Learning to reduce the risk of tragedy
By Fran Odyniec
For The Plain City Advocate
The nation was in shock the morning of Dec. 14, 2012 when news spread about the shooting of 20 students and six staff members at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. by a gunman who had forced his way into the building.
On Tuesday afternoon, Feb. 5, 118 staff and administrators at Tolles Career & Technical Center in Plain City gathered in the school’s auditorium to hear from experts on what precautions and planning are needed to reduce the risk of such a tragedy from happening at Tolles.
Gary Sigrist Jr., of Impact America, a crisis management and training organization in Grove City, and Officer Philip Greenbaum, of the Plain City Police Department, led the 90-minute presentation. Prior to the session, Sigrist met with Tolles Superintendent Kim Davis and her administrative staff to discuss the importance of pre-planning and threat assessment.
Both Sigrist, a former Plain City police officer, a teacher for 25 years and safety director at Southwestern Schools, and Greenbaum, field training officer at the Plain City Police Department, are certified by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security as instructors in law enforcement active shooter emergency response.
Before the auditorium session began, Greenbaum previewed their presentation.
“We will discuss simple things the staff and teachers can do to make classrooms safer,” said the 12-year veteran of the Plain City department. “Also, we will address why a threat assessment should be conducted by the school and how the staff and teachers should work with first responders.”
Referring to the need for awareness, he added, “Denial is the enemy. People think that it (an active shooting incident) will never happen here. There is a growing list of where it has happened.”
“An active shooter has no problem with shooting innocent people,” Sigrist said at the outset of the presentation. “Innocent people don’t shoot back, and an active shooter doesn’t care about escaping. He will most likely end in suicide.”
The presentation, based on data and methods provided by the U.S. Secret Service and given by Sigrist and Greenbaum as a public service, intended to create awareness of key aspects of an active shooting incident which included: the profile of an active shooter; the importance of threat assessment; law enforcement’s response to an active shooter; and the need to enhance a building’s lockdown.
An active shooter will proceed through five phases. “Conceptualization, planning, preparation, approach, and implementation,” Sigrist said.
However, he pointed out that before every active shooter incident that has occurred in the nation, the shooter told somebody about it. At some point in a conversation, the shooter inevitably states who he or she wants to kill, with what weapons, where, and when.
This is classified as leakage which, Sigrist emphasized “should never, ever be not addressed. Leakage makes a difference.”
Leakage can come from a casual conversation or can come from a conversation overheard in passing, journals, homework or video assignments, which he said are indicators that something is wrong.
Sigrist used as an example a statement one student might make to another: “Don’t come to school tomorrow.”
Research from the Secret Service points to the fact that most attackers showed some behavior before the incident that caused others concern or indicated a need for help, Sigrist continued.
Referring to the school environment, he flatly stated, “No one should be allowed to say, ‘I’m gonna kill you.’”
He added that, while that type of threat could be a transient one issued perhaps out of frustration or anger, it should be addressed. Anger is a natural reaction but a threat is unacceptable behavior, he said.
“A proactive response to that type of threat should be to have a discussion with the student and his or her parents explaining that that kind of behavior is not appropriate for school,” Sigrist advised the Tolles staff. He also cautioned about initially meting out a punishment such as suspension in a transient case.
Parent involvement is essential in addressing the behavior in question.
“Mom and dad have to reinforce that message at home,” he said, emphasizing the need for more involvement between parents and the school in explaining to a student why inappropriate behavior doesn’t belong in school.
However, when a person hears someone talking about a list of names he or she has compiled as targets, or tells a fellow-student to get a good seat to watch what will happen tomorrow, this becomes a substantive threat which requires even more immediate action.
“The consequence of such behavior requires discipline,” Sigrist said. “It is the duty of a teacher or administrator to protect other people from a potentially very serious situation.”
That student’s parents must be notified as soon as possible and steps must be taken to prevent violence, protect the intended victims, and provide aid for that student, he said.
“We have to get help for the child and the way he or she feels and how we can fix this,” Sigrist said.
Whether the threat comes from outside or inside the facility, pre-planning is essential.
“Pre-planning allows for immediate response,” Greenbaum said of the importance of building a close relationship with local law enforcement. That involves providing a blueprint of and tours of the facility so that first responders are familiar with its features including entrances, stairways, and room numbers.
“That response will be rapid and aggressive, and will continue until the threat is neutralized,” Greenbaum said.
Sigrist added that response will be quite extensive as local and regional police, fire and rescue units respond to that type of 9-1-1 call.
Pre-planning also is part of a threat assessment program.
Not only does local law enforcement need to become familiar with the facility, but pre-planning also provides a better picture of which areas of a school building are unsafe, what remedial procedures should be taken, and in short, provide staff and administrators with the opportunity to engage in “what if…” thinking, Sigrist said.
Should an active shooter gain entrance to a facility, things will happen fast.
“The shooter looks for the path of least resistance,” Sigrist said of the need for an enhanced lockdown.
“Lock the classroom door, cover the windows, turn out the lights, and stay away from windows and doors,” he told the Tolles staff. “A shooter can’t shoot what he or she can’t see.”
In this case, silence becomes golden.
“There must be no unnecessary noise,” Sigrist said. “Don’t let the shooter know where you’re hiding. Put your cell phones on vibrate.”
An effort should also be made to barricade classroom doors.
“When you barricade an access,” Sigrist pointed out, “it slows the shooter down (as he or she goes about looking for that path of least resistance) while the police are on the way.”
As far as what the Tolles staff could presently do, Sigrist underscored the need for interaction with students.
“Be in the halls between class changes,” he advised. “Develop positive relationships with students. Converse with them so that you have an idea of what’s going on.”
Sigrist also suggested that both staff and students wear identification badges.
“Keep classroom doors locked whether they’re in use or not,” he added.
Emphasizing the need for awareness, Sigrist insisted that the staff “read the safety plan.”
Tolles Superintendent Kim Davis said afterward that the presentation was excellent.
“It took us to a place where it could happen,” Davis said. “We will certainly take a look at threat assessment.”
Tolles already practices a lockdown drill, and has improved its centralized attendance recording procedures.
The center contracts with the Madison County Sheriff’s Office for a school resource officer to be at the school from first bell to dismissal.
“Deputy Matt Jacoby assesses our facility and helps us implement safety procedures,” Davis said. “He’s our first responder and he’s here.”
She indicated that Jacoby and her staff will be taking a more in-depth approach to threat assessment.
The superintendent also explained that Tolles students play a role in threat assessment.
“We have instructed students to tell us when they hear or see something suspicious or out of the ordinary,” she said. “They’re very good at that.”
“It could happen here,” Jacoby said of a potential active shooting incident at Tolles or anywhere, he added. “I’m a resource for the staff and the students. It’s important to build a positive relationship and a good rapport with the students.”
Commenting on Tuesday’s presentation, Jacoby said, “This information potentially could save your life and others.”
“We have to reach out to as many kids as possible,” Sigrist said. “Coaches, staff, teachers, custodians have to form positive relationships with students so that students feel confident and safe in bringing anything suspicious to the attention of the staff.”
He hopes that the presentation created not only awareness but also a first step toward improved security.
“We want everyone to be looking at what they have been doing,” he said, “and to ask, ‘Is there a way to improve?’”
Referring to the title of Tuesday’s presentation, “Keeping Our Children Safe,” Greenbaum stated, “We as a society need to do a better job.”