GREENVILLE — The conversation on how school officials should respond when an armed intruder gains entry to a building has continued to evolve since the shooting at Columbine High School in 1999 and even more so since the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012.
Greenville Public Schools officials are taking that conversation to the next step, giving staff and teachers permission to defend their classrooms from an intruder, even by using force if necessary.
The steps schools have taken in the past, according to retired Greenville Department of Public Safety officer Gary Valentine, who advises several districts on school safety, has been to run, hide and barricade. Greenville is taking the initiative to add one more component … resist.
“We’ve always been taught to lock yourself in a bathroom, get to a safe area and hide,” Valentine said.
But that could be playing right into the plans of an attacker.
In December 2012, 20-year-old Adam Lanza entered Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. and gunned down 20 children and six adults, many of whom were packed into classroom restrooms, according to police reports.
“There is a lot going on in terms of re-evaluation of school security and critical incident response protocols, and it seems to me the lessons learned from Sandy Hook have been as influential as any I’ve seen before,” said Greenville Superintendent Pete Haines. “There are indeed some key changes that go well beyond ideology and are based in physics, biochemistry, psychology. We must then build policies and protocols around an effort to impede and reduce that attackers impact.
“For a long time, we operated on the premise that we are teaching our kids and staff to be peaceful people,” he said. “In terms of core biophysical responses, ‘fight or flight,’ we taught only passive response, basically, don’t fight and only ‘fly’ far enough to hide in place. In doing so, we have learned that we may be creating an environment that falls into the wishes of an aggressor. We’ve taught them we won’t fight and they can go about their plan uninhibited.”
While administration and law enforcement are telling teachers it is OK to respond to and defend from an intruder, it is not to be confused with the green light to go on the offensive.
“This is a last resort. We don’t want our kids and teachers to put themselves in jeopardy of compromising their safety,” said Assistant High School Principal Todd Oatley, who is tasked with district-wide school safety.
But if an intruder does gain access to a classroom, teachers in Greenville have the go ahead to do whatever is necessary to delay the intruder’s advancement.
“If someone is actively entering the room, we’re teaching them to resist,” Valentine said. “We’ve given our teachers ideas on how to resist or delay to allow their students to escape.
“It is OK to resist instead of sitting and curling up into a ball and allowing whatever is going to happen to happen,” he added.
The district is not training students on resisting and the discussion has always been directed toward staff, officials said. By giving permission to staff members to resist and delay intrusion, Valentine said it is allowing more time for law enforcement to respond, which in Greenville is only minutes because the city has its own police department.
“We’re not teaching how to disarm or anything, we’re encouraging them to do whatever they can to delay that entry,” said Valentine, who declined to elaborate on what tactics are discussed. “It is giving more time for law enforcement to respond and more options for evacuation.”
The sooner officers arrive, the sooner the incident is likely to end.
“Seconds mean lives,” Valentine said.
The shift in policy is the result of the evolution of the conversation in schools’ response to an armed attacker.
Prior to Columbine, the procedure for local law enforcement was to wait until SWAT arrives before entering the building. That protocol has clearly changed since, as even giving permission for a lone officer to enter and engage the intruder is now a possibility.
“After a few more of these school incidents, the theory now is if you can contain and isolate the person, it limits the damage,” Valentine said.
School officials began taking initiative as well, writing their own plans and policies regarding school safety, whether it be communication or staff actions.
Following the shooting at Virginia Tech in 2007, the discussion of resisting instead of just hiding began to gain traction.
“After each event you sit down and look at what happened and learn from mistakes,” Valentine said. “After each one you always learn.”
Then there was the Sandy Hook shooting and law enforcement personnel have moved closer to encouraging teachers and staff to defend their classrooms from an intruder entering.
“When it becomes clear that an attacker is likely to gain access to a roomful of children, we are training our students and staff so that the attacker will not find a roomful of sheep,” Haines said. “They may be met with a fire extinguisher or any other weapon available, or they might find an empty room because the teacher has surveyed the situation, peeked out the windows and sees a clear egress, and they all escape.”
Greenville Public Schools officials have tentatively scheduled a community forum for 7 p.m. April 23 in the high school auditorium to inform parents on the topic and field any questions.
“It is unfortunate that what is happening in the world is forcing us to have this conversation,” Oatley said.