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Helping schools prepare for an active-shooter showdown
Sheriff Fred Wegener says that preparing schools for an active shooter is community policing at its best
Sheriff Fred Wegener speaks from the crucible of experience when he talks about how law enforcement can help schools prepare for an active-shooter showdown.
A gunman invaded a high school in his county, sexually molested a hostage pool of teenage girls, and killed one. Wegener is convinced the toll would have been much worse but for the close collaboration between his deputies and school personnel before the tragedy erupted.
Since then he has added to a preparations tip-list that he believes should be SOP throughout the country — provided you can penetrate the thick barrier of denial erected by many schools officials and win their cooperation.
At the IACP’s most recent annual conference, Wegener detailed the grim day his department’s planning was suddenly put to the test — a stark testament to the fact that schools in any setting are potentially at risk. Recently, in an interview with PoliceOne, he elaborated on the protective approach he favors, hopeful that strategies his agency has promoted can be adopted or adapted by others to save the lives of students, teachers, and first responders.
With about 20 patrol deputies, four normally on duty at any time, Wegener’s office is the principal law enforcement presence in Park County, a 2,200-square-mile, mountainous jurisdiction with some 18,000 widely scattered residents about an hour southwest of Denver.
September 27, 2006
Mid-morning on a Monday in Park County, a 53-year-old drifter named Duane Morrison took up surveillance of the Platte Canyon High School near the unincorporated hamlet of Bailey from his Jeep in the school parking lot.
After he saw the uniformed SRO leave the school grounds in a marked unit, headed toward a sheriff’s substation off premises, Morrison entered the school and burst into a second-floor English class, brandishing a pistol. Shouting that he had “enough C-4 to level the building,” he fired a warning shot into the wall, then ordered the teacher and all male students out of the room. He handpicked seven girls to keep as hostages (apparently looking for a specific stature, Wegener says), then released the rest.
A 911 call reached the SO at 1141 hours. The caller was Wegener’s mother-in-law, who worked at the school. The staff was “following lock-down procedures as trained,” she reported. Wegener himself, who was in Bailey at the time, arrived within three minutes. His son was a student in a classroom on the first floor, directly below the suspect’s location.
By 1145, five deputies armed with ARs had established containment on the stricken English room. The suspect had locked the door from the inside and had turned off the lights.
The next four hours were a frustrating mixture of smooth response and nerve-wracking tension. The school was evacuated, ambulances and fire equipment were staged nearby, vehicular traffic in the area was shut down, experienced SWAT operators, negotiators, and bomb techs from the metro Denver area arrived to supplement Wegener’s deputies — all without a hitch.
Yet, it would eventually be learned, Morrison was sexually assaulting the girls behind a TV stand through all this. A series of would-be negotiators proved unable to establish meaningful dialog with him. “He spoke only tersely through one of the girls, 16-year-old Emily Keyes, who seemed to be receiving the brunt of his abuse,” Wegener says. “His initial intent apparently was to kidnap a girl and flee with her, but the rapid response thwarted him. He refused to provide his name, his motives, or any demands.”
The classroom’s lack of outside windows precluded a sniper shot. Fear of touching off a massacre or a C-4 devastation discouraged forced entry.
At 1527, the suspect allowed Emily to speak over a telephone in the room. “It will be all over at 4 o’clock,” she told authorities ominously. No clarification could be obtained.
At 1532, convinced that “homicide and suicide were imminent,” officers breached the door and stormed into the room. Less than four seconds after the “go” signal, Duane Morrison was dead, shot once by his own hand and three times by SWAT. Unfortunately, he put a bullet in the back of Emily Keyes’ head before turning his gun on himself. He took the 16-year-old girl with him.
Despite his references to C-4, no explosives were found.
From a letter the offender had sent to his brother, “we believe he may have hoped to cure a problem with impotence by molesting the girls,” Wegener says. “But he didn’t know any of them and he had no connection with the school except to have driven past it. It just shows how random these things can be.”
At Higher Elevation, Yet in the Shadow of Littleton
Five years before the Morrison episode, Wegener, a law enforcement veteran of more than two decades, began mandating training in active-shooter response for his deputies. The need at that time may have seemed remote in his mostly rural territory, but the memory of Columbine hung heavily over Colorado — Bailey and Littleton are less than an hour apart — and even small agencies were sensitive to the price that could be paid for inadequate training.
Almost from the beginning, Wegener cultivated the committed involvement of school personnel and students, among the most probable potential victims, realizing they could be the linchpin of a successful operation.
Now as he works to promote partnerships between educators and cops in other jurisdictions, he offers a range of tips, some learned from the Bailey experience and some in place before, for how informed cooperation can minimize active-shooter casualties.
Forget Turf and Suspend Egos
A starting point of “utmost importance,” Wegener says, “is getting a relationship going between your agency and your school district” — not an easy task when superintendents and principals often cop the attitude, “It’s my school and I don’t want you [law enforcement] here unless I invite you here.”
