Sandy Hook fallout echoes in Idaho

03/31/2013 7:58 AM

04/02/2013 4:56 PM

Every student who walks by Geoff Rowe gets the same once-over - a split-second, head-to-toe glance he's practiced so often, he doesn't even know he's doing it.

Seven years as a school resource officer will do that to you.

Mostly, Rowe is looking for the mundane stuff: identification badge, hall pass, some indication of what the student's up to. But that mundane stuff is part of the work he does to keep Mountain View High School in Meridian from suffering the kind of heartbreak that made "Sandy Hook" and "Columbine" synonyms for tragedy.

As one of eight Meridian school resource officers, Rowe is a policeman first. He wears an officer's navy uniform, carries a gun on his hip and wears full tactical gear.

But he's partly a counselor, too.

Students at the high school often ask for his thoughts on all kinds of issues, from career possibilities to personal problems, Rowe said.

"We really are a jack-of-all-trades," he said. "Patrolman, detective, counselor, neighborhood contact officer."

Being approachable and having a feel for students' personalities is part of being an effective school resource officer, Rowe said. It could even head off violent acts; students who commit school massacres often don't give obvious clues of trouble.

Instead, they reveal subtle indicators that something's wrong - the kind of thing a parent, resource officer or school staff member who's not fully engaged might shrug off or not notice.

COLUMBINE AS A CATALYST

In 2002, the U.S. Secret Service and Department of Education published a report that found no useful profile to predict which students are likely to carry out attacks.

The Safe School Initiative report, commissioned after the Columbine High School shooting in Colorado in 1999, examined 37 incidents of school violence between 1974 and 2000. It found that attackers showed what some might consider normal teenage antics rather than blatant outbursts that become legal documents or discipline reports in a student's file.

In most cases, they were rarely or never in trouble at school. Most had no history of violent or criminal behavior. Only one-sixth had directly threatened their targets.

After the fact, investigators found clues of turmoil in the attackers' lives. Most attackers struggled with loss or personal failures. Many considered or attempted suicide. Almost all exhibited behavior that worried teachers, parents or fellow students, such as talking about killing other students or building bombs.

Perhaps most troubling is that other people, usually fellow students, knew about most of the attackers' plans before they were carried out.

On at least three occasions, Rowe said, he and other staff members have noticed slight changes in student behavior and followed up to uncover specific threats the students made.

"Sometimes, they want to tell you," Rowe said. "... They want to give you certain clues that something's not right."

But police work, even at its best, is only one prong on what Rowe calls the "trident of school safety." School staff and parents who keep close tabs on students are the other two prongs.

In some of the cases involving student threats, he said, parents didn't know about their children's worrisome behavior.

At the other end of the spectrum are the parents of a Rigby Junior High School student who called police Monday night after they found - written on a tablet computer - the names of fellow students believed to be targets of their son. Police found a bag at the home that contained knives, handguns and ammunition.

A SCREENING CHECKLIST

In Boise, the Safe School Initiative report prompted the school district to formalize a net for catching troubling behaviors and addressing them before they're manifested in violent acts. The district assembled what's known as a Threat Assessment Team - four school psychologists who try to address even the most vague and subtle red flags.

The team follows a system originally adopted for Denver Public Schools. It's designed to take as much guesswork as possible out of responding to threats. Reports can come from parents, students, teachers, administrators or other school staff.

A team made up of one of Boise's 19 school resource officers and various school officials, including the school principal, psychologist and counselor, reviews the reports and follows a screening checklist. They ask questions such as:

- Has the student engaged in behaviors relevant to carrying out the threat?

- Does the student see violence as a way to solve problems?

- What support will parents provide? Is there sufficient supervision? Is it lacking?

The team develops an "action and supervision plan" that takes into consideration the risk of suicide and appropriate disciplinary action, intervention and supervision. Parents and school staff are notified.

If a threat is serious enough - maybe four or five times a year - it's referred to the Threat Assessment Team. The team's job is to tweak as necessary the first team's assessment, then address the problem through treatment, suspension, expulsion, moving the student to a different school and other options.

Boise school psychologists Joe Bisig and Wes Hunt, both members of the assessment team, are convinced that the approach has prevented violence in Boise schools. They said they've uncovered at least one threat that, unchecked, likely would have resulted in death. On another occasion, the threat assessment led to the discovery in a student's home of instructions for manufacturing a pipe bomb.

It's impossible to tell how many troubling behaviors they handled would have blossomed into real threats.

"You don't know the fruits of your labor, and God forbid you find out," Hunt said.

