Emergency Communication

Best Practice Solution Closes School Safety Gaps

Location: Indiana By Becky Lewis Published Sept. 2014

Even as she hears the gunshots echoing down the hall, the teacher presses the key fob she wears — a key fob that does much more than just activate an alarm. While she starts lockdown in her room by closing the door and moving her students to their secure area, the local dispatch center simultaneously begins searching for the intruder using the school’s camera system, law enforcement officers speeding toward the scene receive up-to-the-second intelligence and the building itself launches into countermeasures that distract the intruder and disrupt his plans.

In mid-September, Southwestern High School in rural Shelby County, Ind., became the pilot site for what the Indiana Sheriffs’ Association hopes will become a nationwide Best Practice Solution for school safety. The pilot system networks the school directly with the Shelby County Sheriff’s Office (under Sheriff Mike Bowlby) and provides real-time notification to law enforcement; updates on the status of all classrooms; the ability to locate and track intruders, and launch immediate countermeasures; and added protection for teachers and students through an innovative hardened door system.

“This is immediate notification, whereas in most situations, it’s typically three minutes until emergency services receives a phone call,” says Stephen Luce, executive director of the Indiana Sheriffs Association. “Dispatch can actually track the shooter, providing a description and determining the type of weapon. They’re in constant contact with the school. This gives responding law enforcement a place to start making a plan prior to arrival.”

Details about the school’s capability to launch countermeasures are being kept confidential, but Luce did say the school becomes, in a sense, a “smart building” that can distract an intruder and possibly cause him to move away from the students or even leave the building.

Dr. Paula Maurer, Southwestern Consolidated School District Superintendent, says several area SWAT teams have come to Southwestern High for training and “they have just been amazed at how this is going to change school safety. Our kids will all be in safe rooms and we won’t have to figure out ‘fight or flight?’ We train the teachers that they are the shepherd of their safe room. They get students out of the hallway if it’s between classes, and they get everyone behind the hardened door and behind a red line where an intruder cannot see them through the glass.”

The red line serves as a visual aid to let students and teachers know when they have reached the area where they are out of an intruder’s sight. Once behind it, a teacher can use a signaling station located there to report whether students are safe or under attack. In addition, teachers also have access to first aid materials and can use the station to report medical emergencies, which will help with EMS triage when first responders enter the building.

“The reaction of our teachers has been very positive. At Virginia Tech, students tried to hold doors closed, and at Sandy Hook, teachers used their bodies to protect their kids. We believe a teacher shouldn’t have to make those difficult decisions. With this system, all they need to do is be the shepherd in the classroom and get their kids behind the red lines,” Maurer says. “My administrators don’t have to walk into the hallway to see what it is going on; they can use the cameras. And the sheriff is immediately in control of the situation, turning the decision-making process over to those who trained to do it.”

The use of this innovative system in the pilot project at Southwestern High is the result of the efforts of Mike Kersey, a deputy sheriff and SWAT team leader in Montgomery County, to close what he perceived as a gap in law enforcement and school preparation. Kersey, a 22-year law enforcement veteran, became involved in active shooter response after Columbine. He has seen an evolution in law enforcement tactics during that time period, but still concluded approximately four years ago that law enforcement and schools weren’t working together well.

“When this happens, it’s a community event, not just a law enforcement event or a school event. I was working with schools to train on the solutions available at that time, and I realized there were certain hurdles we still had to face. I wanted to find a way to clear those hurdles and make our response more effective,” Kersey says. “I knew the timeframe was critical and there was a lack of immediate notification, not only notification to law enforcement but also notification to others inside the event. We also were not adequately protecting the physical space. Locking doors is an option, but as we’ve all learned, you get into a confined space and you can have a massacre. We needed to prevent the attacker from getting access to potential victims and mitigate that danger as well, and if we can also interrupt his plans before law enforcement gets there, we can gain a tactical edge.”

Working on his own time, Kersey found a piece here, another there of what he was looking for, but not until he located the vendor that provides the system used in this pilot project did he find technology that addressed all of his concerns. He then cultivated relationships with his sheriff, the ISA and the state Department of Homeland Security that facilitated the creation of the Best Practice System project.

“All along the way, the timing just seemed right. We all shared the same goal: we want schools to be a safe place for our students and teachers to go again. Schools should be a safe haven, but the reality is they are not and we need to change that,” Kersey says. “We’re not under the misapprehension that we can use this to stop every attack, but we think it can help mitigate an active threat situation and we hope it can serve as a template for other states to follow.”

“I keep hearing this involves a lot of effort and expense, but how could you talk to a parent who lost a child at Sandy Hook and tell them the effort is not worth it?” he adds.

And Maurer concurs: “I want to adamantly say we have to do this for our kids. We now have a better way to protect them and we need to use this in every school.”

“STARS encompasses the aspects of positive decision-making contained within the DARE curriculum while adding, enhancing and updating the lessons for today’s issues. The department and the school worked together to create an up-to-date curriculum tailored to our community’s needs,” Nix says.