It started with Friday morning coffee, not long after the Dec. 14, 2012, mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary. Some of them came from law enforcement, some from the school system. All of them were hearing the same question from parents and the community, “What are you going to do to protect our kids?”
More than four years later, the Friday meetings continue, no longer an informal gathering over coffee but a regularly scheduled meeting of a cooperative effort that includes representatives from 23 Central Washington School Districts representing five counties; Educational Service District 105, which provides services to those school districts; multiple local law enforcement agencies, fire departments, emergency medical services and hospitals; and other community partners, such as insurance companies. It’s a project that has taken the lead in innovations in law enforcement and school staff training, lobbied for changes in the state’s mandatory emergency drills and been the driving force behind the creation of a School Safety Operations and Coordination Center (SSOCC) that uses enhanced technology to help provide safety and security to those school districts.
Although the SSOCC — which offers live access for law enforcement to school cameras during emergencies, immediate notifications to schools whenever there is law enforcement activity nearby, the ability to seal off parts of some schools, online access to school safety plans and more — has been termed “a game changer,” co-op members emphasize that partnerships and people make up the project’s foundation.
“We built our program on the premise that technology in and of itself does not save people. It’s the training and the knowledge of how and when to apply that technology appropriately that saves people,” says Chris Weedin, ESD 105 School Safety Technology Coordinator. “I can’t say that often enough. What’s going to save people is people, and they need to know what they’re capable of doing in a crisis.”
“One of the things that has made us successful is flexibility and a focus on making progress,” says Yakima County Sheriff Brian Winter. “We’re not waiting for the federal government to fix the problem, we’re not waiting for the state, we’re not waiting for ‘somebody else.’ If someone comes to the group looking for help, either somebody sitting there has already dealt with the same issue, or we can point them to a resource that will help. Our partners are on board that ‘it’s not somebody else’s job’ and that’s why we’re making progress.”
That progress has moved local schools from answering a post-Sandy Hook short survey of basic school safety questions to developing comprehensive, individualized safety plans that can be immediately accessed by law enforcement through the SSOCC. And through the co-op, Weedin explains, ESD 105 has developed leading practice guidelines schools can use as templates. When a district initially contracts with the ESD (although Washington’s nine regional ESDs are state agencies, they rely on individual school districts to fund part of their operating costs), staff perform an initial assessment of assets such as:
They also look at procedures for calling lockdowns and alerting local law enforcement.
“We do a top-to-bottom analysis that goes into the school’s Safety Assets Portfolio, where it’s reviewed annually. We usually start by preloading information from the school’s website, and the administration almost always tells us it’s inaccurate and asks where we got it. They’re floored when we tell them it came from their own sites,” Weedin says. “Once we have accurate information in place, we migrate it to the leading practices, show the school administration the gaps and make a plan for closing those gaps. “
Prior to the implementation of the SSOCC, Weedin says, many of those leading practice ideas were discussed in the co-op, but not necessarily implemented. Now there’s a repository for storing them and a mechanism for distributing them via Web, smartphones and other devices: “We focus on school staff as first responders. We want to equip them to handle whatever crisis comes along, whether it’s a kid falling off a swing, an ammonia leak or an active shooter. We want to be sure they understand there’s a leading practice for dealing with all of those situations.”
Randy Town, long-time ESD 105 coordinator of school safety and security, and a retired Yakima County reserve deputy sergeant, agrees that partnerships have played a key role in developing a co-op among systems as diverse as the 15,000-student complex that makes up the school district in Yakima itself to a half-dozen rural one-room school districts with less than 100 students: “The majority of our services do go to the smaller districts, because the larger ones are more self-sufficient. Some of the rural schools can have a long wait for law enforcement to arrive, and they need to know what they can do to help themselves.”
Schools learning what to do to help themselves is the latest evolution in crisis response, says Winter, who notes that after Columbine in 1999, local law enforcement moved from taking the passive role of waiting for the SWAT team to reacting actively, and that after Sandy Hook, schools began to realize their staffs too needed to become more active rather than solely waiting for law enforcement: “With the co-op and the SSOCC, we try to define what the schools can do with the tools and the training they have. It might be using a one of the 100-plus trauma first aid kits we’ve installed in county schools or using skills they’ve learned to defend the classroom. Each school district has taken a different tack, but every school in the county has done something to improve safety and security. It doesn’t have to be done with firearms; it can be tools to break out windows and mats to put over the broken glass, it can be pepper spray or even a fire extinguisher. What matters is that you have a plan and you’ve practiced it.”
Local law enforcement has been planning and practicing as well, starting with the formation of a group of instructors from 19 local agencies that began teaching a standard active shooter response protocol in 2004-2005. Chief Greg Cobb of the Union Gap Police Department says his agency was one of the first in the country to put active shooter response kits in their patrol cars to include rifle armor specifically ordered for patrol officers. A countywide memorandum of understanding to start the training group followed shortly thereafter.
“This area has always been very proactive when it comes to active shooter response,” Cobb says. “We’re very supportive of each other, and when I talk to chiefs from outside the county, they tell me they don’t see that in their areas. But with our history, it was no surprise when the call went out for that first co-op meeting right after Sandy Hook.”
Cobb says not long after the group began meeting, members realized a need for changes in the state’s mandated emergency drills. At that time, Washington required six fire drills per year, and no drills related to active threat response.
“We did some research and found that the nation hadn’t lost a child in a school fire since the 1950s. Fire drills were originally mandated because children were dying in school fires, so drills and codes were implemented to make sure it never happened again. So here we were, 60 years later, ignoring active threats instead of addressing them with the same rigor,” Cobb says.
Co-op members joined in lobbying efforts to change that, and the state now requires three fire drills and three lockdown/hostile event drills per year, and “the hope is that our successors, 50 years from now, will be saying ‘we haven’t lost a child in a hostile event in many years, so why are we still doing this?’, just the way we look at fire drills now.”
And all of this — active shooter training, increased emphasis on Run Barricade Fight, drills, assessments — led directly to the creation of the SSOCC where everything is tied together and distributed through technology to the people who may someday need to implement it in a crisis situation.
“It’s a big big deal when it comes to communication and making sure things happen in the order they’re supposed to happen. I think it’s a game-changer for us,” Cobb says.
“If it helps save just one life, it’s worth it,” Winter says. “Yakima County is much better prepared than we were several years ago, and if the idea of pooling information and working together in a co-op like this spreads to other areas, so much the better.”