Clay Township Police Chief Terry Mitchell had some harsh words about school safety for about 100 parents and residents gathered at Genoa High School.
“I hate to sound morbid,” Mitchell warned the attentive crowd Jan. 9 in the auditorium, “But someone, somewhere is planning a shooting.”
Less than 12 hours later, the blunt but honest statement rang hauntingly true. A teen-ager walked into Taft Union High School in California with a shotgun and critically shot a fellow student before being disarmed by a teacher.
Two days later, a man with a pistol who was embroiled in a domestic situation tried to hide from police in a crowded movie theater in California. Luckily, he was the only one injured in the standoff.
Genoa school officials had called the meeting to reiterate the fine points of its relatively new school emergency response program called ALICE (Alert Lockdown Inform Counter Evacuate) in the wake of the Sandy Hook Elementary massacre a month ago in Connecticut.
The Genoa district is the first Ottawa County district to use the ALICE program, which employs a number of techniques, including teaching and empowering teachers, staff and students caught up in an emergency situation to make quick decisions as well as urging evacuation over lockdown, if possible. The evacuation route takes students along Genoa-Clay Center Road to two safe havens in Genoa.
Students have watched training videos at school and practice lockdowns monthly but not evacuations. The hope, administrators said, is that students become familiar with the procedure and lessen fears and anxieties.
And in the event of a real lockdown, students and staff will be told via intercom and other in-house communication systems the reason it is happening, assistant principal Cari Buehler said. “It didn’t used to be that way,” she added.
In the old hand book used by the district, in the event of a shooting, the recommended action was to “hit the deck, cover your head and close your eyes,” Mitchell said. “And they should have added ‘pray’,” the chief stressed as he highlighted the old procedure.
The ALICE program, Mitchell and Buehler both insist, also applies to everyday life at malls, churches and other venues.
Safety is everybody’s responsibility. If a parent, student, or anyone else sees or hears something suspect, call 9-1-1, Buehler said. Parents will play a big role in getting students on board. Talk to your child about what you expect from them.
Overall, it’s about changing your thinking from lock and hide versus run, Buehler explained. Running increases your chance for survival, she explained, since it’s harder to hit a moving target than someone hidden beneath a desk.
She and Mitchell played an adult training tape that used the real 9-1-1 audiotape from the Columbine High School shooting along with a video re-enactment.
Afterwards, parents asked about the door buzz-in procedures and police presence in the schools.
The school has an entry procedure, Buehler assured, but nothing is 100 percent. And unfortunately, she added, statistics show, most often the shooters in these school situations are not strangers.
Mitchell also noted attackers generally plan mayhem for arrival/dismissal times and lunch hours when students are amassed in greater numbers.
His department concentrates patrols around the school property during morning arrivals, lunch hours and dismissal time, the chief said. Officers also stop by intermittently during the day when schedules allow.
“Shouldn’t we get the media to publicize that?” one man asked.
Genoa school officials have also taken an extra step to make sure communication operates as smoothly as possible because land lines and cell phones are not always reliable to keep people informed, Buehler said.
As a result, Genoa schools installed a radio tower on the campus where the high school, junior high, elementary school and administration building are located.
Six administrators now carry the hand held radios during the regular schools days. And up to 16 people will soon be carrying radios that contact all holders in a single transmission.
Communication will always be the key, Buehler said.
She asked parents to be sharply aware of one more thing on the home front and in daily routines.
“Keep an eye on electronic devices,” Buehler said.
Social media systems like Twitter and Facebook explode with conversation following emergency events. But staying aware of what’s happening in your child’s daily tech lives may help stave off problems before they start.
Electronic devices and their applications are ever evolving. “The kinds of things we have found on them would stun you,” Buehler said.