In light of the horrific attack at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., the following is a quick look at what every cop needs to know about school safety and school violence prevention from the perspective of a veteran School Resource Officer (SRO).
1. Know the schools in your patrol area or beat. If you receive a report of “Man with a gun, XXX High School, outside room XXX” and you have no idea where the room is, you’ll be wasting valuable response time while you try to figure out where you need to go. If the schools in your area have a SRO or DARE Officer, schedule a tour with them so you can be aware of the general layout of the campus. If there isn’t an SRO at the campus, go into the office, meet the principal and staff, and ask them to show you around. Believe me, they’ll appreciate seeing you and putting a name and face to a uniform. Keep maps of the schools in your gear bag or have them incorporated into your vehicle’s MDC. Be visible during the school day and when special events are occurring on campus.
2. The safety of the children and the staff at school comes first; being “officer friendly” is secondary. Long gone are the days when the police would come to the schools to smile and hand out stickers to students. Today, the school district and the local law enforcement agency must collaborate on safety strategies.
3. Get involved in the training of school staff for a crisis on campus. Find out about and attend school staff trainings, if possible, so you’re aware of what they’re learning in regards to safety training. Your presence there, even as just an attendee, may bring more credibility to the training. You may also be able to answer questions from staff members about the police response during an incident and make them feel at ease.
4. Investigate any and all threats of violence thoroughly. No matter how trivial or unrealistic a threat may seem on the surface, take them all seriously. History shows us that past suspects in school shootings have had very elaborate plans while employing multiple weapons. Don’t think for a moment that “there’s no way that can happen.” It can and has in the past.
5. Inform the parents that there’s a crisis management plan in place. The police department and school district should have a joint statement indicating that all stakeholders responsible for school safety are involved in the plan. You don’t want to release the details of the school’s emergency management plan to the public—just let them know one exists.
6. Be visible near the campus during the day. Perform traffic control and selective enforcement in the area near the school so that you act as a visible deterrent, as well as a more immediate first responder, if needed.
7. Be alert to the bigger picture when responding to calls. Pay special attention to those calls where depression and suicide are factors. One commonality to a lot of the active shooters, whether at schools or malls or anywhere else, is that the shooter is suicidal. Take each of these calls seriously and don’t cut corners during your investigation.
8. Accept that there’s a very real possibility that you can’t stop the first shot from being fired. No matter how prepared you are, and how many prevention strategies you employ, there’s a distinct possibility that you won’t be able to prevent the first shot from being fired by a determined gunman. What you can do at this point is minimize the number of innocent victims by intervening quickly using sound tactics, officer safety and active shooter techniques. The way you respond and react to a critical incident is crucial to saving lives.
9. Have a SRO at the schools. The School Resource Officer Program is a collaborative effort by certified law enforcement officers, educators, students, parents and the community to offer law-related educational programs in the schools in an effort to reduce crime, drug abuse and violence, and provide a safe school environment. The officer is involved in a variety of functions:
As a visible, active law enforcement figure on campus who is an immediate first responder, dealing with any law-related issues.
As a classroom resource for instruction in the following areas: law-related education, violence diffusion, safety programs, alcohol and drug prevention, crime prevention and other areas.
As a member of the faculty and administrative team working hand in hand to solve problems in the school community.
As a resource for the students enabling them to be associated with positive law enforcement figure in the student’s environment.
As a resource to teachers, parents and students for law-related concerns and questions.
10. Never have the mindset of “It can’t happen here.”
Just because you work in a small town that’s relatively quiet or you feel that school shootings are isolated incidents and the chances of it happening in your jurisdiction is very remote, think about the places where it’s happened that aren’t household names: Littleton, Colo.; Santee, Calif.; Nickel Mines, Pa.; Red Lake, Minn.; Chardon, Ohio; Newtown, Conn.