Students graduating high school in 2018 have never known a world where being killed in a classroom — or on a playground, or while having lunch with friends — was unthinkable.
Over the past two decades, gun-wielding attackers have levied assaults against civilians in a variety of public spaces — in churches, movie theaters, concerts and malls — but nowhere have the attacks left more of an impression than in schools.
Since two students killed 13 and wounded another 21 at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado, in 1999, more than 150,000 students attending at least 170 primary or secondary schools have experienced a school shooting, according to an analysis by the Washington Post. Most recently, a Feb. 14, shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, killed 17 students and teachers. In the latest school shooting, on Tuesday, March 20, a St. Mary’s County, Maryland, Deputy shot and killed a 17-year-old boy at Great Mills High School after he wounded two students.
Columbine was by no means the first school shooting — others had taken place around the country, including a 1997 shooting in Bethel that killed two — but it represented a watershed in public awareness about the issue.
Since then, schools have beefed up security measures, expanded police presence, carried out regular drills and changed tactics in how they respond to an active shooter.
From ‘lockdown’ to ‘run-hide-fight’
Along with the usual earthquake and fire drills, the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District schools carry out twice-yearly active shooter drills. In 2014, the borough school district adopted ALICE protocols — Alert, Lockdown, Inform, Counter, Evacuate — which offer more proactive and fluid guidelines for dealing with active shooter situations.
“It used to be turn off the lights, hide in the corner, stay quiet, and hope that the bad guy passes,” said Kenai Police Lt. Ben Langham. “Studies have shown repeatedly that that’s not a good model to follow here in active shooter situations.”
Created by a Texas-based company in the wake of the 1999 Columbine shooting and now used in many schools, ALICE training offers a set of response options to empower students and teachers to use their best judgment in an active shooter situation — for example, avoiding a rallying point if it’s clear they can get away from the school safely.
“The old model was literally the only way you responded was lock down, barricade,” said Pegge Erkeneff, communications liaison for the school district. “But what if there’s an active shooter at one part of the building, and it’s clear that there’s one shooter and you know that’s where they are? Why wouldn’t you be getting kids out of the building and away from danger and away from the building?”
The ALICE model evolved out of a federal standard of run-hide-fight, said Alaska State Troopers Lt. Dane Gilmore of the E Detachment, which covers the Kenai Peninsula.
“What should they do? Run away if they can. Hide if they can’t. Fight if they’re forced to,” he said. “… The intent of an ALICE model isn’t supposed to be so absolute and black-and-white like a lockdown, but be adaptive.”
Homer Police Chief Mark Robl said ALICE training isn’t a cure-all.
“It’s a response. It’s a possibility,” he said. “… There’s things schools can do to make their building less vulnerable to a school shooter. The way they have things positioned in the room can make a difference.”
A change in tactics
After Columbine, law enforcement nationwide changed how it reacted to a shooting — from responding and setting up a perimeter to now actively engaging the shooter or shooters, Gilmore said.
“We teach people to go in rapidly with the group they have,” he said. “That may be two troopers, Homer police and a NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) officer.”
Homer Police have the same response tactic, Robl said.
“It is to respond as quickly as possible with whoever we have, to make entry and try to neutralize the shooter,” he said. “We’re not going to wait for six other officers to get on the scene. If there are two of us working, two of us are going in.”
“If there’s a response and there’s still gunfire in the school, the expectation is you’re going to go in,” Gilmore said.
Both troopers and police respond with semi-automatic AR-15 rifles and heavier armored vests more skookum than the standard police duty vest and that can withstand higher velocity rifle rounds. Homer Police have helmets, leg guards and a ballistic shield.
“We’re fully equipped. We’re the SERT (special emergency response team),” Robl said. “We know the situation. There isn’t anyone coming down to help us.”
Robl and Gilmore said in most school shootings involving young people, very rarely do they result in a hostage situation.
“Most of the time the shooting is done by the time police officers get on the scene,” Robl said.
“Historically in the U.S., if it’s a student doing the bad things, when confronted by an officer, they often surrender or shoot themselves,” Gilmore said.
Law enforcement also trains with emergency medical technicians to protect EMTs so they can quickly treat the wounded.
“The initial law enforcement response is to stop the killing. The second wave is to stop the dying,” Gilmore said.
Cops and emergency medical technicians have been training with nurses from the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services in the Tactical Emergency Casualty Care Course, a program to teach first responders how to stop bleeding from penetrating wounds like gunshots or knives. March 31 highlights that effort for National Stop the Bleed Day.
“People can bleed to death in three minutes,” said Julie Rabeau, a registered nurse and the DHSS state trauma program manager who has 30 years of experience in trauma care. “It’s important that those who will respond after those scenes, such as law enforcement and medical providers, utilize bleeding control tactics.”
Rabeau teaches a three-day course for police and EMTs. In the past two years troopers who have taken the course have saved 14 lives on the peninsula.
“At least two of them are straight-out saves,” Gilmore said. “If a trooper hadn’t done that, they would have died.”
