Area schools anticipate worst-case scenarios
The threat of students being killed or wounded by gunfire is never far from the minds of anyone connected with schools, including administrators, teachers and law enforcement authorities.
In Washington County’s six public school districts, students, teachers and administrators have received training in how best to respond to a situation involving gunfire, and at least one district has allowed its teachers to carry concealed firearms.
Such responses are permitted under Ohio law but need to be ratified as a policy by the local school board.
Frontier Local Schools lies on the eastern edge of the county, giving it additional vulnerability because the response time in such an emergency for law enforcement officers –the Washington County Sheriff’s Office, in most cases — could be 20 minutes or more, depending on where deputies happen to be at the time. The district board of education late in 2016 passed a resolution that included armed teachers as part of a response plan in the event of a school shooting.
“For the board members, this was not a decision they made lightly,” Frontier superintendent Brian Rentsch said. “What really swayed the decision was…the whole situation (can be) over in 10 minutes.”
Rentsch said the board’s vote on the issue was unanimous at a meeting in December 2016 attended by community members parents, students and teachers.
“They were given enough to make an informed decision, and the Washington County Sheriff’s Office helped us along the way,” he said. The response time factor was a crucial element, Rentsch said.
“Being in a rural area had a large impact in the decision-making,” he said. “There are schools within city limits that have an armed response team. It was the time factor and having the team in the buildings.”
Membership in the Frontier armed response teams is voluntary, Rentsch said. As for response from teachers, the program was “well received, even from those who aren’t interested in being on the team.”
He would not give specifics about the program, including how many teachers are taking part.
Chief Deputy Mark Warden of the Washington County Sheriff’s Office has made numerous presentations to schools about security and response during shootings. He is a certified instructor in ALICE — Alert, Lockdown, Inform, Counter, Evacuate, a response system devised by a Texas law enforcement officer and his wife, a teacher, following the Columbine school killings in 1999.
“These events are random and rare, but unfortunately they could happen anywhere, so part of the training is that you train for an event you hope never happens,” Warden said. “You give them a tool to respond with.”
Part of the difficulty in responding to school shootings is that they tend to occur very fast and are often well under way before students and staff fully realize what’s happening, Warden said. He described ALICE as “intense, realistic training” which can include the firing of blanks.
“It’s terribly sad we have to provide this kind of training — it’s shot recognition so that everyone knows what gunfire sounds like,” he said. “Your mind doesn’t want to react, to acknowledge that’s what it is, and you lose precious moments when you should be moving.”
Warden said the training is in demand not just from schools but also from churches, small and large businesses and industrial sites. The state requires schools to hold a drill once a year and file a report by Dec. 31, but for the past two years some have held the drills more often, sometimes replacing one or more regular fire drills, he said.
In Belpre City Schools, the emphasis is not only on response but also on prevention, superintendent Tony Dunn said. Safety plans were developed with the local first responders, he said, and updated annually.
So far, he said, law enforcement authorities have not told the schools they should arm any employees, he said.
“We have a wonderful relationship with Belpre police, and we have their officers in our campuses and in our buildings every day,” he said. “Our local officers are encouraged to interact with our students and build positive relationships.”
Staff at the schools attempt to develop a deep knowledge of students and their families, he said, “so we can know when someone is hurting or something isn’t right.”
Prevention, he said, is the best form of security.
In Fort Frye Local Schools, the Cadet Communicator for this quarter included a lengthy message from superintendent Stephanie Starcher about school safety and security.
“I wish there was a simple, quick answer I could provide,” she wrote in reference to concerns after the Parkland killings, “but the fact is school safety is a marathon and not a race.”
Safety training is held throughout the year, she said, and all the school offices have direct radio communication with law enforcement. She also highlighted efforts to promote student and staff wellness.
“In school shooting scenarios, the shooter typically has some type of social or emotional maladjustment,” she said. “Our wellness efforts are intended to teach students healthy ways to cope with the issues facing them …”
Will Hampton, superintendent of Marietta City Schools, said the Parkland killings have driven safety discussions around the system. He said the district is planning a public meeting to be held later this month.
“We’re going to hold a question-and-answer forum to talk about school safety and what we should do,” he said. “People have very strong opinions about this, I think people want to talk about it, and we’re going to let them.”
Hampton said Wednesday the details of the meeting were still being determined.
Like other districts in Ohio, Hampton said, Marietta City Schools buildings all hold annual drills, but “because of Parkland, we’ve done some other things with kids and staff.”
Hampton declined to provide more details.
Regarding school shootings, he said it’s difficult to develop an exact procedure because each is different.
“There’s no script to it, but you can have a plan,” he said.
J.D. Benson, a teacher at Marietta Middle School and president of the Marietta Teachers Association, said teachers haven’t taken a formal position on the idea of allowing concealed weapons carried by teachers on campus.
“Without having taken a poll or anything like that, I think most teachers would not be comfortable being armed themselves or having other teachers armed,” he said.
Benson called the public forum mentioned by Hampton “a great idea.”
At a glance
¯ Response system to active shooter in a public place or workspace.
¯ Stands for Alert, Lockdown, Inform, Counter, Evacuate.
¯ Mission: “To improve chances of survival.”
¯ For information: alicetraining.com