of things that happen to you. What people are missing is that you can’t expect people to show compassion all the time if they haven’t experienced it.”
Robert Long is a political analyst for the BDN.