The slaughter of 26 people, including 20 children ages 6 and 7, at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. last week was a shock to the entire nation, and even more shocking to those charged with keeping our children safe in school.
Events since the 1999 massacre at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado, schools and police across the country have planned for what was once unthinkable, someone taking a gun to a school and opening fire.
A matter of time
On Oct. 9, 2006, the scenario hit close to home when a student brought a rifle to Memorial Middle School in Joplin, and fired one shot before the gun jammed.
Witnesses said the student tried to unjam the gun and pointed it at the school's principal as he led the student out of the building.
Carthage Police Chief Greg Dagnan, who was director of the Children's Center of Southwest Missouri at the time of that shooting, recalled it well.
“It was my friends and my people I know personally as first responders rushing into that building,” Dagnan said. “I know there were interviews done at Children's Center around that whole investigation. I remember truly feeling like this was our school shooting. Unfortunately it seems like it's only a matter of time before you have one in your region or your area and I remember thinking this was ours and God intervened and no one got shot, because it was that kid's intention, certainly to shoot people.”
Once again, security was beefed up at schools and educators and police departments reexamined their plans to see what else they could do to prevent or respond to something like this.
In the wake of Friday's shooting, Carthage schools and Carthage police say they are as prepared as possible, but they are always looking for ways to be more prepared.
Preparing for disaster
This past summer, Carthage police held two drills simulating an active shooter invading Carthage Middle School and Carthage Junior High.
Students from the drama department played the role of victims, an officer played the role of shooter and sheriff's deputies, Missouri State Highway Patrol officers, Carthage fire and emergency medical workers and dispatchers for the city and county played out the scenario.
The reason for all that work was highlighted by Friday's massacre in Connecticut.
“Any security system can be thwarted and when you're talking about a place where people are going in and out minute by minute, you really have to stay on top of that,” said Carthage Police Sgt. Doug Dickey, the School Resource Officer at Carthage High School.
Dickey and the other CPD SRO, Kevin Provins, routinely leave their home posts at the high school and junior high to walk through or drive by the elementary schools and middle school throughout the day.
On Monday, Dickey, who will finish a six-year stint as resource officer at the high school at the start of Christmas break, said training and drilling is important.
“We can be diligent, but even when that security fails, we have to have plans in place,” Dickey said. “You had teachers that grabbed kids, put them into lockdown positions all apparently without having to be told that something was wrong, they just went into lockdown, which I though was excellent. We don't know that that fact that they went into lockdown as quick as they did, that maybe saved some lives, the toll could have been worse.”
Dagnan said the drills are important because dealing with an active shooter is very different from dealing with any other kind of problem in law enforcement.
“You have to drill for mass-shooter incidents whether they be industrial, school, theatre, any of those kinds of things, because they are counter-intuitive to all the training that we receive,” Dagnan said. “For an armed and barricaded individual in, say, their home, the training and the logical thing to do is seal it off and negotiate. To actually not only go in and go to the sound of the shooter and ignore wounded people and ignore people screaming for help and go right to where the shooter, and then, step two, evacuating people and evacuating wounded before knowing if there are more shooters, is totally counter-intuitive to what we do.
“Training and going into the environment and doing it is incredibly important because if you just use your common sense as an officer you would be inclined to do the opposite, which is what they did at Columbine, which didn't work out very well.”
Dickey said he and Provins followed up those drills with training for teachers on what to do if someone with a gun invades a school.
“We talked about what to do in the event that the unthinkable happens and gave teachers ideas of what they could do to protect their students,” Dickey said. “I think teachers have more confidence, I have more confidence that in a like situation, that even though we might not be able to prevent any casualties, we can certainly minimize them. It's entirely possible that, by having that confidence, that someone who might think about coming into one of our schools might think twice.”
Dagnan said CPD and the Carthage School District have good communication and cooperation as illustrated by the drills held last summer.
“We have the kind of relationship where we communicate frequently,” Dagnan said. “A lot of the information that came as a result of the Connecticut school shooting, I sent it over to the administration building so they could disseminate it as they see fit.”
Carthage Superintendent Blaine Henningsen addressed school security at Monday's regular board of education meeting.
“Though there is nothing we can say or do that will make the tragic events that occurred last Friday go away, I want everyone to be assured that the safety of our students is our top priority,” Henningsen said. “We have plans in place for each of our buildings to deal with emergency situations, including those similar to what occurred this past week. We also run regular drills, including intruder drills, which help to keep procedures and precautions fresh in our minds.”
Dagnan said the pre-planning and communication are essential so school officials and police officers know how each group will operate and react in a given situation.
“For example, if you have shooting at the Junior High, where is the reunification point?” Dagnan said. “We've all got to know that because when we're evacuating the school, we've got to tell them where to go and we certainly don't want me to come in as a chief and pick a reunification point and then having the school using a mass caller to tell people it's somewhere else. All those things have to be planned out ahead of time. It's like I told you when we were doing the drills, you do an enormous amount of planning and thinking and you just pray you are wasting your time and you never have to implement it.”