Ed.’s Note: Today is part two of a three-part series looking at the rules and procedures involved in protecting school children and their possible implementation.
What happens when the unthinkable happens?
School shootings are happening more and more around the country, recently testing school policies and procedures in Pennsylvania and New Mexico. Fortunately, those incidents did not end in mass casualties. However, the tragic deaths of 26 people, including 20 children, at the hands of an armed assailant in Newtown, Conn. sent chills down the spine of every American in December 2012.
But could a scenario like that unfold in a Bossier Parish school?
This three part series will take an in-depth look at what happens behind closed doors when a ‘worst case scenario’ happens. Chief Danny Dison, Director of Security for the Bossier Parish School System, said safety is the number one priority when it comes to protecting the 22,000 students, faculty and administrators on the 34 Bossier Parish campuses.
Procedures are in place, drills are conducted monthly and law enforcement agencies say they are ready for a worst case scenario, if one ever arises. Such tragedies, like that at Sandy Hook Elementary, are a grim reminder of how important a plan of action is.
“Obviously Sandy Hook is foremost on our minds, but these situations are happening more frequently,” he said. “Will it happen here? Probably not. Could it happen? Yes it could.” The first step in prevention efforts is deterrence, Dison said. The Bossier Parish School System works hand-in-hand with each law enforcement agency in the parish and have developed an organized system for an active shooter scenario.
This is where having armed officers on school grounds come into play. ”You can not place a price tag on having a marked Sheriff unit in front of a school and a uniformed officer present inside the school building,” he said. “That is the basis of our School Resource Officer program. They are our first line of defense for securing our schools.” A School Resource Officer (SRO) is a trained, seasoned law enforcement officer assigned to a specific school by the appropriate law enforcement agency and the Bossier Parish School Board. Dison said officers undergo specific training in an active shooter scenario.
Their main objective, he added, is to eliminate the threat. “They are not aiming to injure,” Dison said. “Teachers know what they need to do when we go into crisis lockdown. Once the officers get there, they enter the school and are trained to eliminate the threat.”
The Bossier Parish School System has a zero tolerance policy for weapons of any kind, including brass knuckles, knives, real or toy guns, on school property. Dison said there have been instances where a student is caught with a pellet gun or plastic toy gun .
“We take that seriously,” Dison said. “I’m not saying we’re going to arrest an eight-year-old child, but we will get the parents involved and make them understand that it’s unacceptable at school.”
There was also an instance two years ago when a School Resource Officer found a gun on a student during a pat down. Dison said the SRO made an arrest right there on the scene, utilizing the skills and hours of training gathered for such an occasion.
Although that particular student was not an immediate threat to the school, regularly scheduled safety drills are still conducted at each campus, include crisis lockdowns, tornado/weather drills, as well as fire drills. If there is an active shooter on a school campus and a lockdown is in place, law enforcement agencies take over and put their security plans into action. Bossier Sheriff Julian Whittington said every agency has a job and each know the job they have to do.
“A police officer or deputy’s first responsibility is to take out the person causing the problems. Our first responders and medical teams move in and treat the injured as soon as possible,” Whittington said. “The school system has made floor plans of all school campuses available to us so law enforcement isn’t walking into a situation blindly. We know these shootings can be over in a matter of minutes so the faster we get in there, the better.”
Security plans are often tested and improved with campus drills and extensive officer training. Dison said they have even used the massacre Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo, where two heavily armed students killed 12 students and one teacher in April 1999 before killing themselves, to improve security tactics.
“The first officers on the scene aren’t waiting to enter the school. They are going in to find the source of the gunfire,” Dison said. “Law enforcement waited an hour before entering Columbine and that time is precious since these situations often last just minutes.”
In the event of an active shooter, Whittington said the Sheriff’s Office will rely on public information officers and news media outlets to relay accurate information to the public.
“Cell phones have changed the way information is released and it doesn’t take long for panic to set in because of misleading information posted to a social media website,” Whittington said. “It’s best for parents to stay calm, stay back and wait for instructions from law enforcement. Our plan is to set up a central location that will serve as an informational area for the media as well as a place for parents and families to reunite with their children in the wake of a tragedy.”
Ideally, Whittington hopes there never comes a time when these plans are used. The school system, however, continues to move forward with security measures, improving security at existing schools and planning for those coming in the near future.
One example is the new Haughton Middle School, which will house 1,500 students in grades sixth through eighth upon its completion. It will be the first three-story middle school in the parish, designed to house all students in one secured building with only one main entrance onto campus.
Dison said the school system has also installed safe entrances in several elementary schools, including Curtis and Sun City, to prevent guests from entering the main part of the school building. Improving these features, he added, allows the school administrators to be more in control.
“We have been very proactive in maintenance department and we started this process way before Sandy Hook,” Dison said. The Bossier Schools website says the school system “is currently in the process of installing security cameras on all elementary campuses.”
“Once in place, this system will provide an additional tool in maintaining a safe school environment to exist at all 18 elementary schools,” according to the website.
However, Dison said there’s not a single plan or any amount of security equipment to make a school 100-percent safe. “These aren’t prisons with 10 foot tall fences around the perimeter,” he explained. “It’s impossible to lock every single door on a high school campus because of the amount of foot traffic between classes. That’s why we value our School Resource Officers.”
Whittington agreed, commending Superintendent D.C. Machen and the Bossier School System for taking a proactive approach with the SRO program. He added that School Resource Officers will be added to elementary schools starting next year and into the following year, or “until every school and alternative school has one.”
“The school system knew we needed the officers, we knew we needed it too,” Whittington said. “The community support tells us that they see the importance of protecting our children so we will make it happen. The best thing we can do is plan, prepare hope that it never happens here.”