BONNERS FERRY — Shots fired in a school. It’s a nightmare scenario. Not only for the students, teachers, and parents, but also for law enforcement and first responders.
Seconds matter. When seconds matter, having a well thought out plan of action for all the stakeholders — the people who will play a part, large or small, if this nightmare scenario unfolds — is imperative.
But what if time could be paused, bullets in the air, then turned back to the point when someone, somewhere, realized that something went wrong? Somehow, they noticed that individual, that student, that friend, was not acting like they used to. Could lives be saved?
Last Friday morning found the upstairs meeting room of the Bonners Ferry Fire Department filled with representatives from the school district, the hospital, first responders, law enforcement, and other stakeholders. They spent four hours under the guidance of two facilitators, Idaho Office of School Safety and Security Mark Feddersen and Boundary County Emergency Management Director Mike Meier, in a tabletop exercise exploring a school shooting scenario.
“Part of our objective is to do threat assessments for all schools, but also help participate in any kind of training, exercising, and the like, where we can to help out,” said Feddersen about the program.
This exercise was about asking the tough questions, the questions that people do not necessarily want to answer. It was a stripped down look at the agencies and organizations, asking them what would they do now, today, if the nightmare arose. The idea was to showcase strengths, and expose weaknesses so they could be reinforced.
The scenario that was presented followed a student named Jonah, beginning when he was in eighth grade. The student was bullied, troubled, and then a catalyst was interjected — the divorce of his parents.
A great deal of time during the exercise was devoted to an often overlooked area in school shooting prevention — isolating trouble far before it gets to the critical breaking point that causes a student to revert to violence.
“It’s not like you are sitting at the table and then just up and say I’m going to start killing,” explained Feddersen. ‘It’s not like that. So if we can get into the system, intercept that, that is part of this model.”
For this part of the exercise, the main focus lay on three tables: those representing the school, which included Bonners Ferry High School Principal Kevin Dinning; a table representing Boundary Community Hospital; and a Boundary County Probation table.
These groups discussed how they identify changes in student’s behaviour, and actions that are taken to isolate and address the problem.
“There is nobody that has ever done something really, really bad because they liked where they went, what they did, and their life was good.” said Feddersen to the room. “It is because something is falling apart.”
Sitting at the table with the teachers was one very important link between the groups, and someone who not only could play a part in the initial phases, but also the first line of defense in a shooting situation, which was the School Resource Officer (SRO), Travis Stolley.
As the SRO, many of the potential scenarios came back to Stolley, not unlike the center of a wheel with many spokes. His link between the school district, law enforcement, and the students put him in an important position, as was evidenced by the exercise.
“We took an important step in the right direction as we learned where we need to improve and also where we are doing well,” said Stolley.
“There is still work to be done but Sheriff Kramer and Chief Zimmerman have our departments working together to keep our schools safe,” he continued. “We work in partnership with the entire school district who are being led by an impressive group of principals. The cooperation between all the different agencies attending was great to see.”
The turnout at the exercise was large, approximately 50 people, and many groups were represented, including the school district, Boundary Community Hospital, Boundary County Probation, Boundary County Sheriff’s Office, Bonners Ferry Police Department, Boundary Ambulance, North Bench Fire, South Boundary Fire, Boundary County Chaplain Corps, and Sheriff’s dispatch.
As the scenario progressed, it became clear that differents agencies, groups, and organizations all had critical roles to play, from the obvious first responders, to the less obvious, but very important groups, such as the Boundary County Chaplain Corps, and even a representative of the Amateur Radio Emergency Services, whose role may become integral in a school shooting situation.
“Any incident of this nature would most likely overwhelm our cell towers,” Boundary County Sheriff Dave Kramer pointed out during the exercise. “For people who are thinking, well I will communicate to other staff of parents using cell phones— I would not plan on having cell phone availability during a major incident like this.”
As the scenario about Jonah unfolded, it led to the situation of an actual school shooting. At that time, the first responders came to center stage, discussing how the incident would be handled. The day wrapped up with an overview, as well as a plan on the best way to move forward.
The strengths of the individual agencies and organizations were evident, as well as the areas that needed fine tuning, such as the communication between the groups and best utilization of the strengths each group possesses.
“I felt the exercise was a great success,” said Meier. “Primary because now agencies are talking— this is one of the problem that exists in most counties— is the lack of communication between agencies that are involved with child mental health.”
While there was a heavy emphasis on catching and dealing with situations far before they escalate out of control, there was also much discussion about opening the lines of communication between all groups.
“It is so important that we know and work with all of our community partners in training like this, with the goal of being prepared,” said Kramer, “but hopefully doing everything we can to prevent critical incidents from happening in our schools.”
Bonners Ferry Police Chief Brian Zimmerman reflected on the exercise.
“It gave all the stakeholders a chance to make sure we are all singing off the same sheet of music in any crisis event in the schools or community,” he said.
It seemed to be a positive room as the class drew to a close, with agencies and groups intermingling to discuss the next steps and preparing for, or better yet, avoiding the nightmare scenario.
“I thought it was absolutely fantastic,” said North Bench Fire Chief Gus Jackson. “It was great to see the agencies and the county come together and work stuff out ahead, being proactive rather than reactive.”
Feddersen was encouraged by the representatives of Boundary County,
“The reason why I am encouraged is because there has been a great interest, as you can see by the people who have come here, that are willing to participate in the discussion of the big picture through the assimilation of the pieces,” said Feddersen.
“In this county, they’ve done a great job of representing all those different disciplines,” he continued. “If you have areas or disciples that don’t participate, then it just become what we consider to be a silo based approach, which is never a good thing when you are dealing with a big picture incident.”
“You can look around and see that this is a great turnout, great interest, great participation, and conversation about what the school does, versus what the hospital does, versus what the fire department does,” said Feddersen.
“The focus of the exercise was an active shooter, but we focused on what happens before the 9-1-1 call, if we solve the active shooter problem prior to the call, we save hours of workload and years of grief, sorrow, and misery,” said Meier. “The hope from this exercise was to open the doors of communication between the agencies to identify those troubled youth prior to the 9-1-1 call, saving us all the grief, the passion, and the pain.”
Around 50 people came together, all representatives of much larger organizations, hundreds of hundreds of people in total, to discovered that a school shooting tragedy does not have to happen. It can be stopped. Boundary County showed that they have the will, the compassion, and the drive, to make that happen when they work together. But if it does ... they are ready.
For more information on Idaho Office of School Safety and Security: http://schoolsafety.dbs.idaho.gov