Not a question of if, but a matter of when
Cheney School District and local police agency officials hope they have taken sufficient steps and precautions to prevent a school-shooting incident similar to what happened Dec. 14 in Newtown, Conn., and if the unthinkable happens, practiced procedures that would lead to a successful response.
Since 2008, Cheney and Airway Heights police have been participants in shooter-hostage mock training exercises at Eastern Washington University that include other agencies such as the Spokane County Sheriff’s Office, EWU police, Washington State Patrol and local SWAT and firefighting units. And while nothing similar has been done for K-12, Cheney Police Cmdr. Rick Campbell said the training is applicable to any type of similar school situation that should arise.
One of the elements that may assist in a quick response is the use by local law enforcement agencies of Rapid Responder. Developed by Prepared Response Inc. as a result of the 1999 shootings at Columbine High School, Rapid Responder is a computer program that provides over 300 data points of information to responders about participating facilities, as responders are en route to the scene.
Information such as floor plans, building access points, utility cut offs, hazardous materials locations and evacuation routes along with pre-made tactical plans are included in an interactive visual formation that can be seen by police and firefighters in their vehicles, at dispatch centers and on laptops. According to Prepared Response Inc. website, the program is also GIS compatible.
Campbell said officers have recorded much of this information about Cheney schools into the program by doing walk-thrus. Because of the program’s interface capabilities that information is shared among all the agencies.
“We don’t have enough officers,” Campbell said. “It’s going to involve every law enforcement agency in this county and so we train with them.”
Cheney School District Superintendent Dr. Debra Clemens said all district staff and students conduct lockdown drills in preparation for situations such as Newtown. After each drill, done in conjunction with police, information about how the drill was conducted along with results and areas of improvements are also recorded into Rapid Responder.
“The staff knows what to do at each site,” Clemens said. “We take those drills seriously.”
Cheney’s school district and Police Department have also partnered for several years on a school resource officer. The SRO is an active duty officer stationed at the high school, and as a result within a minute or two response time to Betz Elementary and Cheney Middle School, but who also has the capabilities to go to any school within the district.
“That is really important to our staff and parents,” Clemens said.
But while response details to a school incident are in place, preventative measures aren’t as easy to produce. Clemens said they have full time counselors at the schools, and do offer some mental health counseling, but mainly through referrals and done offsite.
There are also special programs for students with behavioral issues who qualify, but due to confidentiality issues, most information about students with these problems is only communicated to teachers and staff dealing with those students.
“I think we’ve struck the right balance,” Clemens said.
Campbell said the department is aware of individuals who move to the community who have had past confrontations with the law, what he termed “frequent flyers” and they try to keep tabs on their activity. Airway Heights Police Chief Lee Bennett said his department is also aware of individuals in the community – home to Cheney School District’s Sunset Elementary – who may not provide an indication they “would do, but are suspected of could do” something requiring an agency intervention.
Bennett said after Newtown he and other city officials met with Sunset Elementary principal Matt Beal and staff about formulating an active shooter town hall meeting to talk with parents and community members, something that will take place after the holidays. For him, while preventative measures should be taken, an active shooter incident likely boils down more to response.
“I wish I could say it would never happen, but I can’t,” he said. “I think communities need to think it’s not if it will happen but when, and if you can prepare to minimize what might happen.”
John McCallum can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.