Union County Sheriff’s Office spearheads meeting to tackle school shooting issues

January 14, 2013 02:08 pm

By Bill Rautenstrauch

The Observer

With shock waves from the Newtown, Conn., school shooting still reverberating, law enforcement officials, headed by the Union County Sheriff’s Office, met with local school administrators Thursday to share ideas about such incidents, and to offer help with training and revamping of policies.

Capt. Craig Ward of the Union County Sheriff’s Office said he was pleased that all schools in the county sent representatives to the meeting, which was held at the Misener Conference Room. He said Newtown has sparked a new urgency among law enforcement and school administration to be better prepared in the event an active shooter walks into a local school.

“We’re all in a scramble to get our arms around this thing,” Ward said. 

Ward, Sheriff Boyd Rasmussen, Deputy Jason McKaig, County Emergency Services Officer J.B. Brock, Union County District Attorney Tim Thompson and La Grande Police Department Lt. Derek Reddington all attended the meeting, presenting ideas that have emerged from studies of incidents that have occurred around the country in the past.

Ward said new approaches have been designed, especially since the mass killings at Colorado’s Columbine High School in 1999.

He said talk focused on the need to get students out quickly, and the possibility of training and arming select staff members who could react quickly and decisively to stop the threat when someone comes into a school and starts shooting. 

“Since Columbine, there’s been a paradigm shift in our thinking,” Ward said.

Ward said that studies of school shootings in recent years show that traditional prevention measures, like hall passes, hall monitors and metal detectors are ineffective because a shooter takes those things into account when he is planning his crime.

“They don’t work because they’re the things he knows he’s got to defeat,” Ward said.

He said that studies on the Columbine massacre, which left 13 dead, and others suggest that once an incident is under way, locking the school down, seeking cover and waiting for law enforcement to arrive sometimes can be the wrong thing to do. 

He said that generally in the past, police patrol units arrived at the scene first, followed by SWAT teams. But an active shooter is trying to kill as many people as he can in as short a time as possible. Often by the time the law enforcement response is fully formed, the casualty count is high.

Ward said the practice of locking the school down and hiding children can worsen the situation. He pointed to the Columbine incident, where students were shot while hiding under desks.

Ward said that according to a new way of thinking, schools and law enforcement should work together to develop rapid intervention techniques, an overall strategy called “Run, Hide, Fight.”

On the law enforcement side, police are being trained to form “contact cells” of four or five officers to get to the scene quickly and go inside to neutralize the threat. But even that can take time, and more so in rural areas like Union County. 

Ward said that in the crucial minutes when contact cells are forming and responding, getting as many children away from the school in as short a time as possible can turn out to be the right thing to do. 

“Up to now, the policy’s been to lock down, and there are times when that’s still appropriate. But we’re talking about an active shooter inside, someone who’s trying to kill as many people as he can,” Ward said. “We’re asking schools to consider a policy that assesses where the threat is and then gives consideration to evacuation as soon as possible.”

He said he knows that hasty evacuation is a little hard for teachers and administrators to accept, mainly because of a natural inclination to account for the whereabouts of each student.

“They worry that they might end up wandering lost out in the woods, but a lot of times that’s better than what might happen if they stay in the school,” Ward said.

Ward also said local law enforcement feels certain that training and arming select staff members in a school can prevent deaths. He said the Sheriff’s Office is willing to provide training for local districts, though he added that the idea has some opposition and will involve discussions among school boards, school administration and labor unions before it is ever implemented.

Ward said he knows that the idea of carrying a gun to work is a hard one for a teacher to accept.

“We know a professional teacher is a person in a nurturing mode,” he said. “We’re not suggesting anybody be compelled to do this. They’d be carefully vetted. We are willing to do the training for the school districts.”

Doug Hislop, superintendent of the Imbler School District, said he is thankful that local law enforcement is so willing to work with school officials on a possibility that haunts everyone.

“We think something like that could never happen here, but the reality is it’s a chance situation that can happen,” he said.

Hislop said the ideas presented on lockdown and evacuation made sense to him. He said that if a shooter is known to be outside, lockdown might be appropriate, but might not be once the shooter has gained access.

On arming staff members, Hislop said he has some ambivalent feelings.

“I’ve got some reservations both ways,” he said. “I’d want myself to be one of those, but I’d want to be sure I had extensive training. Just because I’ve gone hunting or shot a pistol a few times doesn’t mean I’d be ready to do that.”

Hislop said he considers it important to know students well, to identify those who might be having problems and to get them help before a situation spirals out of control. He said communication between school officials, students and parents is an important key. He said he takes seriously everything he hears.

“I’d rather there were a hundred false alarms than to have to face that,” he said. 

Monday, Imbler staff members were attending a meeting with law enforcement that repeated the information shared with administrators last week. Hislop said the school board plans to take up the school shooting issues at its next meeting.

“We’re doing everything we can to make sure our kids are safe,” he said.