Oregon. Sandy Hook. Virginia Tech. And so on.
With each school shooting, conversations about gun control and safety at United States educational institutions are brought back to the forefront of the nation’s dialogue.
When asked about their security protocols, local officials from grade schools to colleges are at times tight-lipped. It’s not for lack of information or resistance to the press, but rather because sharing certain aspects of their plans could put at risk the very students and staff they’re trying to protect.
Following the death of nine people in last week’s shooting rampage at Umpqua Community College in Roseburg, Oregon, President Barack Obama immediately turned the conversation back toward tougher gun-control laws. He stressed that the United States is “the only advanced country on Earth that sees these kinds of mass shootings every few months.”
Two more shootings took place on college campuses recently. An 18-year-old student was taken into custody after allegedly shooting four people and killing one during a confrontation near a residence hall on the Northern Arizona University campus in Flagstaff shortly after midnight local time. Around 11:30 a.m. local time, one person was killed and another injured in a shooting near a Texas Southern University residence hall in Houston, officials said, making for two gun fatalities on campuses in one day.
Locally, such extreme violence often can bring a wave of concern from parents about the security practices at the schools and colleges their children attend, Methuen Superintendent of Schools Judith Scannell said.
But in examining security protocols, practices and drills at several Merrimack Valley and New Hampshire colleges and school districts, a common thread appeared. There was a limit to the detail to which school and law enforcement officials could discuss their plans for certain situations, including active shooters, both so as not to alarm their campus communities and to not provide any key information to a potential perpetrator.
“If somebody is out to do something harmful to anyone, we’re not at any point trying to help them accomplish that,” said David Gingerella, Northern Essex Community College vice president of administration and finance.
Campuses around the Merrimack Valley and New Hampshire reacted in a variety of ways to the Oregon shootings. School officials sent out emails and social media messages to their communities, and some institutions increased police presence.
As a fellow community college, Northern Essex Community College officials said they felt a deep connection with their peers in Umpqua.
“Naturally we feel it a little more closely than you would at another type of institution,” spokeswoman Ernie Greenslade said. “I mean, we always are impacted by those horrible instances.”
At Merrimack College in North Andover, spokesman James Chiavelli said the response was “muted,” though the college added more police patrols on campus the day of the shooting to “try and project an air of calm.”
University of New Hampshire Police Chief Paul Dean shared safety information for responding to disruptive behavior on social media, as well as linking to the university’s protocols for active shooters, campus alerts, and the Behavioral Intervention Team. Dean declined to be interviewed over the phone, providing The Eagle-Tribune with an emailed question-and-answer style statement.
After school shootings, Dean said his department typically receives an increase in requests for refresher presentations on active shooters and violent individuals. The Police Department uses programs from the Center for Personal Protection and Safety, including “Shots Fired on Campus,” a guide for surviving an active shooter situation, and “Flash Point,” about recognizing and preventing violence on campus.
Dean said the Oregon shooting would not alter the university’s security policies in the short term.
“Once I have had the opportunity to review the lessons learned from the investigation, I will be in a better position to re-asses our safety needs at all our campuses,” he said.
Scannell said school security was “a constant work in progress,” and officials at other schools said that security plans were regularly evaluated.
While security protocols and practices vary given the makeup of each campus, there are many similarities. Schools have security cameras, public safety personnel, and emergency alert systems. They have guidelines for those they employ and educate for incidents ranging from active shooters to bomb threats and explosions to severe weather, many of which can be found on their websites.
But there are differences, as well. Northern Essex contracts out for its security and has unarmed public safety officers, while schools like UNH and Merrimack College have armed police forces. The types of security drills they conduct vary and overlap, from mock-disasters to dormitory evacuations.
Northern Essex contracts with Eagle Investigative Services Inc. as a security provider and has 60 full-time and part-time public safety officers providing around-the-clock security on both the Haverhill and Lawrence campuses. The college also has relationships with local police departments. And there are police academy and Essex County Sheriff’s Department training sessions run on the college’s Haverhill campus.