There also is a four-hour course anyone can take, Rabeau said. Her program has taught bleeding control to school nurses, church groups, Boy Scout troops and others.
Police in the schools
Schools in the borough reinforce security with regular police presence on their campuses.
Kenai schools share a police liaison, as do Seward schools. Soldotna police check in with the high school regularly. School resource officers are funded by local law enforcement and not the school district, Erkeneff said.
Kenai Police Officer Dan Smith serves as the school resource officer and investigator for the Kenai schools. Smith has an active presence in local schools — from elementary to high school — and works with administrators to answer questions on school safety or law enforcement. He’s on hand to respond to school crime or safety-related issues at the schools, makes sure his vehicle is visible in the parking lot at schools, and has made himself familiar with the layout of school buildings, he said. Beyond serving as a visual deterrent, Smith is known around schools as a safe person to report any safety issues to, Langham said.
“It’s not uncommon for students, teachers and other staff to come and make disclosures to him about things that are going on,” he said.
Smith is also there to offer leadership and education, such as teaching D.A.R.E. classes. On the rare occasion there’s a school threat, Smith is there to make sure the threat is taken seriously.
“We investigate those very, very thoroughly,” he said.
On a recent school day at Kenai Central High School, Smith gave students in a world history class a presentation about his experiences abroad. During a lunch break, he walked the hallways — casually interacting with students who stopped to say hello or wave.
While he offers a friendly presence in the hallways and classrooms, he’s also armed, and would be the first line of defense if an attacker arrived on campus.
After the Parkland shooting, Smith turned up his presence at schools, particularly at the high school, and talked with students or administrators who had any questions.
He said he didn’t see an uptick in threats after the Parkland shooting, but students did talk about it.
“Most of the conversations, especially since this recent shooting, have been kids more curious, more concerned about what happened,” Smith said. “Or sad about what happened.”
Perhaps no recent shooting has garnered more attention — and vocal call for change from students — than the Parkland, Florida high school shooting one month ago.
In its aftermath, students have spoken out, lobbied lawmakers, held a series of walkouts, and Parkland survivors have become a dominating presence on social media and in the news.
On March 14, tens of thousands of students walked out of classrooms and held 17-minute vigils — one for every student killed in the shooting — demanding action from lawmakers. On March 24, a march on the U.S. Capitol is expected to draw hundreds of thousands, according to organizers.
The response locally has been more muted, but the topic has still been at the forefront of discussion for many students. About 150 Homer High School students walked out on Feb. 21 to honor the Parkland victims and advocate for school safety.
“It’s easy to feel helpless up here and like there’s nothing we can do, but there are things we can do … to send a message,” said Homer High junior Avram Salzmann.
The news of a school shooting can heighten tension at school and increase her personal anxiety, Kenai Central High School junior Hunter Hanson said. Off-handed comments by her peers can make her nervous, and cause her to question whether or not she should report them to a teacher or counselor, she said.
“I feel extra sensitive to people’s comments, a little bit more paranoid about those kinds of things,” she said.
The 17-year-old said in the days after the attack she and about 50 of her friends from summer camp texted about the shooting on group chat.
“We talked about it for days,” Hanson said.
Hanson said she’d like to see schools designed more safely. She worries about unlocked doors, multiple entrances and areas where shooters could hide on campus.
“The flow of the school is not always the most (re)assuring thing,” she said.
Even so, Hanson said she wasn’t emotionally devastated by the Parkland shooting in the way one might expect.
“You know there’s something wrong when it doesn’t hit you as hard as you know it should,” Hanson said. “In a way, these shootings are becoming common.”
“For them, this is just a normal thing. This is normal for them,” Soldotna High School English teacher James Harris said. “In terms of their cultural awareness, this has been part of American society for a while.”
Harris, the Alaska Teacher of the Year for 2017, discussed the Parkland shooting with students immediately after it happened.
“I think it’s impossible not to discuss it,” he said. “One of the comments I did get from a student is that when something like this happens, you just really want someone to come talk to you about it,” he said. “To ignore it isn’t beneficial in any way.”
Although wary of taking on law enforcement duties, Harris said he appreciates the switch to an ALICE approach in emergency drills. During a recent drill, for example, his classroom decided to crawl out the windows instead of exiting through the hallways.
“All the teachers are incredibly thankful that we were not just huddling kids together, and being sitting ducks,” he said.
The potential for a school attack adds an extra layer of challenges to his job educating students, particularly when it comes to proposals to arm teachers, said Harris, who has been teaching for 13 years.
“In many ways, society asks a lot of public teachers, public educators already, and adding that layer of responsibility, that is truly for law enforcement, I just don’t think that I personally would benefit from having a firearm in the classroom,” he said. “That would take away from my ability to meet the needs of students.”
“I don’t know if I can play the role of both teacher, mentor and public safety officer,” he said.
