Active shooters in schools: Keeping kids safe isn't a plan, it's a process

When naming Abington, Pennsylvania as one of the top 100 places to live, Money Magazine identified safety and education as the top two aspects of their evaluation

How hard are we willing to try to prevent evildoers like Eric Harris, Dylan Klebold, and Adam Lanza from murdering innocent young people in our schools? How hard are we willing to work to ensure that the parents in our communities don’t have to suffer the horrors like parents in Columbine and Newtown? How long must we battle the “It can’t happen here” denial mentality? As we saw in Sparks, Nevada yesterday, it can happen here, there, anywhere, and everywhere.

I’ve written on the subject of active shooters in schools more times than I can accurately count. I revisit this subject with renewed vigor because today I met Chief Bill Kelly of the Abington (Pa.) Police Department and Dr. Leigh Altadonna, Assistant Superintendent of the Abington School District.

Abington has won numerous awards for its work in protecting its schools from active shooters. America’s Promise Alliance has named Abington one of 100 Best Communities for Young People six times. When naming Abington, Pennsylvania as one of the top 100 places to live, Money Magazine identified safety and education as the top two aspects of their evaluation. Here’s why.

At left, Dr. Leigh Altadonna, Assistant Superintendent of Abington Schools, helps Chief Bill Kelly of the Abington (Pa.) Police Department show attendees an example of the large, laminated floor plans, pictures of the schools, and other tactical information stored in tubes in the trunks of all Abington PD squad cars. (PoliceOne Image)
At left, Dr. Leigh Altadonna, Assistant Superintendent of Abington Schools, helps Chief Bill Kelly of the Abington (Pa.) Police Department show attendees an example of the large, laminated floor plans, pictures of the schools, and other tactical information stored in tubes in the trunks of all Abington PD squad cars. (PoliceOne Image)

A Common-Sense Partnership
During an afternoon seminar at the 2013 IACP Conference in Philadelphia, Chief Kelly and Dr. Altadonna presented some tremendous — and easily implemented — solutions to a variety of the roadblocks standing between many police agencies and the school districts they’re sworn to protect.

Chief Kelly opened with a stirring video of the Newtown tragedy. Talk about getting your head in the game from the word go. I don’t think I was alone in shedding a tear during that 10-minute introduction.

Chief challenged everyone in the room to honestly assess their level of preparedness for a Newtown-like event. If we all agree that we’re willing to do anything reasonably possible to protect our kids and our schools, then we must ask and answer some potentially uncomfortable questions.

  • Is there adequate communication between your police leaders and your school leaders?
  • Are there positive, existing relationships in place at patrol and classroom level?
  • Do teachers know when to evacuate, where to evacuate, and how to evacuate?
  • Do those teachers know the circumstances under which they should not evacuate?
  • Do your officers know the school’s plans, and does your school know what your plans are?
  • Are all those plans coordinated and complementary, or are they going to come in conflict?

“Are we really protecting our schools?” Chief Kelly asked.

“Is that a high priority for our officers? Have we trained them to make it a high priority? Wouldn’t our schools be safer if teachers and staff were taught by our police officers — in some cases the very police officers who will be responding to their school in the case of an incident? And wouldn’t our schools be safer if our officers were familiar with them? What about if they had the layout of the schools so they know when they respond which side of the building is side A and side B?”

In Abington, they have all those things and more — they’ve got the training and the tools necessary to work collaboratively in response to a school shooter. Cops carry rifles, breaching tools and tourniquets. Teachers have been trained in the police tactics they can expect to see as well as practical emergency care to help save lives of injured students before police and EMS arrives on scene.

A Process, Not Just a Plan
Abington today has a tremendous partnership between APD and ASD. But it wasn’t always that way.

There had once been a time in Abington when the arrival of a police car at the school would mean Dr. Altadonna — at the time a school principal — would have to write a letter to all the parents to explain what “bad thing” happened that day to necessitate the involvement of police.

There was once even an incident during which another school principal — not named Altadonna — interfered with an officer who was attempting to arrest a student. The officer at one point told the principal that any further interference would result in his arrest. That stalemate was broken by a phone call between the Chief of Police and the Superintendent of Schools.

