The idea began to take shape after Columbine, and Newtown made it even more apparent. Police officers need training in school-shooting situations, and they need it now, local police officials say. Which is why Woodland Elementary School was abuzz with activity during a recent school break.
While students were on vacation, Feb. 18 to 22, Weston police officers were at the school, taking part in Active Shooter Training — learning how best to respond if someone were to show up at a Weston school with an intent to kill.
“After Newtown there was more of an urgency — instead of sitting around and talking about it (Active Shooter Training), we really needed to get it done,” Weston Lt. Danny Maguire said.
While the December tragedy in Newtown, Conn., is the freshest school-shooting tragedy in people’s minds, the idea of Weston officers focusing on schools as a place where real threats can occur began to form after the 1999 Columbine school shooting in Colorado, said Maguire.
For the past six years, Det. Kellie Connarton, the department's community services officer who is currently on maternity leave, has been working on school lockdown plans. The result? A thick black binder, filled with information, floor plans and photos of all the Weston schools, plus guidelines for how to lock down a school in an emergency.
Those lockdown plans recently evolved so police could get the on-the-ground, real-life training they needed, Maguire said. He noted most fatalities in school shootings occur in the first five minutes. The old way to do things would be for police to form a perimeter and wait for a SWAT or special unit to come in, which could take up to two hours, he said.
“Now, the idea is for police to immediately respond and take control of the situation, and hopefully neutralize the threat,” said Maguire.
During the Febuary program, officers were split into three groups, with each receiving eight hours of training. Three Weston officers with advanced schooling led 21 officers through the program, which included a classroom portion plus simulated shooter scenarios.
The school-shooting simulations included officers searching the school for cardboard cutouts of shooters or fake bombs. Meanwhile, sounds of chaos and screaming came over the public address system, or real blasts went off, adding to the confusion as officers cleared each room in their searches.
“They not only appreciated the scenarios and the training, they appreciated the familiarity with the schools,” said Det. Billy Carlo, one of the instructors. “By the end of the week, I knew the school like the back of my hand.”
While some people may have a “not in my town” mentality about school shootings, Maguire notes they can happen anywhere.
He holds up a packet of information on school shootings across the country, and worldwide, as evidence: There have been 78 school or mass shootings since 1996, 60 of which were in the U.S. Of those 60, more than half occurred in towns with a population of less than 60,000, while 23 happened in places with less than 26,000 people.
Of 41 shootings at middle and high schools, the average shooter was 16, Maguire's research says.
“Those are staggering numbers if you think about it,” he said. "It’s not something people really want to think about. But it’s the reality of the times we live in and you have to be prepared for it.”
The training was not a one-time thing. The Weston Police Department plans to continue holding Active Shooter Training for officers during school breaks, and at different schools. The next training could happen this summer, Maguire said.