A team like the one in Boise could have prevented some of the country's most infamous school massacres, including Columbine, Bisig and Hunt said.

Boise is the only district in Idaho that employs exactly this type of threat assessment team, the two said.

The Bonneville School District in Idaho Falls and other districts have similar plans, said Guy Bliesner, Bonneville's safety and security coordinator. Some districts have much less formal methods for assessing threats. Many don't have social workers, school psychologists or school resource officers.

PREVENTION AND RESPONSE

After the Sandy Hook Elementary tragedy in December, much of the school security conversation in the state has focused on response.

The Pocatello School District's board of trustees passed a measure in February to place gun lockers on school grounds where resource officers can store assault rifles, the Idaho State Journal reported.

Garden Valley School District board members are discussing authorizing teachers and administrators to carry guns in their schools.

Idaho State Department of Education spokeswoman Melissa McGrath said she's not aware of any districts that allow people other than school resource officers to carry guns.

The Coeur d'Alene School District added a resource officer in January and plans to add two more by fall, spokeswoman Laura Rumpler said.

State Sen. Marv Hagedorn, R-Meridian, submitted a bill that would have required every school in the state to have a specific plan for addressing all kinds of emergencies. Representatives from the schools, as well as local law enforcement, fire and other emergency response agencies, would help develop the plans, which would be based on a list of recommendations from a special task force.

The bill lost momentum in a flurry of amendments and concerns about public records exemptions, and appears unlikely to become law this year.

Developing security plans is a great idea, Rowe said. Mounting a fast, effective response to a threat means everyone - law enforcement, school district, ambulances - must be on the same page, he said. Many of the agencies responding to school emergencies have no experience at the school. A clear, established plan reduces the chaos.

"It's not a function of money," Rowe said. "It's a function of working together with the school districts and coming up with response plans that everybody knows what everyone else is doing."

Bliesner said he'd like to see future legislation aimed at stopping attacks before they start. He said Hagedorn's bill is "a great first step. That's all it is."

"It's heavy on response, Bliesner said. "It's a little light on mitigation and prevention."

Bliesner is a member of a state task force working to enhance school safety and security. Since its formation in 2006, he said, the group had met only a handful of times, developing a list of advisable practices to make schools safe.

Then, on Dec. 14, Adam Lanza entered Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., and killed 26 people, most of them children. The Idaho group has met every few weeks since early January.

"Sandy Hook hit people in a way that you have to go back to Columbine to find anything like it," Bliesner said.

The task force is considering recommending that Idaho require each district to assess the entire array of threats to its schools, develop plans to address weaknesses and update those plans annually, he said.

Furthermore, he said, Idaho should follow Texas' example and develop a statewide school safety center with a website that offers proven, effective practices; training; and on-site safety consulting on "everything from bullying to chemical hygiene." Experts would review schools' safety plans and provide training for improving them.

KEEP IT SIMPLE

Nationwide, law enforcement officers stopped school attackers in just one-quarter of the events reviewed in the Safe School Initiative report. More often, staff or students intervened.

Rowe said teachers are among the school's best assets for protecting students - in prevention and once any shooting starts.

Most people who carry out school massacres have worked out plans well in advance. Once the shooting starts, their goal is to kill as many people as they can, Rowe said. They look for easy targets and places where students gather, such as the library. They tend to avoid places that require time and effort to breach.

A locked door might be the single most effective defense.

"A properly locked-down classroom has not yet been breached by a school shooter," Bliesner said. "Doesn't mean it won't happen, but it hasn't yet."

Since January, Bliesner said, classroom doors in the Bonneville School District stay locked during school hours. Under normal circumstances, teachers place magnetic strips over the doors' strike plates so they can't latch, allowing students, staff members and others to enter and leave the classrooms with ease. In case of a lockdown, Bliesner said, the teachers remove that strip so that the door latches and locks out would-be intruders.

That's a lot faster and easier than finding and using the right keys in a moment of extreme stress, he said.

Staff at Mountain View in Meridian engineered locks to keep violent intruders out of gathering areas around the school, Rowe said. They're simple - but then, most principles of school security are simple, he said.

Rowe follows that philosophy on his rounds. He reports kids who leave campus when they're not allowed to. He talks to people in the neighborhoods surrounding Mountain View's 60-acre campus. Sometimes they tell him where to find truant students.

His comprehensive methods might seem more like parenting than police work, but from Rowe's perspective, that's what it takes to do the job right.

"We always hear these statistics about, you know, Idaho being 37th in this and 40th in that," he said. "Man, I'd like to see us be No. 1 in something, and that something would be school safety and security."

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