After nearly one year the State of Connecticut, Division of Criminal Justice (CDCJ) finally issued its report on the Sandy Hook massacre and just last week, the Connecticut Police Chiefs Association (CPCA) issued its version of the law enforcement response at Sandy Hook Elementary School. While both reports offered some insight into the event, neither document addressed the real issues that we have seen at Pearl, Paducah, Jonesboro, Columbine, Virginia Tech and Sandy Hook… the lack of interagency urgency to plan for and prepare for an active shooter or mass shooting incident. The elephant in the room is not our lack of response. Since Columbine, law enforcement agencies nationwide have adopted Active Shooter policies to immediately enter facilities and neutralize the threat- instead of waiting for tactical teams to arrive on scene long after the attack has ended. Schools have done a reasonable job in their response, implementing standardized procedures such as lockdowns, shelter-in-place and evacuation. But in our post-9/11 world of interoperability communications and interagency cooperation, the missing elements remain the lack of planning and practice between law enforcement agencies and school districts.
Having worked as a public safety consultant for both law enforcement and schools, I have seen it time and time again. The police or sheriffs have their plans and schools have their plans. Both were usually developed in isolation and without the consultation or consent of the other party.
It is no wonder we are still struggling with our response to school shootings if from the very beginning our plans are not in sync and our people do not know what to expect from the other individuals involved. School safety is not just a law enforcement response or a school responsibility. The lives of our precious children and their educational caretakers are at stake and they deserve the time and resources necessary for our schools and police to properly plan and practice together.
From a planning perspective, both school and law enforcement officials need to sit down together in the same room and compare policies and procedures, frankly discussing specific protocols concerning active shooter events in order to ensure law enforcement accessibility, the proper resources and quick response. In one school plan I reviewed it stated, “The police will secure all campus building exits and street ingress and egress throughout the incident.” A quick call to the local Sheriff instantly made the plan obsolete when he advised me that he did not have enough deputies on duty in the entire county to fulfill that single request, let alone perform his legal duties such as stopping the attack, securing the scene, and collecting and processing evidence. Because of the lack of communication and coordination between the schools and law enforcement, the school safety plan was designed to fail from the beginning.
While proper planning may be an issue, an equally important element of school safety is practice. Many law enforcement agencies receive and routinely practice their active shooter protocols, some even using school facilities on nights and weekends to increase the realism of the training- but rarely do schools and public safety officials practice together. Seldom do they take the time to sit down face to face and conduct important tabletop exercises ensuring that each party has the proper resources necessary to respond to an incident. In still fewer cases do school employees and law enforcement officers conduct practice drills together, guaranteeing the type of coordination necessary to respond to one of these horrific mass shooting incidents.
While the CDCJ and CPCA reports serve a purpose in enlightening the public to the underlying conditions of the attacker and the response at Sandy Hook, neither report addresses nor provides guidance on the areas where we can improve our school safety efforts- planning and practice. Until school administrators and law enforcement officials can commit the time, personnel, and resources necessary for proper interagency planning and training, our after-action reports will continue to focus on lives lost and not lives saved.