‘That first officer could be any one of you’
ACC criminal justice students learn to rush to danger
ALPENA — In Colorado, dozens of Denver-area schools were closed or in lockdown while police searched for a woman with a gun, supposedly obsessed with the Columbine school shootings 20 years ago, who was threatening schools.
On the same day, students in the Alpena Community College Criminal Justice program met in a classroom on campus to critically analyze the school shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla. a year ago on Valentine’s Day.
The future law enforcement officers evaluated the actions of the Florida officers and faced the truth of what their futures might hold: the responsibility for being that first officer on scene, the one who charges toward the sound of gunfire.
Students preparing to enter law enforcement shared information they had learned about last year’s school shooting, detailing the troubled past of the shooter and the accusations that the FBI knew he was a threat but didn’t act. They assessed the actions of school resource officer Scot Peterson and two sheriff’s deputies, accused of staying outside the school building while students were dying inside.
Since the Parkland shootings, the students reported, gun laws have been reconsidered, with an extended waiting period and increased age minimum proposed by survivors and families of victims of the tragedy. The arming of school personnel has been increasingly considered by school districts after the latest in a long line of modern school massacres.
Finally, the students reported on the effects of such a horrific event on the survivors and their families, telling of post-traumatic stress and suicide attempts that follow school shootings. Therapy and counseling is often provided after such events, but that help frequently ends after six months, just when, psychologically, the most devastating effects of the event are often just beginning to settle in. Anniversaries often trigger emotional turmoil — anniversaries such as the 20-year mark following the event in Columbine, Colo. that thunderstruck the nation.
Since Columbine, ACC teacher Larry Thomson told his classroom full of future officers, law enforcement responses to mass shooting events have changed. When he was trained as a police officer 35 years ago, he was taught to contain and control the situation, staying outside until backup arrived.
The advent of school shootings changed that, Thomson said, seconded by ACC Vice President of Instruction Deborah Bayer, a former officer herself who spent 25 years in law enforcement in Flint. After Columbine, Bayer said, officers were taught to as quickly as possible enter a shooting situation in groups of four, forming a diamond shape with one officer looking each direction.
In more recent years, as active-shooter situations continue to occur, training is again shifting, moving toward what Bayer called a single-officer pursuit, an unaccompanied officer going in after an active shooter immediately to minimize loss of life.
“Enter, go toward, eliminate the threat,” Thomson instructed.
Instead of following the human instinct to move to safety, the future officers in the classroom visualized rushing toward the sound of shots fired, stopping to evaluate only when the shots stop.
Twenty years after Columbine, we are still changing strategies and school shootings are still happening. That isn’t the way it has to be, Bayer said. She pointed to Israel, which has had only one school shooting.
“And it never happened again,” she said, explaining the nation’s rigorous proactive steps to secure their schools.
“In this country, we tend to be very reactive. We believe in open campuses, and we tend to want to address something after it’s happened,” Bayer said, commenting that the Flint schools she worked with have been limiting building access, utilizing metal detectors, and posting security guards for years, resulting in a drastic reduction of incidents of school violence.
The practice of waiting for backup before confronting an active shooter situation is not only outdated, but, in Northeast Michigan, where only one officer may be available for the first few minutes, it could pay a significant price in human life.
“That first four or five minutes could mean 10, 12 lives, or more,” Thomson said.
The children in our schools, Thomson said, motivate officers to hasten toward gunshots, their own lives at risk. He encouraged the future officers, if the time ever comes, to see vulnerable students in classrooms as their own children, their children’s friends, for whom staying outside, doing nothing, is not an option.
“That first officer could be any one of you,” Thomson said. “You are responsible for saving lives. And that’s what you are going to be making every effort to do.”
Julie Riddle can be reached at 989-358-5693 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
School shooting facts
There were at least 288 school shootings in the U.S. from Jan. 1, 2009 through May 21, 2018.
That’s 57 times as many shootings as the other six G7 countries, combined.
In the year since a school shooting in Parkland, Fla., there’s been a school shooting, on average, every 12 days. The deadliest was last May at a high school in Santa Fe, Texas, where 10 people died — eight students and two teachers — after a 17-year-old gunman opened fire in an art class.
In 2018, 67 new gun laws were enacted by both Republican and Democratic legislators in 26 states and Washington, DC, following a wave of activism among student survivors of the Parkland shootings.