Sitka police and school district officials met this week to review security procedures after last week’s shooting at an elementary school in Connecticut. They say plans are in place for responding to a variety of situations, but that the real goal is to make sure they never have to.
The conversation in police Chief Sheldon Schmitt’s office included talk of how police are prepared to respond to a violent situation at any of Sitka’s schools. And we’ll get to that shortly.
But sitting at the conference table with Schmitt, fire Chief Dave Miller, Mayor Mim McConnell and schools Superintendent Steve Bradshaw, there was a larger topic to address: Prevention.
“In all of these cases, or almost all of these cases, where there’s been an active shooter in a school, or a mall, or a post office, or whatever, in most of those cases the shooter has let somebody else know he’s going to do this,” Miller said. “Listen to what people have to say. Listen to your kids. They hear everything on the street, or at school.”
Schmitt says his department builds trust with students by having an officer spend a lot of time in the schools, getting to know students.
“We have a school resource officer, Paul Overturf,” he said. “He’s a presence at the school. He’s around the schools a lot. He was just there now when I was there a few minutes ago, showing up. He does extra patrols around the school and teaches classes inside the school.”
Schmitt says having a school resource officer around lets children feel comfortable with police officers. And in the past, it’s come in handy.
“I remember an incident we had a few years back where a gun was brought into the school,” he said. “Because Sgt. Ed Green happened to be right there, he knew the kid, he knew the teacher – there was a lot of trust there. Ed was able to quickly defuse that incident.”
Superintendent Bradshaw says the school district also works hard to make its buildings a welcoming place – for students and for visitors.
“At the same time, and I know we’ve offended people at times when we say ‘Who are you and what are you doing here?’ but we have to do that at this point,” Bradshaw said. “It’s not that we don’t welcome people into our buildings. At the same time, student safety is our No. 1 concern.”
All of Sitka’s school buildings require visitors to check in at the main office. And schools run safety drills to teach students and teachers how to react to violent situations in or near a building.
And, yes, Schmitt says police have a response plan in case the worst happens.
“The school has their plan on what to do as far as a drill if they have a violent incident in the school,” he said. “We have our own response plan. Of course, it’s pretty dynamic. We train for a specific, active shooter type event.”
But he says every situation is different. Without getting into specifics, Schmitt says the way police respond to shootings in general has changed since the 1999 attack at Columbine High School in Colorado.
“The old response, before Columbine, was to set a perimeter around a school, or whatever place where the violence was happening, and then call for help, and have a SWAT team go in,” he said. Now, though, the approach is much more active. Police are trained to neutralize a threat as quickly as possible.
But the ultimate goal, all four community leaders said on Tuesday, is to create an atmosphere where none of it ever needs to be used.
Outside the walls of Sitka’s school buildings, and beyond the shores of Baranof Island, larger conversations are taking place about what a community can or should do to respond to situations like what happened at Sandy Hook Elementary in Connecticut.
Mayor Mim McConnell says she understands the impulse to act, even in a community more than 2,800 miles away from Friday’s tragedy.
“Whenever we’re faced with something that is so inexplicable and so horrible even to think about, we feel like we’re helpless,” she said. “It’s important for people to not feel helpless, that they can do things to help.”
One group of residents was scheduled to meet Wednesday and write letters to politicians.
Others are having informal chats about mental health care, education, and gun laws. McConnell thinks Sitka is well positioned to have a constructive conversation.
“We’re a pretty diverse community,” she said. “We have been very divided on things in the past. But I’d like to think the dialogue and the openness on how to have conversations has improved, that people are a little more willing to listen to what people have to say, even if they may not agree.”
Sitka police Chief Sheldon Schmitt says addressing the issue of school violence is not just a police issue – it’s a community one. And he says residents of Sitka, more than any place he’s lived before, are engaged in their community.
“Whether it’s bears or drugs or any issue we have in the community, there are people willing to step up and talk about it, and try to come up with answers,” he said. “I feel confident in our ability to face this issue as well.”
The voices of community leaders, talking about Sitka’s response to last week’s school shooting in Newtown, Conn.