Schools across Pierce County responded with sympathy and information Friday after the school shooting in Connecticut.
Districts maintained heightened awareness but did not adjust standard security measures. Administrators issued statements on their websites and on social media; principals fielded phone calls from concerned parents; and everyone struggled for words.
“There are certain incidents that no matter how prepared you are,” started Tacoma public schools spokesman Dan Voelpel, then he stopped, and sighed. “We feel like we are well prepared to deal with incidents that occur at our schools.
“Sometimes there are people, like this case in Connecticut, where the lockdown drills and the police response are appropriate and thorough, but the shooter was ahead of the game.”
By state law, schools must conduct one safety related drill each month that school is in session. That includes fire drills, sheltering from natural disasters and lockdowns related to criminal activity.
Administrators and teachers prepare for such drills and do more if the results aren’t up to standard, Voelpel said.
He and officials from other Pierce County districts and law enforcement agencies said they have detailed safety protocols and good relationships.
“The first thing is, Tacoma and Pierce County are way ahead of everyone,” sheriff’s spokesman Ed Troyer said. “A lot of the software used across the country that keeps first responders in school maps was developed here in Pierce County.”
Second, he said, “It’s not like it used to be, where the first (police officers) there secured the scene and waited for SWAT. The SWAT team is still coming, but the first few guys are going in to confront the problem.”
The Sheriff’s Department and other law enforcement agencies practice “active shooter” drills regularly, Troyer said. He and Voelpel highlighted the school resource officer program, which stations law enforcement officers in schools. In Tacoma, the program began after a fatal shooting at Foss High School in 2007.
“When we have hints of problems, it’s the kids who bring the officers the intel,” Troyer said. “The kids are watching out for each other. That’s how we discover the majority of weapons in school, or of possible shooting scenarios. It’s from other kids.”
Tacoma has five school resource officers, one in each high school, and eight armed school patrol officers. Another 25 unarmed campus safety officers are assigned across the district in middle and high schools. No special security personnel are assigned to elementary schools unless needed.
Puyallup, the county’s second largest district, has three school resource officers who report daily to the high schools but are available district-wide. The district has 15 daytime security officers at the junior high and high schools. They also are available for kindergarten through sixth-grade schools.
School officials said they try to keep security processes simple, direct and repetitive. In stressful situations, people generally react as they’ve been trained to do.
In a lockdown, teachers tell the kids “we are in lockdown,” Voelpel said.
“The kids know that the procedure is to lock the door, shut the blinds, turn the lights off in the room, and then position kids against a wall that makes them not visible to any location outside the classroom,” he said.
In Puyallup, they also focus on knowing who’s on campus.
“Visitors need to go to the front office,” said district spokesman Brian Fox.
That can be annoying, he said, but it’s a key way to control access to a school without turning it into a fortress.
“We’ve trained staff, and even students in some schools, to tell people to go back to the office,” Fox said.
In the face of a crime like in Connecticut, such steps can seem trivial. Parents on Facebook discussed counting the minutes until their children returned. Others said they tried to imagine hiding places in their kids’ schools.
Troyer acknowledged that feeling of powerlessness.
“In a situation like in Connecticut, you’re not going to stop it,” he said. “When it comes to schools, there are children involved. Our guys aren’t going to show any fear.
“And the kids need to know what to do, too. They need to take the lockdown drills seriously,” he said. “When the students and teachers practice, tell the kids and talk to them about it.”Kathleen Cooper: 253-597-8546