Schools, police continue to prep for active-shooter scenario

By: Brendan Losinski, Tiffany Esshaki | Birmingham - Bloomfield Eagle | Published February 19, 2018

 Officers in Oakland County law enforcement agencies regularly brush up on their skills to deal with an active shooter as part of a larger OakTac response team.

Officers in Oakland County law enforcement agencies regularly brush up on their skills to deal with an active shooter as part of a larger OakTac response team.

File photo by Donna Dalziel

BLOOMFIELD HILLS/BIRMINGHAM/FRANKLIN/BINGHAM FARMS — Hearts broke across the United States last week when Valentine’s Day turned deadly for 17 people at a Florida high school as a shooter tore through Stoneman Douglas High School with an AR-15 rifle.

Though the town of Parkland, Florida, is more than 1,000 miles from metro Detroit, the fear that such an event may impact the local community was palpable. That’s why local school districts and law enforcement officials said they are continuing to strengthen emergency response plans.

Officer Chris Furlong, of the Bloomfield Hills Public Safety Department, is the school liaison officer tasked with working with Roeper School, St. Hugo of the Hills Parish School and Cranbrook Educational Community, among others, to tweak their emergency plans for things like dangerous weather, fires, flooding and other events that will hopefully never occur.

Proactive vs ‘static’
It wasn’t until about three years ago that schools opted to ramp up their training for active shooter situations, Furlong said.

“Previously, most organizations looked at a traditional lockdown as their means of dealing with an active shooter. That’s where ALICE comes in,” he explained.

Short for Alert, Lockdown, Inform, Counter and Evacuate, ALICE training has increasingly become the go-to shooter preparation program for schools and law enforcement. The benefit, Furlong said, is that it encourages civilians to be proactive in an emergency situation, the way they would with other threats.

“I usually start by asking people, ‘If there was a fire in this room right now, what would you do?’ And they’ll usually say that they’d evacuate,” he said. “So what’s the difference with a shooter? Why would we hide under a desk, hope nothing happens and wait for police to come get us? When it’s a fire, we take it upon ourselves to get out.”

Furlong called ALICE an option-based approach to responding to shooters versus the “passive, static” approach of a traditional lockdown. But like anything, changes take time to implement.

“It’s a comprehensive process. It’s not something you just roll out overnight. First, you go to school administration. Once they see the presentation and understand it, we roll it out to faculty and staff. Once they’ve got it, we roll it out to parents and then, finally, students. That way, once we go to the kids, if they have any questions, we can all answer those questions for them, even at home,” he said.

ALICE training is the standard for the Bloomfield Township Police Department as well, and the department works with Bloomfield Hills Schools to develop safety procedures for the district’s students and staff.

“We are actually quite prepared,” said Bloomfield Hills Schools Director of Communications Shira Good. “After Sandy Hook happened, our district really re-evaluated everything. We took a look at all of our physical structures. Everybody in the country looked at high schools after Virginia Tech and Columbine, but Sandy Hook had a huge effect on the elementary and middle school community. It showed that these things could happen anywhere. We approached Bloomfield Township police. They are the safety experts; we are the education experts; so when we lack the knowledge or resources, we turn to those who do. They have lots of resources and know-how.”

Bells and whistles
Lockdowns are still part of shooter response tactics, engaging exterior building locks and camera systems to find assailants and minimize their impact.

“We have the Boot installed on our doors, which allows students and staff to lock down doors in a matter of seconds so a dangerous individual (can’t) get through,” Good said. “We were the first district in Michigan to get it. We also have a Blue Point system, which helps notify police and provides both verbal and nonverbal alerts to those in the building — through a series of blue lights and a PA announcement — that there is an imminent threat.”

Scenarios are worked through for different times in the school day, like during class, lunchtime and dismissal, and all staff is CPR trained in case the unthinkable does occur. And Good said the district has even more security measures in place, but she wouldn’t disclose them for safety reasons.

“We don’t want to publicize them because we want to remain secure and not allow anyone to find any potential flaws or blind spots,” she said, adding that parents can always discuss security measures with staff for assurance or to add input. “This can sound like we don’t have enough layers, and that can frighten parents, but it’s more that there are some aspects we want to ensure remain safe.”

Marcia Wilkinson, Birmingham Public Schools’ director of communications and family engagement, said that in addition to lockdown drills and continued partnering with police, certain staff members are training in crisis management, whether it be an armed person in the building or hazardous materials.

At the ready
Chief Dan Roberts, of the Franklin-Bingham Farms Police Department, said that most departments in Oakland County train together with Oakland Tactical, or OakTac, funded with grants from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. Officers use a vacant building in Southfield, as well as other unnamed facilities, as settings to train against active shooters.

“We all train together, because there’s no one agency big enough to counter an active shooter like the one they have in Florida,” Roberts said. “If we had an active shooter, officers from all over the county would be responding and integrating their resources to respond to the situation.”

But diffusing a situation before police arrive could be an important, albeit risky, part of saving innocent lives. Furlong said the ALICE training program hones in on three options for civilian response: lockdown, evacuate and counter.

“Nine out of 10 shooter incidents don’t end unless there is some level of resistance,” he said. “What does that mean? I could be a teacher chasing him out of the building or something else. But there is no level of resistance in hiding under a desk.”

To date, Furlong’s department alone has provided ALICE presentations to between 1,500 and 2,000 participants in the Bloomfield Hills community. He said that he’s received nothing but rave reviews from people who feel empowered instead of hopeless.

But explaining what an active shooter is to young schoolchildren is a delicate process, he admitted. While officers can be honest with high school students about the realities of school shootings, elementary students need some extra care.

“We go through drills or sometimes tabletop exercises with little kids. We read a children’s book written for ALICE, by Julia Cook, so it’s not a cookie-cutter process,” he said of the award-winning book, “I’m Not Scared, I’m Prepared.”

Healing emotional wounds
Care is also key when dealing with the aftermath of a tragedy like a school shooting, whether it happens close to home or not. Good said BHS has psychologists and counselors, and even on-call local clergy members, across the district to handle concerns from distraught students, along with an after-care guide provided by the special education department to deal with students and staff in the event of an emergency.

To that end, the Oakland Community Health Network recently released tips for parents and individuals alike to use to manage the stress and trauma associated with a national tragedy like the Florida school shooting, including:

• Accept the way you feel about an experience and talk about your feelings with friends, family or professionals. Journaling or creating art is also a helpful way to express emotions after a tragedy.

• Get back to a routine to provide a feeling of balance, control and predictability.

Applying those same concepts to children can help parents give their kids a sense of security after a school shooting. The OCHN advises families to talk with their children about their feelings, tell them their emotions are valid and, if needed, get help from psychological professional.

Individuals can also contact The OCHN’s 24-hour crisis helpline for support at (800) 231-1127.