The college held two disaster training drills on its Haverhill campus in the past year and was looking to hold one in Lawrence. One was a “tabletop disaster drill” last October, where those involved in responding to an emergency gather in a room and role-play a situation. The other was a full-scale mock-disaster held in June that simulated what would happen if a tanker delivering natural gas to a location on campus fell over and exploded. In that scenario, a car accident also blocked off one of the campus exits, Gingerella said.
Students, staff, law enforcement and neighbors were made aware of the drill beforehand, but were not told what the scenario would be.
“It’s kind of a little bit of controlled chaos – how would we respond to an emergency? And we find out some of the things we do well and some of the things we need to do better,” Gingerella said.
Merrimack College holds safety drills where students practice evacuating from dormitories, as well as hosting ongoing training for law enforcement. The college has an armed and state-certified police department with about 30 members, including dispatchers, and hires North Andover and Andover police details for weekend nights, Chiavelli said.
It also has an “active and engaged counseling staff” to which members of the college community can make anonymous referrals, he said.
While the college hasn’t experienced an active shooter situation, Chiavelli said there are a number of protocols in place, from law enforcement to communications to the administration. Should that situation arise, the college’s emergency alert system would be implemented, students would be told to either shelter in place or evacuate depending on where on campus the incident was happening, and “police would take over from there,” he said.
The campus culture of many higher education institutions provides the main difference in security protocols between colleges and public school districts, Scannell said.
“In campuses, kids are constantly in and out of buildings, constantly going from class to class, whereas once the kids are in the buildings (in grade schools), all of their classrooms are located in that one building. I think that’s the big difference,” she said.
Scannell said Methuen has the same security protocols for each of its five buildings, including a full-time police officer, double-locked doors, security cameras and an emergency alert system button built into an app on each teacher’s classroom computer to alert school and law enforcement officials of an intruder. One school has a system that can detect any shots being fired in the building.
Each year, one of the schools holds an unannounced mock lockdown coordinated with Methuen’s Police and Fire departments. Scannell is handed a script to give to the building’s principal, and the scenario is acted out.
“When we first started doing this, even when we just do our practice lockdowns without the script, parents said, ‘We should be informed ahead of time,”‘ Scannell said.
After about five years, she added, parents now “understand why I could never announce ahead of time because the children wouldn’t be prepared in a proper manner, it wouldn’t be taken seriously.”
Parents are now told in a Connect-Ed call after the drill, she said.
Scannell said Methuen schools changed the lockdown procedure after the Sandy Hook massacre in Newtown, Conn., switching to the ALICE system of Alert, Lockdown, Inform, Counter, Evacuate.
“It used to be find a spot in your classroom, everybody goes to that corner, you sit on the floor very quiet and shut your lights off,” she said. “We learned a very sad lesson with the Connecticut shooting … That was the biggest mistake that they were all in one area of the classroom.”
At some point in each of The Eagle-Tribune’s conversations about security practices, officials ran into a piece of information that caused them to draw the line on elaborating.
For Northern Essex, it was the level of security personnel staffing per shift, and some of the specifics of the lockdown drills. In Methuen, it was which building had the sensors for detecting an active shooter.
Gingerella said restricting some information was necessary so the college wouldn’t compromise its security.
“We have things in place to help protect our faculty, students and staff, and a lot of that information is not for the general public. It’s not something that we would share with the general public,” he said.
Chiavelli said restricting some of the discussion about security practices works two-fold.
“You don’t want to give all that away because, one, you don’t want to heighten anxieties, and two, if there is somebody with a plan you don’t want to tell him or her how to get away with something,” he said.
He pointed to calls he received from faculty questioning why there was an extra police presence on campus following the Oregon shooting.
“There’s this need to balance overt security with a concern about heightening anxieties,” he said. “The more you talk about security issues, the more you raise people’s anxieties about why you need so much security.”
Scannell said she also saw the need for withholding some information. While she couldn’t divulge the situation used in the Methuen’s mock lockdowns, she said the school district has protocols in place including for bomb threats, fire explosions and missing students.
“The security is the most important piece,” she said. “You just can’t talk about it.”
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