Today, however, APD holds regular classroom training for both officers and school staff, and school staff routinely outnumber the cops in the room. They use a decommissioned school building to conduct scenario training that includes everything from Simunitions to smoke machines to simulated victims.

Today, all the school administrators have exactly the same smartphone as is carried by APD officers. They even have the direct dial phone numbers of those officers pre-programmed into their phones (and the cops have the phone numbers of those administrators).

There are police Motorola LMR radios strategically positioned in the schools so that when an event does occur, teachers can provide real-time intel on the location of the shooter, the number and location of casualties, and other vital incident information.

Every classroom has a folder full of materials — at the request of Dr. Altadonna, I will not reveal the exact nature of their contents — that enable teachers to regularly review the police/school response procedures.

There is a defined protocol for the two-way exchange of “tips” and information. Police can advise the schools of an incident involving kids over the weekend, and schools can advise police on an uptick in bullying, which can be a precursor to violence.

Abington police cars have a tube in the trunk in which is stored laminated floor plans, pictures of the schools, and other tactical information.

Clearly, these officers and educators in Abington are far ahead of most of their counterparts nationwide.

Directed Patrol on Campus
Ninety percent of life is just showing up. Adam Lanza — like many active shooter killers — reportedly offed himself at the sound of the sirens. The as-yet-unidentified 12-year-old murderer in Sparks seemingly did the same thing yesterday. Generally speaking, these cowards don’t want to have any contact with police. They avoid places that have a regular police presence.

And yet, we also know that for a variety of reasons, our officers are not at the schools as much as they had been in the past. Budget cuts have been the death knell for DARE programs and SROs in schools across the country. So how do we maintain that police presence?

Create an agreement with the school administration — write it into your Memorandum of Understanding! — that your officers are going to enter the building continually and on an ongoing basis. Not for calls for service, but for directed patrol. Work with your school administrators and agree that your officers will sometimes be parked in the lot, writing their reports if need be.

“The veterans in the room all know where we’d go and do all our reports. They’d tell you, ‘Go over to that intersection and watch that traffic light when you do your reports.’ Safest traffic light in town, right?”

Doesn’t it make sense, the chief argued, that if you’re allowing your officers to do reports in their cars (be advised: I’m no fan of this policy, but I know it remains commonplace) you should be directing your cops to someplace we’d want to protect our most vulnerable victims?

Moving Forward...
During the presentation today, Chief Kelly shared a hypothetical conversation you might have with an officer standing in your doorway many months after implementing programs like those in place in Abington. I’ll paraphrase him:

“Hey Chief, when are we going to stop doing this? Newtown was a long time ago now, and well, we’ve got other stuff...”

“We’re not going back in time. We’re not going back to the old way. We should have been doing all this stuff 20 years ago and we’re not ever going to stop now.”

As I have written many times in the past, when it comes to active shooters in schools, our first enemy is denial. If we do not first crush that enemy, heinous violence will be visited upon our schools forevermore. Yesterday we had to add Sparks to that awful list that includes places like Columbine and Newtown.

Look at Abington as a model for building a positive partnership with your schools that will enable you to save lives in the event of an active shooter incident in your school. In fact, by instituting some of these plans, I’d bet a waist-high stack of green money that an active shooter incident can be prevented.

There are certainly other models to examine and emulate, but Abington is a great place to start.

As a good friend of mine often says, “Hope is not a strategy, and denial doesn’t work.”

Let’s go out and do some good. 

About the author

Doug Wyllie is Editor at Large for PoliceOne, providing police training content on a wide range of topics and trends affecting the law enforcement community. Doug is the 2014 Western Publishing Association "Maggie Award" winner for Best Regularly Featured Digital Edition Column, and has authored more than 1,000 articles and tactical tips. Doug hosts the PoliceOne Podcast, Policing Matters, and is the host for PoliceOne Video interviews. Doug is a member of International Law Enforcement Educators and Trainers Association (ILEETA), an Associate Member of the California Peace Officers' Association (CPOA), and a member of the Public Safety Writers Association (PSWA).

Contact Doug Wyllie

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