By Ken Wallentine
In a recent survey, I asked for reader thoughts on meeting the challenge of the active shooter in schools. Thanks to the officers who sent thoughtful responses. Not surprisingly, several respondents suggested placing more officers in schools.
Here is a snapshot of some other responses:
- Creating an easier path for retired cops with degrees to become certified teachers.
- Hiring retired officers as part-time school workers in a variety of positions and co-locating neighborhood policing offices in schools.
- An adopt an officer program. This officer suggested pairing street cops and detectives with schools that would “adopt” the officer. The officer would be invited as a special guest to assemblies and other events and to eat lunch at the school on a regular basis.
- Better designs for physical security.
- Taking advantage of existing locks to provide a single point of entry.
- Additional training and emphasis on challenging unidentified or suspicious school visitors.
Virtual reality, active shooter scenario
I recently participated with dozens of school district executives, school resource officers, principals, vice-principals and counselors in a series of school shooting scenarios. The virtual reality system allowed us to experience an active school shooter scenario in penetrating virtual reality, using actual weapons and feeling the impact of gunfire. At the end of each virtual reality session, we gathered cops and educators to debrief. Ideas and questions flowed freely. Conversations that began in virtual reality will continue as partnerships strengthen.
I learned about programs that help students report concerns and/or reach out for help. The best of these is a smartphone app called SafeUT. It is a resource for students, parents and educators. Students and parents can submit tips, chat with a qualified mental health professional, make an immediate one-button call for help and monitor existing tips and helpful hints for safety and well-being. Other states are creating similar apps.
Just last week, a middle school student in my community threatened to shoot up his school. Classmates who heard the threat said something and used the SafeUT app. A cop went to the home and spoke with parents and the student. He and his partner searched the kid’s bedroom and found an AR-15 and a handgun. The app, powered by students willing to say something, worked. Mass shooting prevented? Probably.
Broadening the discussion
The conversations about safer schools and safer kids are happening across the country. These discussions need to include local public safety officers, teachers and parents. Those conversations need to be far broader than just hardening the targets. Let’s join the community in talking about prevention. Let’s be sure that our departments and schools are social media smart. Are we watching out for and reaching the kids who signal trouble? Are our schools fostering an emotionally healthy environment? Are there safe places and trusted people for kids who are bullied, abused or emotionally struggling?
As public safety servants, we prepare tirelessly for many events that will never happen in our community. With the violence at Parkland and Great Mills, the focus right now is on school shootings.
We must prepare the best we can. In our sheriffs’ offices and police departments, let’s talk about something that we know about: threat assessment. When we get a tip, do we have a system in place to quickly bring a school official, mental health professional, school resource officer, and—as appropriate—parent or guardian together for a risk analysis and intervention plan?
Our preparations will necessarily lead to deeper connections with educators, parents, kids and our entire community. Our preventive efforts will pay off, too. As we stretch our reach to kids on the fringe, we may or may not prevent a school killer, but we may just make life better for a lonely kid.
There is a genuine compassion and commitment among public safety officials to keeping our communities safe. Your communities need your critical conversation contributions.
About the Author
Chief Ken Wallentine is a Special Agent who directs the Utah Attorney General Training Center, overseeing use of force training and investigation and cold case homicide investigations. He is also a consultant and Senior Legal Advisor for Lexipol. Ken formerly served as Chief of Law Enforcement for the Utah Attorney General, serving over three decades in public safety before a brief retirement. He also serves as the Chairman of the Peace Officer Merit Commission of Greater Salt Lake County.