Schools told: Plan for the worst, with best possible response
SOUTH BURLINGTON — Vermont schools must plan for the worst and prepare to overcome the safety challenges created by the state’s rural nature, according to speakers at a statewide training conference Wednesday in South Burlington.
Hundreds of police officers, firefighters, EMTs and school officials at the Sheraton Burlington Hotel & Conference Center shared experiences unique to a rural school setting and learned the team effort that might make all the difference in preventing and responding to school shootings.
Throughout the Governor’s Statewide Safety Training Conference, Capt. Rob Evans of the Vermont State Police and others reiterated the notion that, because of the difference in the sizes of Vermont’s cities and towns and their distances from each other, it’s up to each community to look at its resources and create a response plan.
“If Winooski had happened in the Northeast Kingdom, you’d still be waiting for that many police to show up,” Evans said, referring to the immediate and widespread police response to reports of an armed intruder at Winooski’s schools Friday night. The reports turned out to be incorrect.
Evans noted response times in more rural areas can be much longer, an issue echoed by Debra Fishwick, principal of Shrewsbury Mountain School, who shared a story of putting her school in lockdown in May after hearing numerous gunshots outside.
Police response time was 75 minutes, she said.
“We just waited,” she said. “Parents were really upset because they were showing up and we were in lockdown.”
Afternoon talks ranged from a forum on school violence from the perspective of school administrators to another that focused on mental health services. During one, Evans discussed the evolution in the way police respond to an active-shooter situation.
“In the pre-Columbine world, law enforcement would respond and take an ‘insolate, contain and negotiate’ approach. Well, you all saw the end result at Columbine,” Evans said, referring to the 1999 shooting at Columbine High School in Colorado that left 15 dead and 21 injured.
“Now, we’re not looking to negotiate,” Evans continued. “There are three outcomes: Kill them, they kill themselves or they’re forced out of the building.”
While Evans discussed how law enforcement responds to an intruder, Jeff Nolan, a Burlington-based attorney who consults with clients around the country on campus threat assessments, discussed how to defuse a volatile situation before it becomes violent.
Nolan said every school should have a safety team, which, after identifying a person who is a potential threat, should answer a series of questions to try to define the person’s motivation and see if the person has communicated any threats or has the means to carry out an attack, or has expressed feelings of hopelessness, desperation or despair.
Nolan said once a person is identified as a potential threat, the best thing to do is to “keep them close.” He rejected the idea of simply taking out a no-trespass order as a solution.
“Because nobody who’s committed to homicidal behavior would violate a no-trespass order,” Nolan said dryly. “That’s a civil charge.”
Instead, Nolan said, it’s best to include at least one person on the threat assessment team whom the threatening person trusts and to work to identify the conflict, de-escalate it and — in many cases — help the person find mental health treatment.
“You’re not looking to make a disciplinary action. You’re not looking to predict future behavior. You’re looking to prevent,” Nolan said.
U-32 High School has a team in place, said Amy Molina, head of the safety and security team and the school’s athletic director.
“We did a lot of work after the stuff that happened in Connecticut,” said Molina, referring to the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in December that left 27 dead, plus the shooter, and two injured.
U-32’s safety and security team includes teachers, guidance counselors and physical plant staff.
The conference was designed to be proactive, according to its organizer.
“We are bringing together the brightest minds who are caring for our children across this great state to innovate, be creative, and to be sure we are doing every protection possible to keep our kids safe in light of tragedies that have happened around the country,” said Gov. Peter Shumlin.
Evans sent forth the conference participants with a mission.
“The goal is to get enough energy here so you go back to your schools and have the larger conversation about how to react to these kinds of situations,” he said.
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