TRI-COUNTY AREA – As funerals continue for 26 victims of the mass shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., and the White House voices support for reinstating a ban on assault weapons, school and law-enforcement officials in Ouray, Montrose and San Miguel counties continue discussions of school safety procedures.
On Friday, as the grim details were beginning to emerge about the worst shooting at a secondary school in U.S. history, leaving 26 dead, 20 of them children ages 6 and 7, Montrose School District officials contacted principals, counselors, facility and safety officers and law enforcement to review each school's safety plan.
Over the weekend Montrose police officers stepped up their presence at school activities, a presence that will continue until the holiday break. On Monday, after district-wide staff meetings to review safety plans and provide talking points for students about school safety, District spokeswoman Mindy Baumgardner reported that measures are being put in place “to insure that all safety procedures are being followed.
“There have not been any threats at any of our facilities,” she emphasized.
In Norwood, where students experienced a daylong lockdown in September 2011 following reports of “active shooters in the community” who, brandishing AK-47s, had invaded a marijuana grow operation and its owners’ home on the outskirts of town, Superintendent Dave Crews reported he met this week “with the sheriff’s office and the town marshal and the fire department, and we went over our new emergency procedures manual.
“We are talking about what we can do to help deter somebody from coming in” with the intent of harming students and teachers, Crews said. “But you can only do so much proactive stuff” when someone is intent on committing murder, he added. “We saw that situation” at Sandy Hook, where the killer shot his way into the school, despite “a new security system.”
The Ouray School District announced this week it would form a subcommittee of parents, teachers, administrators and law-enforcement personnel to develop specific recommendations for making the school more secure.
“Safety is the ultimate goal of the school,” said superintendent and principal Scott Pankow. “It’s more important than student achievement.” Mostly, he said, “Everything I think about is about keeping kids and teachers safe.”
The historic Ouray School building, housing almost 200 students, grades pre-K through 12th grade, is located in a hilly residential neighborhood surrounded by houses, streets and alleys, with very little “buffer zone” to protect it from an intruder. “This school was not built in an era of school shootings,” Pankow said, adding, “There are a lot of old schools like this that are not secure.”
Pankow and Dean of Students Di Rushing sent a letter home with students on Dec. 14, emphasizing that the school “frequently reevaluates the safety measures in place to avoid such horrific incidents” as the one at Sandy Hook, emphasizing that procedures are in place, and that the schools are checked regularly by staff and law enforcement personnel.
Ouray County Sheriff Junior Mattivi emphasized the importance of following and enforcing school security protocols already in place, like keeping side doors locked and requiring visitors to check in.
Since Pankow came onboard a year and a half ago, he has refined the school’s lockdown procedures and alert system, and worked to install security cameras throughout the building, including newly purchased video equipment that monitors the school’s main entrance (and several other sites throughout the building) in real time.
In Ridgway, the “school district and the law enforcement community have plans of action for a variety of tragic events that could occur,” said Superintendent Cheryl Gomez. “Critical Response Plans exist and are reviewed to guide law enforcement, school staff and other local agencies in responding to situations that we hope never occur. We will be reviewing all of these plans in detail over the next several weeks and ensure that staff and teachers are aware of district and local procedures.”
Security Measures Not Always Effective
“Unfortunately, if someone wants to get into your place, they’re going to figure out a way,” said Telluride Superintendent of Schools Kyle Schumacher, going on to point out that even schools with sophisticated locks, cameras and surveillance systems are likely to buzz in “people who are known to the school, to begin with.”
In other words, even the best security setup wouldn’t have prevented the two seniors at Columbine from entering that Littleton, Colo., high school for their April 1999 attack, killing 13 and wounding 21, nor would it have prevented the killer at Virginia Tech, a senior, from killing 32 and wounding 17 in two separate attacks over a two-hour period in April 2007.
Efforts to tally U.S. mass killings since Columbine vary widely (partly because weapons other than firearms are often involved), but range up to as many as 70 mass assaults on public places in this country, from shopping center parking lots to shopping malls to movie theaters to the Happy Land Social Club, in the Bronx, N.Y., where a rejected suitor killed 87 people, in 1990.
“He went and poured about a dollar’s worth of gasoline into each entrance and exit” and set them aflame, said San Miguel County Sheriff Bill Masters, of the Happy Land mass killing, which prior to the Oklahoma City bombing “was the biggest mass murder in U.S. history.
