By Sam Prickett
Feb. 14’s mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, was the eighth recorded school shooting of 2018 and, with 17 casualties, among the deadliest high school shootings in American history.
It was also the deadliest school shooting overall since 2012’s Sandy Hook elementary massacre in Newtown, Connecticut, which killed 28 people, mostly children.
The Parkland tragedy has been described by The Atlantic as a “tipping point” for the national conversation surrounding the prevention of similar shootings. On a federal and state level, activist efforts such as the “Never Again” movement have advocated for changes in gun laws, a controversial and bureaucratic process that will likely stretch on for months. But in Over the Mountain schools, more immediate progress is being made on a much more local level.
In Homewood, Hoover, Vestavia Hills and Mountain Brook school systems, administrators and law enforcement officers are reassessing the ways their schools respond to such incidents – and the measures they can take to prevent school shootings from happening at all.
“It’s Always Been a Priority”
Homewood Police Chief Tim Ross has been focused on school safety for nearly two decades. “It goes all the way back to Columbine,” he said, referring to the 1999 high school shooting that killed 15 people in Columbine, Colorado. At the time, Ross was assigned to the department’s tactical team, which he said “started doing specific training in the wake of that shooting as to the way we would handle a similar occurrence at one of our schools, heaven forbid.”
When the Sandy Hook massacre happened 14 years later, Ross was a lieutenant in the department’s patrol division. “I very much remember Sandy Hook and my reaction to that,” he said. “I had strong feelings about what our police department’s responsibility should be toward the school at that time.” When he became chief in late 2015, he already had some goals in mind.
“Now that I’m in a position to have a better grasp and control of the resources that we can allo- cate, I have made that a top priority,” he said. “It’s always been a priority of mine.”
When Ross started as chief, there were only four SROs working at the Homewood school system’s five schools — one at the high school, one at the middle, and two who rotated among the system’s three elementary schools. During Ross’s tenure, three new SROs have been hired — one more elementary school SRO, and one additional officer each for the high school and middle school.
Even before Ross’s tenure, the Homewood Police Department had worked with the school system to review existing safety plans, particularly in the wake of the Sandy Hook shootings in 2013. Some improvements, says Assistant Superintendent Kevin Maddox, came in the form of refining lockdown procedure — some of which was just as simple as making sure classroom doors could lock from the inside, which involved installing new locking mechanisms systemwide. Other building modifications, including secured vestibules at school entrances, will follow this summer.
“Active shooters typically have a timeframe of about three minutes,” Maddox said. “They can do a lot of damage in that time frame. We felt that just the ability to lock down, to lock yourself up and put a barrier between you and the active shooter, was instrumental as kind of a first step with us.”
After Sandy Hook, the police department also helped Homewood schools to implement the ALICE Protocol. The acronym, which stands for “Alert, Lockdown, Inform, Counter and Evacuate,” is a program used nationwide to prepare schools for potential active shooter situations. Most of the steps focus on keeping students and staff out of harm’s way, either through securing classrooms or exiting the school, as well as making sure a system of communication is open between people in the building during a potential active shooter situation. The counter part of that acronym, Maddox said, involves weaponizing items in a classroom for defense.
“You barricade the door with desks and furniture, and you identify items within that classroom that can be utilized as weapons against the shooter,” he says. “It can be pretty much anything: books, anything heavy that you could throw at the active shooter.”
Homewood schools have tested that ALICE protocol through active shooter drills, which are now a once-a-semester requirement statewide. Those drills, Maddox said, were “very impactful, because lots of our staff members had never been around guns before.
“Just hearing the sounds really made an impact on them,” he says. “Many teachers would say, ‘I will never forget what (gunfire) sounds like, so if I ever hear it again, I’m going to know immediately what that sound is.”
Teachers have also been prepared for much grimmer outcomes. In August, the school system implemented a program called “Stop the Bleed,” in which surgeons from UAB’s trauma team instruct teachers how to apply tourniquets and first aid to gunshot victims — essential, Maddox said, in keeping victims alive until first responders can enter the building.