“They need to understand that you’re there to help in a crisis, not to push them aside in some turf battle,” Wegener says. “The top people from both sides need to check their egos at the door and have a serious, frank dialog about the reality of the threat and how you can help each other to keep the school safe — what their needs are, what your needs are.
“With the district superintendent on board, then go to the principals and teachers at individual locations. They can play a critical role because they know the personalities and habits of people in their school. “The more you involve them in the crisis-management planning, the more likely the plans are to work and not just be thrown on a shelf.”
To get school personnel engaged, Wegener includes them in tabletop exercises, as well as live role-playing scenarios. “They start to see the challenges involved, and they come up with good ideas,” he says.
Reinforce a Friendly Presence
You can further promote trust, Wegener suggests, by finding ways to relate to your schools in non-policing capacities. Several of his personnel serve as volunteer coaches for sports activities, and he has persuaded the high school in Bailey to let deputies work out in its weight room during student hours.
“We lift, shoot baskets, run, swim, wrestle with the kids,” says Wegener, who often joins in. “They think it’s pretty cool to jump on top of the sheriff and try to pin me. We get some good conversations going.”
To provoke dialog and encourage a “buy-in” to response procedures at the administrator/teacher level, Wegener favors “familiarization sessions.” During teacher-orientation days, he brings his SWAT operators to schools, “so the staff can see what the uniform looks like, what gear and weapons we’ll carrying” during an active-shooter call-out.
“The team will throw a flash-bang in the auditorium so the teachers will know what it sounds like. We’ll show a ballistic blanket and other tools they may not be familiar with. The operators will demonstrate how they make a room entry. We may run through a scenario where a student is taken hostage.
“Typically, teachers have uncertainties and want to ask questions. Some may even be frightened. This gets a discussion going and leads to the role they need to play to help out. The more awareness and knowledge they get, the more at ease they end up. It’s a bit of stress inoculation.”
Drill, Drill, Drill
Whatever protocols are agreed to — lock-down, evacuation, sheltering-in-place outdoors — students and staff need to drill on them, just as they do fire-alarm procedures.
In Wegener’s jurisdiction, teachers are trained in a green card/red card system. Under lock-down, classroom doors are secured and either a green card, signifying that everyone inside is safe, or a red card, signaling a threat, an injury, or other problem, is slid under the door into the hallway. “No card under the door is the same as a red card,” Wegener explains.
“The idea is to expedite the first response, bypassing the ‘safe’ rooms initially and moving quickly to where there’s an indication of trouble. But to keep people from fumbling or becoming confused under stress, the tactics need to be rehearsed thoroughly before they’re required for real.”
Anticipate Special Concerns
“When we evacuated the high school at Bailey,” Wegener explains, “we never thought that there were some kids who needed medications at certain times. Two deputies had to escort a nurse back in to get their medicines.”
Now during the school day, medication labeled for each student who needs it is kept in a “go bag” in the nurse’s office. “She can grab it on the way out.”
Also after the Morrison episode, Wegener realized that while schools are in session during the day, school bus drivers may be scattered to other jobs and difficult to round up quickly in case buses are needed to transport evacuees off-campus. Now, several teachers have gotten CDLs so they can pinch-hit as drivers in an emergency.
Rules have been modified for SROs, as well. Now none leaves a school during his shift in uniform or driving a marked unit, in case a would-be shooter, like Morrison, is watching.
Intelligence from Maintenance
Nobody knows a school building like a good janitor, and bringing maintenance staff into your pre-event planning can pay huge dividends. “They’ll know where the gas shuts off in the biology lab,” Wegener says. “They may know about a gas line that runs through a wall that you’re thinking about blowing a hole in…how thick the sheetrock is…whether wooden or metal studs were used in construction — all kinds of useful information.”
Ideally, you’ll have at least sketches of each school’s layout, but these need to be double-checked periodically to be certain that remodeling has not changed the configurations. Classroom passkeys should be available for responding personnel; all of Wegener’s command staff and SROs carry them. And during advance experiments you should consider testing duplicates of classroom doors to determine what it takes to blow them or shoot through them. During parts of the year when schools are not in session, Park County deputies conduct team training exercises in the buildings to embed their up-to-date familiarity with each location.
Prevent, Prepare, Respond, and Recover
Since the Bailey incident, Colorado has established a School Safety Resource Center to help local schools “prevent, prepare for, respond to, and recover from all types of emergencies and crisis situations,” including, of course, the ongoing threat of active shooters. Wegener has been appointed by the state’s Dept. of Public Safety to be the law enforcement professional on the Center’s advisory board.
Among the Center’s offerings are procedural templates designed for small, medium, and large schools. “These are a good starting point for law enforcement and educators to then work together to tailor specific school and agency protocols,” Wegener says.
As active shooters continue to grab headlines, Wegener believes that school officials are becoming more receptive to cooperating with law enforcement. “Working together is really the only way to approach this problem effectively,” he says. “It’s community policing at its best.”
Sheriff Wegener can be contacted at email@example.com.