Janesville Police Chief Dave Moore remembers the talk of school lockdown drills in response to the Columbine High School massacre in 1999.
“That was offensive to me that our nation had come to that point, that we needed to teach kids how to handle a shooting,” Moore recalled. “But today it’s so commonplace that no one thinks twice about it.”
Twenty years after two students killed 12 fellow students and a teacher in the Littleton, Colorado, school, local schools and police are spending a lot of time and money in hopes of stopping a similar attack here in southern Wisconsin—or at least limiting the deaths.
Jerry Schuetz was a school resource officer in Appleton at the time of the Columbine attack. He later became police chief and then school district spokesman in Milton.
“‘I’m going to kill you after school’ usually meant a fight on the playground,” Schuetz recalled. “After Columbine, it really caused us to reflect … on what law enforcement needed to do in response to active shooters.”
Moore’s approach is to assume it will happen here someday, even though the odds of it happening here are small.
“I think that gives some urgency to our training, and it keeps our efforts fresh,” Moore said.
Police are training to respond faster than officers at Columbine, and schools are teaching staff how to staunch the bleeding from gunshot wounds.
Janesville police have provided radios to the public and religious schools so school staff can call police directly, without going through 911, in case of a shooter. The idea is to shave seconds off the police response.
The radios are to be used only for an imminent threat, said Brian Donohoue, a former Janesville police sergeant who is now a part-time security consultant for the Janesville School District—a job that didn’t exist before Columbine.
Moore noted schools check the radios monthly. He said it gives him comfort to hear the radio checks on his scanner.
Moore’s department offers regular training to surrounding jurisdictions. They arrange for use of a school, theater or other large building and practice the scenario: What if someone was inside shooting people?
The big lesson of Columbine was that the first officers to arrive waited for the SWAT team before going in. Now, police around the country are taught to get into the building as soon as possible to stop the shooting and—hopefully—save lives.
It’s all about time. A person with a semi-automatic weapon can inflict dozens of wounds in 60 seconds.
“Columbine showed us to wait for SWAT meant many people would die,” Moore said.
At a recent training for Blackhawk Technical College police academy students, a trainer critiqued a run-through, telling students they can’t wait. They have to push forward, even when they are under fire.
“We have methods that keep us as safe as we can be, but it’s still a dangerous call,” Moore said. “We push our folks to crush that threat.”
Communications are key. But Janesville police found massive concrete structures degraded their radio signals. They searched for years for the right solution, Donohoue said.
Janesville high schools were recently outfitted with signal amplifiers, and the middle schools should have the same equipment installed by June, thanks to state grants of around $300,000, Donohoue said.
Other changes since Columbine:
- Many school districts and police departments share costs of officers who spend their days at the schools.
- Janesville officers now have key fobs to enter schools without breaking down doors.
- The glass around Janesville school entrances was recently changed to a shatter-resistant material, which could slow an intruder, Donohoue said.
- Schools have entrances controlled from their main offices, where visitors must show identification and sign in. Staff is trained to challenge strangers not displaying a visitor’s badge.
- Students and staff are taught that if they see or hear something suspicious, they should tell someone.
All tablets and computers used by Janesville School District students have the P3 Tips app, so students can anonymously report students who might be depressed, bullying, fights planned or other signals of impending trouble.
Another lesson from many school shootings: Someone knew something that could have helped avert tragedy, if only it had been reported.
- Firefighter support: Janesville SWAT officers and firefighter/paramedics are training so the medical support can be as close to the danger zone as possible, to handle injuries to police and civilians.
- “Run-hide-fight” training is offered for staff and students, who are taught that waiting passively in a darkened classroom is not always the safest thing to do.
The Milton School District has a similar program, called ALICE, for Alert, Lockdown, Inform, Counter and Evacuate.
- Threat assessments: When a threat is made, officials will spend a lot more time checking with students and parents about the threatener’s intent, including checking a student’s locker and electronic devices, Schuetz said.
Janesville detectives will wake up people in the middle of the night to check out a threat, Moore said. If a student who might be a threat has access to firearms, police will ask parents for permission to remove them from the home.
At the same time, officials must remember: “These are children with developing brains, and they might say something with no intent to harm anyone,” Schuetz said. “… So don’t over-criminalize behavior.”
- Bullying: Schools recognize that harassment could lead to revenge, but some researchers have concluded the Columbine shooters’ motivation was more complicated than a reaction to being teased.
The Janesville School District says in a training video that it responds quickly to such behavior and teaches by example that students should be inclusive and caring.
- Community communications: Authorities are more apt to let families know whenever police are at a school for a drug bust or other activity so parents are not overly concerned, Schuetz said.
Schuetz said authorities must walk a thin line between preparing students for potential danger while not making them overly fearful.
It’s like “stop, drop and roll” training for fires, Schuetz said: Although statistically it’s unlikely to happen, people should be prepared in the event it happens to them.