Homewood’s focus on school safety isn’t unique among Over the Mountain schools. Hoover City Schools, said Superintendent Kathy Murphy, is working to limit entry to its school buildings, as well as repositioning cameras to focus on the entryways that will remain accessible.
Vestavia Hills has maintained at least one SRO in every one of its schools “going back at least 20 years,” says Whit McGee, the school system’s communications and public relations officer. Hoover and Mountain Brook, meanwhile, have similarly focused on increasing police presence at schools. Hoover in particular, said Murphy, is preparing to add two new full-time SROs, one at each of the system’s high schools — a plan that she said had been in place “even before Parkland.”
Just a few miles from Hoover High School is the headquarters of the National Association of Resource Officers, a training organization that helps prepare SROs worldwide. NASRO, which is in its fourth decade of existence, has two Hoover Police Department alumni on its executive staff — Executive Director Mo Canady and Director of Operations Mac Hardy. Both of them, Hardy said, have “very close ties with officer in this area,” and have advised Homewood and Hoover schools on strategies and safety trends.
Hardy says that there’s been a nationwide effort to install SROs in every school, but there are obstacles to that goal, primarily funding challenges.
Homewood Chief Tim Ross says that positioning SROs in schools without hiring new personnel poses a significant challenge. The department, he said, has had to use what Ross describes as “out- of-the-box thinking” — placing retired police officers in schools as SROs. “Compared to having to take a guy or girl who’s working a police beat or a patrol beat out there and then all of a sudden retasking them or re-assigning them and put them in a school… it’s very much a win-win,” he says.
But even this strategy has its challenges, particularly when it comes to paying those officers. Retirement Systems of Alabama, which administers state employees’ pension funds, places limits on retired officers’ incomes, which makes hiring those officers difficult, Ross says.
“I have talked to a lot of good, quality candidates, retired police officers, and unfortunately most of them can’t afford to do the job for what I’m able to pay them,” Ross said. “I think that’s something we need to talk about (with the state legislature and the RSA) and try to explore a way for them to be paid more than we’re currently able to pay them.”
Despite this difficulty, Hardy applauds Over the Mountain schools for being proactive in their efforts. “I would like people to know that in our communities, in Hoover and Vestavia and Homewood and Mountain Brook, they’re very fortunate to have police departments that take school safety very seriously, as you can see,” he said. “But it wasn’t just their reaction to the shooting. These departments already had a good number of school resource officers in their schools prior to this. And they’re not just police officers. They are truly school resource officers. They have all been selected properly, they have specialized training in working in schools, and they are all sworn police officers. So it wasn’t a big jump for those communities.”
Just as important, if not more important, than these physically protective measures are the preventative tactics.
“Those are reactionary,” said Maddox. “The thing I think that we try to work the hardest on is how we can prevent them from happening in the first place.”
That involves dedicating resources to monitoring students’ mental health and wellness, making sure that schools are aware of at-risk youth and working to help them.
“This is going to sound silly, but we continually encourage our staff members to invest in our students, to get to know them, to learn about them, so that if I’m a staff member and I see that a kid in my classroom is not acting normal, I’m going to know it immediately,” he said. “I’m going to reach out to a counselor, an administrator. I’m going to call the parents. I’m going to be invested in the kid enough to be an advocate for him or her.”
In addition to employing Director of Guidance Leigh Cohen Long, who has an extensive background in dealing with mental health issues, Homewood Schools have “over time have developed an extensive network of professionals in mental health to be able to respond quickly to needs that our kids have,” Maddox said. “We’ve got names and phone numbers. We know how to get parents and kids connected to the right resource, depending upon what’s going on in their lives. That’s huge in terms of prevention.”
Vestavia schools have a similar strategy, McGhee said.
“(One of) our core tenets for all that we do in our school system is, we will create a culture of inclusivity and respect. For us, the whole idea behind that is creating a safe and nurturing environment,” McGhee said.” We have a little over 7,000 students that go here, and each one of them has a unique story, and we have a responsibility to make sure that they know and believe that their story matters to us.”
Stopping bullying and harassment is an essential part of that, he said, pointing to a recent policy change by the Vestavia school board to broaden the definition of bullying, which has often been linked to the motivations of school shooters.
