Oh for the days of innocence when fire drills signified little more than an opportunity to escape classroom tedium and march out onto the playground for a breath of fresh air.
Nowadays there’s talk of another kind of drill to prepare for gunshots resounding in the hallways of this community’s educational institutions just as they have in others hit by the school shooting epidemic. The Franklin County Board of Education voted unanimously Monday to institute an “active shooter emergency plan” to confront a situation that’s neither inevitable nor unthinkable.
Spending $2,600 on a system of “shooter switches,” similar to the old fire alarms, is worth the cost even if we never experience a single shooting. Bondurant Middle School went into lockdown earlier this spring when a student carried a fake gun and a hunting knife into the building. The scare ended quickly but Montey Chappell, a school resource officer, said things could have gone wrong if the young man had entered a hallway with his weapons, real or not. This might have forced the officer to draw his own weapon, perhaps even endanger a child’s life.
What schools need, in Chappell’s view, is a strategy that prepares them to respond effectively when gun threats emerge. The alarms are just a beginning. While the old ones connect to fire stations, shooter alarms will directly alert law enforcement and possibly the hospital to be ready for the worst. Instant text messages or emails will go out to parents and guardians, informing them of what’s happened and how they can help. Cellphones are like appendages to today’s young people, who were quick to use them during the Bondurant lockdown. But some of the rumors they circulated were inaccurate. Chappell expects official communications to be more reliable.
Prevention is an even better policy. Chappell and Superintendent Harrie Buecker called for a training program to inform school staff and students of signs that someone in their midst might be planning an attack. We’ve all seen or read stories about mass killers – in schools and elsewhere – whose warnings of violent intent were heard but not heeded. It’s important to listen and also to share information with school or law-enforcement authorities who may be able to intercept the plans and get help for emotionally disturbed individuals.
There have always been insiders and outsiders at school. Pariahs who once suffered in silence seem driven to strike back nowadays. But lashing out usually is not a spur-of-the-moment decision. Chances are a school shooter has been dropping hints weeks or months before attacking. As Buecker observed, “rarely do they ever just show up without telling someone.” She’d like to see educators build relationships that encourage students to open up to adults in position to head off trouble.
There’s scant political consensus on the ultimate solution. Gun-control advocates want more restrictions on weapons availability. Gun rights activists say firearms in the hands of law-abiding citizens deter violence. Educators have to look elsewhere for answers.
Local schools are fortunate to have avoided a major tragedy to date – and wise not to assume their good luck will last indefinitely.