March 8, 2012
In wake of school shooting —
Safety remains constant lesson
Schools train during drills, learn from incidents, preach awareness
Police officers moved through the halls of Cortland Junior-Senior High School for three days last month, rehearsing strategy as their radios spoke of an angry parent bringing a weapon to the school, shots fired, bodies in classrooms.
The situation on Feb. 21, 22 and 23 was fictional, created as one of the scenarios police and school officials might encounter. The officers taking part were from Cortland County’s active shooter response team, plus Groton village police, wearing protective gear and firing air-soft guns — plastic BBs — as they practiced how to navigate halls and stairways when a school faces a threat from outside or within.
The following Monday, Feb. 27, the real thing happened in Chardon, Ohio, as a high school student shot five other students, killing three of them.
That shooting was just the latest in a string of incidents over the years across the nation, where students and teachers were murdered by students bringing guns to school, dating to the 1999 murder spree at Columbine High School in Colorado.
People like Officer Robert Reyngoudt, school resource officer for Cortland city schools, and Nancy Ruscio, Homer superintendent of schools, study those situations and push for policy and school drills to guard against them.
Reyngoudt trains staff and other police officers, and is a leader of the county SWAT team. Both Reyngoudt and Ruscio advocate for regular drills and constant vigilance for even something that appears harmless.
Ruscio looks to two past situations: the February 2001 case of a boy who brought 18 bombs and two guns to Southside High School in Elmira and was caught by a school resource officer who was tipped off by students; and the May 2009 suicide of a senior at Canandaigua Academy, that district’s high school, when she was a district administrator there.
“I look for lessons every time,” said Reyngoudt, whose job involves law enforcement, teaching and counseling — listening to students and staff for signs of trouble. “One lesson is communication, telling parents and the community what is happening and where to go to find students. From the killings at Virginia Tech a few years ago, we learned to have bolt cutters, since that shooter locked up classrooms.”
Schools have drills every year, both “lockout,” where a possible threat comes from outside the walls, and “lockdown,” where the threat is inside.
Such drills are not mandated by New York state. They are only recommended.
But the Ohio shootings brought home the message that schools need to think about such possible threats every day and “be on the same page, students and teachers and administrators,” Reyngoudt said.
Cortland has a threat assessment system, where any threat made by a student against other students or staff causes Reyngoudt to meet with teachers, counselors and sometimes the student’s parents. He tries to find out if the student has access to weapons, by visiting his house — Reyngoudt always uses “he” and “his,” since 96 percent of school shooters are male.
Reyngoudt’s plans also tell teachers that if an armed person enters a classroom, do not sit down — keep moving, attack the gunman.
“This person will not want to negotiate, will not want money, all he wants is a body count,” Reyngoudt said. “So attack, try to escape, anything is better than being a victim.”
Reyngoudt says the school shootings may grow from nationwide news reports that certain angry or suicidal teens see and decide to copy. He blames violence in movies, TV and video games as well.
The 2009 suicide at Canandaigua Academy had ominous overtones, as the boy had 30 rounds of ammunition for his shotgun and two explosive devices with him. Reyngoudt said the boy left the school via a side door, got the items from his car in a gym bag, and was let back into the school by a student who knew nothing of his intent.
Ruscio and Reyngoudt both say that is why metal detectors at school entrances are not the answer to school shootings, since there are many ways a shooter can get weapons into a school.
“A metal detector used every day will pick up the knives that kids forget to leave home,” he said. “A random use of metal detectors might work. But it creates a false sense of security.”
He said many schools now have security systems that show when a door has been left open.
Homer Central School has not had a school resource officer for a couple of years, since the state reassigned state troopers who did the job. Ruscio said her school district has help from the state police on Route 281 and from Homer village police, but she and the board of education have begun to discuss adding a resource officer.
“We have to be vigilant all the time,” she said. “The Friday before winter break (Feb. 17) was when we had the BB gun shootings in Homer, two boys shooting out car windows. Two of the cars were in school parking lots. People shrugged it off but I said no, you don’t know why they were shot out. You have to be on your guard.”
Two 19-year-olds are accused of shooting out or breaking car windows in Homer and around the county that day. They face charges in Homer Town Court.
Ruscio said Homer has broadened its policy for helping students absorb a crisis afterward, following a different kind of situation: the death of Phoenix football player Ridge Barden during a game at Homer in October. Staff intervened in the days and weeks afterward but the district has fine-tuned its approach.
Reyngoudt said cell phones and Twitter help communication among law enforcement and emergency responders, school staff and parents. West Genesee district officials used Twitter earlier this week to inform parents about a bomb threat at West Genesee High School, then to tell parents a suspect had been arrested.
During a house fire on Maple Avenue on Feb. 10, Reyngoudt worried about Parker Elementary School students walking home while firefighters worked to extinguish the blaze. He spoke with city police via radio and learned they had secured the scene well enough to keep children away.
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