“If you feel like you are being bullied, harassed, or threatened, it doesn’t really matter what the reason is,” he said. “Our teachers and our staff and our students all have a responsibility to prevent that from happening, and we want to make it clear that there are consequences for students who bully others.”
For Hoover City Schools, Murphy said, a complex system exists for addressing students’ mental health issues.
“We really have had a focus since the end of the last academic year on mental health,” she said. “We do threat assessments anytime the conduct and behavior of a child is suspicious in terms of being harmful to himself, herself, or someone else, or if there are threats to himself, herself or others.” These assessments are first handled at the school level, generally by guidance counselors, but if concerns continue, the issue will be raised at the central office.
“Our staff and other individuals study the matter, study the student, look at what’s new or different in their lives, look at their grades,” Murphy said. “And this has been in place for some time, many many years, where we really are trying to be thoughtful about those children that seem to show indications that they could hurt themselves or others… We’re trying to be proactive about the mental health issues. We can either bury our head in the sand and pretend those issues don’t exist, or we can look at them, call them out for what they are, and own them.”
The Dialogue Continues
“Something like (the Parkland shooting) happens, even when it’s in another state, and it has such a far-reaching ripple effect,” McGee said. “I can remember coming into work the day after the shooting happened, and it was a very somber mood at pretty much all of our schools, because it’s an unfortunate reminder to all of us that these things happen far too often, and that we all have a responsibility to ensure the safety and security of our kids.”
In the wake of Parkland, McGee said, the Vestavia school system instigated “a very rich dialogue with our community” regarding school safe- ty.
“We have received so many different thoughts, comments, questions, about our overall approach, things ranging from, ‘Should we have parent volunteers helping to keep an eye out on things at the school?’” McGee said. “Of course, the dialogue has somewhat followed the national conversation as well. ‘Should teachers be allowed to carry weapons?’ We’ve heard that. ‘Should we have bulletproof doors in the building or other countermeasures like that inside the building? Should there be different systems in place for check-in and checkout?’”
But while McGee said the school system takes all of that feedback into account, having an open dialogue can also lead to more tips about potential threats.
“The main thing that I would say that we have emphasized to our parents and stakeholders after the shooting in Florida happened is, ‘If you see something, say something,’” he said. “Even if it’s not something that’s actively on the school campus… but if you know of someone or something that represents a threat to school safety, let someone know… Don’t be the person who regrets not speaking up in order to prevent a tragedy from happening here. We all have a responsibility.”
That’s a sentiment echoed by NASRO’s Mac Hardy. “A school administration and a school staff cannot by themselves keep a school as safe as possible,” he said. “Law enforcement cannot do it alone…. We certainly strive during out training to train school resource officers about being open, and being transparent, and being available and building relationships with students and building relationships with parents, because in our opinion, the school resource officer is not only a layer of security for the school, but it’s also one of the greatest community policing jobs you can possibly have.”
Some students have taken it upon themselves to initiate that dialogue; a March 24 rally and march, organized by students from Birmingham-area schools and colleges, will call for legislative solutions to address gun violence in schools; the rally will take place at Railroad Park at 2 p.m., with a march route to be determined.
But schools seem just as eager to begin a dialogue. Hoover schools, for instance, will be hosting two community forums. One will be Tuesday, March 6 at 6 p.m. at Spain Park High School, and the other will be Thursday, March 8 at Hoover High School at 6 p.m.
“We will have some of our school eaders, city of Hoover leaders, and even some of our state leaders and NASRO at the table with us so that we can all be collaborative in finding some better approaches,” Murphy said.
Those dialogues with parents and community members are safeguards against complacency, which can be a fatal flaw in any security strategy, she said.
“According to Niche (a website that analyzes data regarding U.S. schools), Hoover City Schools is the safest school district in the state of Alabama and the fifth safest in the nation,” she said. “That’s all well and fine, but no one is deceived into believing that we couldn’t be an exception… While we are happy to be acknowledged for some of the really great things we’re doing to protect children and that we were doing even before Parkland, we (could still) face some similar challenges that other school districts have. (We want) others at the table with us so that we can all be collaborative in finding some better approaches.” ❖