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Could school shooting happen here?

by Merrie Leininger

Could it happen here?

In the few panicked hours following Tuesday’s shooting in Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo., many were wondering if it could happen in their hometown.

Early reports Tuesday afternoon indicated 25 were killed at Columbine High School by three former students with guns and hand grenades.

School officials admit Douglas High School is just as vulnerable to the horrific, unexplained shootings as Littleton, Springfield, Ore., Jonesboro, Ark., and West Paducah, Ky.

Schools in all four communities have experienced shootings in the last three years.

Short of installing metal detectors, the school does all it can to insure such a thing won’t happen, officials said Tuesday.

“It’s absolutely the most frightening thing as a board member and a parent,” said school board Vice President Cheri Johnson. “We haven’t had any formal discussion as a board (about putting in measures to insure it won’t happen). I do think metal detectors are not the answer in this community now. We should be proactive by setting up discussion groups if, in fact, our administrators think it is necessary.”

Assistant Superintendent of Education Services Roy Casey said the district has discussed the possibility of a shooting happening here and have a policy in place.

“We have talked to school administrators about what we do first, which is call 911 and secure the building by evacuating students,” Casey said. “Making sure students are safe comes first.”

Superintendent Pendery Clark said the school puts most of its energy into proactive measures such as making sure the students know the strict, zero tolerance policy about weapons in the school.

“I would certainly want to insure students and parents that we’ve done everything we can think of. We’ve tried to be sure we are doing everything, but it’s just so difficult to guarantee,” Clark said.

She said there are notices up in every classroom with the weapons policy clearly written and the teachers are all responsible for discussing the rule every year.

“You would be very hard-pressed to find a student who doesn’t know about our weapons policy,” Clark said. “We’ve done a lot to make sure the students know it’s their responsibility to have a safe school, and if they hear something, no matter how crazy it sounds, to let a teacher know or let an administrator know.”

Student groups such as Natural Helpers, Peer Court and Friendship Groups, along with counselors and anger management counseling have been put into place to stop conflicts from escalating and to give students someone to go to.

n Weapons in school. Clark said the weapons policy has been in place for about five years, and it is working.

Casey said in the school year 1996-97, 19 students were expelled or suspended for bringing weapons to school, but only 17 students were punished for weapons violations in 1997-98.

Situations of violence between students have also decreased from 150 in 1996-97 to 111 in 1997-98.

Most of those cases involve knives brought to school, Casey said, although that is taken just as seriously. Even if it is only a pocketknife, students are immediately suspended for 10 days.

For other weapons, students are immediately suspended until their expulsion hearing. In cases of a student bringing a gun to school, they are expelled for an average of a year. Clark said in a couple of cases, students have been expelled permanently. She said the last incident of a gun brought to school was in 1998.

Clark said the schools are generally the focus of students’ lives, and their problems.

“Clearly, it is where kids spend their days, and if problems develop, it most likely will happen at school. That’s one of the reasons we are so pleased about peer court getting started, because the purpose of that is to get some of these conflicts in the early stages before it becomes more serious,” Clark said.

She suggested parents also talk to their children and advise them if they hear anything to report immediately to an adult.

n Police action. Douglas County Sheriff Ron Pierini said the department has a well-trained SWAT team that is trained for incidents like the one in Littleton.

“We have a 12-person technical team that is really highly trained. They train twice a month and have purchased, throughout the years, excellent devices and weapons. The team can go in and respond to any situation,” he said.

The department also has a team trained in crisis negotiation to communicate with a suspect in a hostage situation.

Pierini said if a shooting occurred in a school here, the SWAT team would be able to respond within 20 minutes.

“First, they’ve got to seal off the area and make sure the suspects won’t leave the area and make sure there is a safe way for them to get in without getting hurt. The first priority is making sure no one else gets hurt, second is getting help for the hurt people and last is getting the suspects without incident,” Pierini said.

Pierini said the department has been working on building the rapport with the community in an effort to prevent incidents like this. The Community Action Team has been involved in getting the peer court started and in preventing bullying in the schools. Another benefit is familiarizing students with officers so they will feel comfortable coming to them with information.