In the wake of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting tragedy, school districts belonging to the Hamilton-Fulton-Montgomery BOCES will work with federal officials to improve their security protocols to handle “active shooter” encounters.
Patrick Michel, district superintendent of the HFM Board of Cooperative Educational Services, said trainers from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security will meet next week with school staff from the Johnstown, Gloversville, Wheelerville and BOCES districts. Law enforcement officials from Gloversville and Johnstown will also participate.
Michel expects all 14 component school districts of the regional BOCES to receive training this year. “The issue is making sure everyone is on the ball. There are various things we have to do. I would be misleading you and the public if I said I did not see holes,” he said. “They will talk about procedures and pick apart the holes.”
School districts and law enforcement agencies across the country have stepped up efforts to improve security and cooperation after a 20-year-old man with mental illness broke into the school Dec. 14 in Newtown, Conn., and killed 20 children and six adults before taking his own life when authorities arrived. He killed his mother prior to coming to the school.
Dawn Lafferty Hochsprung, the principal of the school and one of the adults murdered, had family ties to the Broadalbin area of Fulton County.
Michel said some of the issues that need to addressed include:
• Improving school district communication with local and state police.
• Working more closely with first responders.
• Performing more tabletop drills. These involve first responders and school personnel meeting in one place and going through various threat scenarios.
• The presence in some school buildings in the BOCES district of classroom doors that do not lock from the inside. “There are schools that did not take into account these tragic considerations when they built their buildings,” Michel said.
Gloversville Police Chief Donald VanDeusen said he sees nothing but good coming from the training.
“This is good to get people together and discuss the issues that could possibly arise in anybody’s school district,” he said.
Johnstown Police Chief Mark Gifford also said he sees the training as a positive. “As in any program, there is room for improvement. It helps to have a third set of eyes looking at it. They have ideas we have not thought of,” he said.
Both police chiefs said they have excellent working relationships with their respective school districts. VanDeusen, however, said he sees a need for more interagency cooperation and more drills. He said that in the event of an active shooter, Gloversville could easily work next to a sister agency in a different jurisdiction.
“We have learned that to sit back and wait is not the most active approach. We are trained to respond to that location and neutralize the threat,” he said.
Currently, Gloversville and Johnstown police agencies train together through a regional tactical team to handle a variety of hazardous situations, Gifford said. The police agencies also undergo frequent active shooter training through the Department of Homeland Security.
By comparison, state law only requires school districts to conduct at least one drill per year with local law enforcement. Michel would like to see two or three drills per year.
Michel said as a result of Newtown, “a lot of the changes will occur this year. If there are any physical plant issues, they can be addressed this year.”
David Aimone, who oversees the HFM BOCES Health Safety and Risk Management Program, said the Homeland Security training being offered to the school districts is a “scaled-back” version of the training it provides to law enforcement agencies. “It tells staff how to keep themselves safe, how to keep the kids safe and how to buy time,” he said.
He said school security protocols are designed to slow down events involving an active shooter and keep a tragedy from expanding. “It takes time for a shooter to get in and do damage,” he said.
But he said even the strongest protocols will not stop a determined shooter.
Sandy Hook, for example, had strong security protocols, officials said. The school was locked down, but the shooter was able to get in by shooting out the doors and windows. Once he was inside the building, however, teachers locked the classroom doors and moved the children to safe areas. all of which bought time for first responders to arrive and help keep the situation from getting worse.
Aimone said the Homeland Security training will help put teachers, administration and support staff on the same page with first responders when they come to deal with an active shooter. He said the idea to bring in Homeland Security for training was proposed before the Sandy Hook situation. The tragedy accelerated the process, he said.
“This gives us an opportunity to take another look and see if we can improve,” Aimone said.
He said that while this is the first time Homeland Security has provided the training, this is not the first time schools have received training in dealing with armed intruders. “We have had state police training. The idea is to sustain what we have in place,” he said.
Michael Vanyo, superintendent of the Gloversville Enlarged School District, said he initiated a review of the district’s security protocols when he took over as leader last year. He said the BOCES initiative is another opportunity to “have an agency that is trained in this to work with us educationally and make us better prepared.”