Keeping Douglas students safe
Ron Pierini takes more than a passing interest when he watches the news or reads about gun violence on a school campus.
As Douglas County Sheriff, it’s a professional interest.
“When situations happen in America, especially when shootings occur in schools, I worry about the possibility of having a shooting in Douglas County,” Pierini said. “I am sure every law enforcement sheriff and chief feels the same way. I feel that our deputies are well-trained in case of a shooting in schools and businesses. I pray it never happens, but we are ready to respond in case it occurs.”
Obviously, no law enforcement official wants to have it happen on their watch.
“We’ve been blessed that we have not had a shooting in our schools, however, we are prepared if it happens,” Pierini said.
So far in 2018, no fewer than 15 incidents have occurred nationwide in which a shooter caused death or injury by gunfire. Three have resulted in the deaths of students, the deadliest on Feb. 14 in Parkland, Fla., where gunshots left at least 17 people dead at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.
Other incidents, of course, include Sandy Hook in Connecticut in December 2012 (20 children between 6 and 7 years of age and six adult staff members) as well as Columbine in Colorado in April 1999 (12 students and one teacher died).
“When the shooter went into the school and killed those people Colorado, law enforcement began to say, ‘What can we do to make it better and safer for our children?’ And I think we’ve done pretty well,” Pierini said.
He went on to point out that Douglas County has had a number of safety measures in place for some time, among those being training programs to prepare for — or better yet, try and prevent — a tragedy. Those measures include information sharing and having a school resource officer at various sites, just to name a couple.
One of his top preventative priorities is reaching out to people in the community to share valuable information.
“I want to emphasize the importance of educating people about notifying our agency immediately if anyone says he or she will harm someone in the school or somewhere else,” Pierini said. “My policy is that our deputies will respond ASAP to investigate and take action if necessary. Information is very important and we need assistance from our residents. Residents must help and inform my staff before a shooting begins.”
Douglas County School District Superintendent Teri White and Pierini both expressed their belief that the No. 1 problem across America is mental health. White noted that mental health was discussed prominently on Monday when the state’s school district superintendents met with Gov. Brian Sandoval at the Capitol in Carson City to discuss how to improve school safety.
“Almost everybody talked about the mental health issue of our students as their No. 1 concern,” she said. “We need full funding for social workers and possibly additional assistance for mental health professionals in the school to help identify some of the students who need help.”
EDUCATION AND TRAINING
Pierini explained that his agency’s policy is to respond immediately when information is provided.
“If anyone gives us information about a possible shooting or similar to that, we drop everything, including investigators, patrol deputies and supervisors, and we will investigate if this person could harm someone. Our response must be immediate,” Pierini said.
Training needs to be ongoing, he added. Sheriff’s office personnel train through the Nevada Peace Officers Standards of Training program and their work continues beyond that.
“We need to train more and more in case it happens,” Pierini said. “And we add on things all the time to provide training for law enforcement officers who go through the academy. About 20 years ago, the policy was, ‘Why don’t we wait for at least three or four people to arrive and then we go in there.’ That all changed quite a while ago. Now, when you hear shots, you’ve got to go in and deal with it. None of us want to be shot at, but that’s your job and it must be stopped to save lives. That’s what it’s all about.”
Pierini went on to add that officer training for live shooter incidents is mandated every two years.
“Not only do we have some great captains and sergeants who are training them,” he said. “What they do is more history of what happens. How do we do it and how do we make it better?”
Training is conducted in the schools as well because knowing how to respond — and how to communicate — is critical for anyone involved in a live shooter situation.
“We have spent time to educate them that if this does happen and how you respond to that,” Pierini said, referring to school personnel and students. “That is very important because a teacher is going to say, ‘What am I going to do? Do I lock the doors? Do I hide myself? Do I run?’ We want to make sure everybody knows what they’re doing.”
Pierini also pointed out local law enforcement agencies respond to help each other out, including Carson City and South Lake Tahoe. One example was the Carson City IHOP shooting in September 2011.
“If something happens in Carson City, we will respond, and vice versa,” Pierini said. “And we’re all trained pretty much the same way, so it works out very well.”
SCHOOL RESOURCE OFFICERS
Pierini went on to point out it was around the time of the Columbine shootings that a School Resource Officer was introduced to Douglas County with the aid of a shared agreement with the school district.
“We started the SROs dealing with officers that go into the schools here,” he said. “I think it’s very important to have that and we’re very happy that the school district has allowed us to send employees into different locations.”
White added that the School Resource program has proven invaluable.
“Our relationship with the sheriff’s office and our two resource officers has been incredible,” she said.
John Meyer and Ryan Grant currently serve as the county’s school resource officers. Meyer has served in the position since August 2010 and Grant joined two weeks ago.
“The SROs are hard working deputies,” Pierini said. “John Meyer is a really good guy. He has had a lot of experience, I don’t think he wants to do anything else, and I think he’s well-liked. Ryan took over that second position recently, but he’s been with us for 14 years, and he’s a really good guy.”
Their duties are obviously important and at times can present different challenges.
“I think it feels more comfortable to have law enforcement there (at school), but it’s a difficult job,” Pierini said. “In fact, it becomes very hard because there are a lot of things that go on. Sometimes there are thefts, there are fights, sometimes there is illegal drug activity. We’re there to keep it safer for everyone.”
Nevertheless, with a dozen school campus sites in the county between Carson Valley and Lake Tahoe, Pierini still has concerns whether enough is being done to provide protection.
“How can we ever have enough time for an officer go to each school when something could be happening at any one of them?” Pierini said.
In a perfect world, Pierini would like to be able to add more SRO deputies. Realistically, he is enthusiastic with the arrangement now in place.
“I think we’re pretty well set up as a positive way to stop any kind of activities,” Pierini said. “And we have two school youth service officers doing the DARE and GREAT programs, so they are in the schools also. That allows us to have four of them working at different schools. Now, it’s true, we’re not going to be there all the time, but we are showing we care and that we have law enforcement officers there to help in case it does happen.”
Their roles go beyond protection. It’s about building trust and relationships with students.
“I don’t want them to just be there, I want them to be interactive with the kids” Pierini said. “We live in an area that we can have our deputies come in and communicate with them, see if there are any problems and to respond if there is someone from that school they’re having a problem with.”
DISCUSSION NEEDS TO BE ONGOING
Safety in schools is obviously a hot topic right now.
White described the meeting superintendents had with Sandoval as highly productive.
“The governor just wanted to gather some information from us ahead of building his budget,” she said. “He is going to put together a small task force representative of superintendents, parents and teachers — he wants two of each — and that committee will meet several times between now and when his budget is due about some of the school safety concerns.”
Barry Penzel, vice chairman of the Douglas County Board of Commissioners, proposed a meeting with school board members during public comment at the March 1 commission meeting — “where we can discuss … physical security for our schools to make them as safe as humanly possible.”
Penzel added: “We can’t put deputies there 24 hours seven days a week … do we really want to lock it down? We need to think about the things we can do to secure it.”
“I don’t mind having communication with the school district about whatever the issues are,” Pierini said. “We can certainly do that, but we have done that and we are fulfilling that. If we need to go through and do it again, I’d be more than glad to do that. If we learn more about anything we’re not doing right, why not?”