ROCKFORD, Mich. (WOOD) — Rockford Public Schools Superintendent Dr. Mike Shibler says he first assembled a security department in 1998 after a school shooting in Jonesboro, Arkansas.
“There was a shooting in Arkansas at a middle school in which a student had a rifle and he pulled the fire alarm and then when students exited the building, he started shooting them,” he remembered.
Five people were killed.
That was the year before the mass shooting at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado that killed 13.
That death toll has been eclipsed by more than one school shooting since then, most recently on Wednesday, when a 19-year-old former student opened fire in a high school in Parkland, Florida, near Boca Raton. Seventeen people were killed.
In the last two decades, districts across the country have put extra security measures in place meant to deter such shootings.
In the last few years alone, the Rockford district has installed vestibules at school entrances and shatterproof glass on first-floor windows. The district trained its entire staff on how to respond to an emergency, and placed added focus on preventative mental health programs for students.
“Rockford has been a proactive district in terms of prevention and security,” Firestorm Solutions Chief Security Officer Jason Russell, a school security consultant, said. “What they understand is it has to happen in layers. So you have to start with assessments, looking at what your weaknesses are and fixing them, which is something that Rockford did really well.”
It’s a far cry from the security operations of 20 years ago.
“Probably you may have one person, maybe at a high school, maybe walking the halls,” Shibler recalled.
But even with all of today’s advancements, Shibler admits no one is completely safe.
“Any public arena, it’s going to be difficult to stop this,” he said.
Russell, also a former Secret Service agent, says many schools across the country now have secure entry points, sometimes with ballistic glass, camera surveillance and the ability to lock classrooms from the inside. But, he noted, just having the infrastructure isn’t enough.
“One of the biggest weaknesses we see in many districts that have them is the people that control the vestibules have never received any training,” Russell said. “So what it becomes essentially is a very expensive doorbell.”
In the Parkland shooting, the shooter was already inside the building when he opened fire.
“So what you have there is a breakdown of the procedures, essentially,” Russell said. “Because what are they doing in the building? How did they get access? Were they supposed to be in there?”
One of the biggest hurdles to improving safety measures is a false sense of security.
“They don’t really believe it’s going to happen to them,” Russell said.
“They put it off: ‘We’ll try to get this in the budget next year,’ or ‘We’re doing it on our own,’ but they don’t have the expertise, they don’t have the specific security expertise to do it on their own,” he continued.
Russell said he doesn’t get many calls after mass shootings.
“Sadly no, because I think what happens is the time that people go back to normal is much faster than it used to be,” Russell said. “It used to be that we had one of these incidents and it would be on the news for several days and we would hear from a lot of people who are concerned. Now it’s 24 hours and people are back to believing, ‘Hey, well, that was a bad one, but it’s not going to happen to us.'”
Both Shibler and Russell agreed combating the problem starts with addressing mental health issues.
“What you’re finding when you have these state organizations and national organizations have budget issues, what do you they cut? They cut first, many times, mental health,” Shibler said.
Shibler said teens feel a lot of pressure to succeed, which may contribute to stress and mental health issues.
“There’s no question in my mind, no question in my mind, that the fears, the anxieties, the mental health issues that are occurring today in society, what young people have to deal with today and those challenges back 20 years to today have significantly become more prominent,” he said.
For the last seven years, Rockford has had a program called Developing Healthy Kids. It’s a program for parents and students, particularly teens, to work on issues dealing with mental health.
The district also has a program called Pure Listeners, where high school students serve as role models for other high schoolers in creating a safe place to talk.
The district also implements a state program from the Michigan Attorney General’s Office called “OK2SAY.” That program provides avenues for students to report concerns about bullying or other mental health issues.
“We can’t become desensitized. We have got to take these issues seriously,” Shibler said.
Firestorm Solutions also has a program aimed at preventing attacks before they start by recognizing warning signs and intervening.
“One of the things with an active shooter situation, especially in school setting, is there’s prevention strategies that we can find in the behaviors of the attacker,” Russell said. “One of the warning signs that unfortunately is commonly disregarded is a direct threat.”
Russell said other warning signs include gathering of weapons or researching previous attacks. Potential shooters may be people who might feel bullied or persecuted, have a grudge or are suicidal.