School shooting reinforces local officials’ training, plans
The recent shooting that left 20 elementary schoolchildren and six educators dead in Newtown, Conn., has left local law enforcement wondering what more they can do to help prevent such a tragedy from taking place in Jefferson County.
While the event already is altering the debate among Iowa legislators about Iowa’s gun laws and mental health delivery system, it also is reinforcing Fairfield Police Chief Julie Harvey’s focus on department-wide training of how to respond to existing or potential violence.
“It shouldn’t matter if I’m here or if my most junior officer is here,” she said. “It’s important that everyone knows what to do and what’s expected of them.”
Police response has drastically improved in the years following the 1999 Columbine shootings, said Harvey, with a focus on “active-shooter” training. But she said training must not stop at law enforcement, and extend to the fire department, school district, emergency medical responders and the hospital.
“We need to have a unified front, where all disciplines can communicate with each and work together,” she said.
An October emergency drill at Fairfield High School has helped do just that, she said.
Fairfield Under Fire, a simulation of a shooting incident with 30 casualties, provided all departments the opportunity to practice how to respond to an active shooter.
For the police department, it was a chance for newer officers to take a leadership role, said Harvey. For the school district, it was a chance to write lockdown procedures and protocol for responding to a school-shooting scenario with input from the police, the ambulance and surrounding schools provided.
“We developed specific procedures that we really didn’t have in place prior to this,” FHS principal Aaron Becker told The Ledger several weeks before the drill.
Harvey said she had to push hard for the emergency drill.
“A lot of people thought this was a terrible idea,” said Harvey. “Now it’s looking like we were ahead of the curve ball.”
She said the president’s comments since the Connecticut shooting indicate he intends to take a comprehensive look at the issue, from gun laws, to mental health, to school preparedness.
“I think it’s going to be mandatory that schools go through lockdown procedures,” she said. “I think the more people are prepared for it and know how to react to the situation, the better off they’ll be.”
Fairfield Middle School staff initiated a Level I lockdown Dec. 5 after a suspicious person tried to gain entry to the school through a side door during lunch recess. Under a Level I lockdown, students stay in the building and continue with normal school activities. People are not allowed to enter or leave the building until the lockdown is lifted.
“The proof is in the pudding,” said Harvey. “The monitors didn’t hesitate to take corrective action and did a good job of notifying neighboring schools. In the past, they would have called someone and waited for them to take action.”
Harvey said working with the school district also can help in identifying youth who are exhibiting behavior indicating mental illness or an intent to harm others. She said a “snitch” mentality stops kids from notifying adults when they have a friend in trouble.
“We need to have a discussion with children, so they know this isn’t snitching, this is saving lives,” she said. “I’d rather have someone get in trouble for planning a shooting instead of actually killing somebody.”
Harvey said Adam Lanza, the 20-year-old gunman in Newtown, was rare in that he hadn’t spoken of his plan to others.
“The majority tell somebody that this is what their intentions are,” she said.
Even without clear intent or motivation, Harvey said, “Typically there are huge indicators.”
She said parents and teachers should be aware of indicators, such as a sudden drop in grades or school attendance and drastic changes in friend groups or social behavior.
Because of the prevalence of hunting in Iowa, Harvey said she was unsure of the likelihood of gun laws changing. She said, however, gun owners should be wary about family member’s access to their weapons.
“If you suspect your kid is in trouble, check your gun cabinet,” she said.
State Rep. Curt Hanson said he believes there will be Iowa legislators on both sides of gun law issues, some fighting for armed guards in schools and other for stricter controls on gun ownership.
“I doubt if either is going to happen and don’t know if they should,” said Hanson.
For Hanson, improving access to mental health services will be key to solving the problem. He also said Iowans need to be vigilant to make sure mentally instable people do not have access to firearms within their family.
“I think everybody recognizes what a tragedy occurred in Connecticut,” he said. “As some of the emotion drains from people, and we realize the extent of the problem, we can get to the root of it and solve it at a more rational level.”