“It doesn’t take a firearm to do this – it really doesn’t,” Masters emphasized. For example, he said, “You can take one of those weed sprayers and fill it full of gasoline instead, go in there and spray it, and throw down a match.
“All it takes is somebody who’s intelligent, with an evil mind.”
Mass killings in schools date back to America’s 18th century wars against the Indians; more recently, in 1927, a disgruntled school board treasurer “blew up a school full of children,” killing 38 students between the ages of 7 and 14, in Bath, Mich.
“How can we protect our schools from attacks?” Masters asked. “Well, it seems like the security-bunker mentality goes against a lot of our feelings about freedom of education and freedom of thought.
“It’s difficult for the education community to say, ‘Yeah, this is how we want our school designed and managed and staffed.” It is, however, a dilemma with which he sympathizes.
“I think it’s really hard” for educators to come to terms with the notion of designing a school that takes safety from murderous acts as its first priority, he said. He went on to suggest, however, that U.S. schools would do well to take architecture and design inspiration from the schools now being built in Israel, where “there are security guards at every school,” he said, “and the schools are very pleasant looking. They are designed to withstand blasts,” he added, as well as on-the-ground assaults. "Israel has done it; they don't have the terrorists attacking their schools any more. They said, 'This is unacceptable; these people know their target; they're attacking unarmed people who can't defend themselves," he observed. Here in the U.S., "Little children are a target for these clowns. They're not attacking police stations."
But what do you do when the worst threat to students’ safety comes from within?
It’s Time to Talk About Mental Illness
“We have all this talk about gun control,” said Schumacher, “and about the NRA, but we don’t talk much about how much mental illness” is a factor in mass killings.
The generally accepted profile of a post-Columbine mass murderer is of an intelligent late-adolescent/young-adult white male, who tends to be isolated and a bit of a loner, and exhibits symptoms of alienation. But according to James Alan Fox, the author of Violence and Security on Campus: From Preschool Through College, writing in the Dec. 18 Chronicle of Higher Education, trying to pinpoint telltale warning signs of a potential mass murderer could “produce many false positives.”
Fox goes on to caution, however, that potential mass murderers, “with their tendency to externalize blame and see themselves as victims of mistreatment,” most often “perceive the problem to be in others, not themselves,” and “they would generally resist attempts to encourage them to seek help.”
Fox also observed, “Over the past three decades, there has been an average of 20 mass shootings a year in the United States, each with at least four victims killed by gunfire. Occasionally, and mostly by sheer coincidence, several episodes have been clustered closely in time. Over all, however, there has not been an upward trajectory. To the contrary, the real growth has been in the style and pervasiveness of news-media coverage, thanks in large part to technological advances in reporting.”
Still, “It’s rarely random,” observed Schumacher, of how Columbine and post-Columbine mass murderers have selected their victims, an observation that may be confirmed by investigating the murders at the Sandy Hook Elementary School, which the killer attended as a young child. Police say, however, that it will take months to complete their investigation, because the Sandy Hook shooter smashed his computer's hard drive before embarking upon his deadly mission.
Nonetheless, when a seriously disturbed person is disintegrating, and starting to target potential victims, Schumacher said, “There’s someone in the community who does know that something is going on.” So the ultimate question, he said, is this: “How do you keep communication about that open in your community?
“It’s sad,” he said, “but maybe it took a situation like this to shake people out of their complacency, a little bit.
It’s going to take something “than just a lockdown” to deal with mounting student-on-student gun violence," said Crews , who worked in the Cortez School District to implement safety measures in the aftermath of the April 1999 Columbine High School shootings.
“It’s a societal issue; it isn’t anything brand new,” said Crews. “We’re doing whatever we can, to try to make schools safe,” he said, “without it being like a prison.
In small communities like Telluride, Montrose, Ouray, Norwood, Schumacher said, “We tend to be very trusting, and think, ‘It wouldn’t happen here.’”
But it could, and really life in the 21st century is “about being vigilant about communicating” and communicating effectively with everyone from law enforcement to parents, teachers and counselors.
The goal, he said, is to forestall that terrible moment, after a tragedy, when the response from someone in the community is, “‘Well, I was thinking of saying something,’ but didn’t.’”
With additional reporting by Samantha Wright and William Woody.