Growing up under guns
Keaton Logston, 16, a junior at Kenai Central, has grown up doing active shooter drills — first in Anchorage and now in Kenai. The reality of what he was preparing for first hit home when he was in sixth grade and students had to do a moment of silence for “a pretty big school shooting” — the 2012 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, in which a shooter killed 26 people, mostly children.
“That’s when it really kicked in,” he said.
While he’s gotten used to active shooter drills as a part of life, Logston said he still is anxious about the possibility of a school attack, and about his sisters in elementary and middle school.
“I think about it quite a bit,” Logston said. “It’s pretty worrying.”
Logston said he would feel safer with tighter security measures — more locks on doors, cameras and more police officers, and would be comfortable arming some teachers.
And although he doesn’t talk much about school shootings with his peers, Logston would like to see adults take students more seriously, as people who want to help the community, “not just kids.”
“I feel like it’s a bit more dangerous that kids are being raised around this,” Logston said. “All these school shootings, and all this violence, I don’t think it’s good for anybody.”
“It’s a scary thought,” Raven Patrick said. “It makes you start thinking, what would happen if this would happen? Would we follow this drill? Every situation is different.”
Patrick, a 16-year-old junior at Kenai Central, said the possibility of a school shooting also didn’t occur to her until middle school, when drills became more focused on dealing with an intruder or shooter, instead of on a more general preparation for emergencies.
“It makes you look around at your peers (with) more of a scary view,” Patrick said. “You can tell just that every time this pops up in the news, people are slowly losing trust in each other.”
Patrick said she’s glad that there’s a school resource officer to patrol the school and meet any threats, but she would be concerned about arming teachers or other staff.
Although she’s not opposed to having more guns in classrooms, Hanson thinks they shouldn’t be given to just anyone. Any teacher or school employee should have to go through training and become certified before bringing a gun into the school, she said.
But she also supports taking a deeper look at gun control, something she acknowledges can be controversial. She encouraged adults to listen to the voices of youth, who are the ones on the front lines of the issue.
“We kinda are told, you don’t understand enough of the politics or the big picture,” she said, “But we really are experiencing it in an environment that we’re living.”
Searching for answers
The Parkland shooting has inflamed the ongoing debate about how to prevent school shootings — with proposals ranging from tightening access to guns and enhancing mental health services to bullet-proof backpacks and arming teachers.
In Alaska, which nationally had the highest rate of gun-related deaths in 2016 – 177 deaths total, or 23.3 deaths per 100,000 people, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention – school shootings have been rare, but not unheard of. In February 1997, an attack at Bethel Regional High School killed two. Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski has expressed support for a multi-faceted approach to the issue.
“Senator Murkowski has said that there is no single, simple fix for these acts of violence. She is committed to targeting the root cause and on finding preventative measures,” Press Secretary Hannah Ray wrote in an email statement.
Last week, Murkowski and Democratic Sen. Tina Smith introduced legislation to expand mental health services by allowing health care professionals from the National Health Service Corps (NHSC), to work with schools, community organizations and families, according to a March 12 press release. The NHSC is a federal program that offers loan repayment for health professionals working in underserved areas. After the shooting in Parkland, Jenni Brighton decided to organize a public forum to discuss the issue of gun safety.
“It kind of just struck me really hard – we have all these adults having conversations about what we should be doing for our kids – we need to include our kids,” she said.
“They should have a say in their lives, and, you know, in what we’re deciding should be best for them,” she said. “So I wanted to hold a forum to make that opportunity available for people to come and share their thoughts.”
Held at the Soldotna library on March 10, the forum gathered about a dozen people, who touched on a variety of topics, from ways of instilling respect in students, and drawing attention to the need for locking up guns through poster contests, to media awareness campaigns, and offering support to at-risk kids. Brighton, whose three boys attended the forum, said she supports legislative efforts to address the issue, but acknowledges those take time.
“I also know that there are kids and adults and people being hurt and killed right now, and I would like to try to do the things that will help faster,” she said.
For Brighton’s 17-year-old son Will, preparing for an attack has become a mundane part of daily life.
“It was kind of like ‘meh, whatever,’ for all the students,” the Kenai Central High School senior said of the school’s most recent active shooter drill.
The idea that there could be a school shooting, however, remains upsetting, he said.
“As a whole, I think that students are a little bit scared and a little bit mad that this is even a problem, and that this is something that we have to deal with we have to think, ‘oh well, there’s a chance of the school getting shot up,’” he said.
Although Will Brighton is glad there’s a school resource officer on hand in case of an emergency, he would like to see things like metal detectors in schools — even if it makes the school feel a little bit more like a prison.
“The fact that we have to have this argument is kind of depressing,” he said.
He said he isn’t optimistic that much will be done by politicians or those in leadership positions, but hopes that a new coalition of students, parents and teachers can come together to make change.
“I think students my age and a little bit younger and a little bit older are fed up with the threat of guns in schools, and it sort of makes sense to step up and say, ‘hey, something’s got to change,’ because the status quo is not okay, and it needs to change,” he said.