Guns and our schools

“It’s clear, when you see high school students filing out of a school with their hands on top of their head or their hands on the person in front of them and they’re being marched out, that looks like it’s a little over the top. But that’s exactly what would happen.”-Scott Shepherd, Cottage Grove Police Chief 

On Feb. 14, 2018, 17 students, teachers and administrators were killed when Nikolas Cruz opened fire in Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. The shooting came 13 days after two 15-year-olds were shot—one in the head, one in the wrist—at Sal Castro Middle School in Los Angeles in an incident described as an unintentional discharge of a firearm. On Jan. 23, 16 people were shot at Marshall Counter High School in Kentucky; two people were killed. On Feb. 21, a 13-year-old boy shot himself in a middle school bathroom in Ohio. Local police reported discovering messages on the boy’s phone; he had intended to carry out a school shooting. Sandy Hook. Virginia Tech. Umpqua. Thurston. Columbine. Lines of students, their hands up, being marched out of school.

The Parkland shooting has sparked debate on gun control and calls for safer schools while students plan nationwide walk outs and demand answers from legislators. In the 19 years since Columbine, school shootings have leaked into the news cycle at a steadier rate and continue to illicit the same list of questions including: What happens if it happens here?

Garrett Bridgens was a junior at Cottage Grove High school when 15-year-old Kip Kinkel killed two of his fellow students 20 miles away at Thurston High School in Springfield. 

“Somebody who kind of experienced that kind of thing close to home and then here we are as teachers and working in a school now. Again, I think it really emphasizes the importance of how serious we take it,” said Bridgens. “Because it has happened close to home and we want to ensure that nothing like that ever happens again. It had an impact on me growing up for sure.”

Bridgens now serves as the communications coordinator for South Lane School District and teaches a media class at Cottage Grove High School (CGHS). His classroom is decorated with student work, family photos and camera tripods. It also has a box near the door that cannot be mistaken for anything other than an in-case-of-emergency tool. It’s a night lock—paid for as a part of a $35 million bond aimed at improving safety and security around the district—and in the case of an active shooter, will hold the door in place, giving Bridgens time to draw on the training he and 70 other teachers and staff at CGHS received from local law enforcement. 

It’s called ALICE (Alert Locate Inform Counter Evacuate) training. Teachers and administrators learn how to secure their doors, create barricades and fight back if necessary. They learn that the injuries sustained from jumping from a window are less severe than the dangers of being in a classroom with an armed individual. They learn how to look around their classrooms and assess what objects could be used as weapons if confronted by a shooter. 

South Lane School District held its last training on Jan. 2. 

“It’s been fantastic (the training) it’s not an easy topic.” Bridgens said. “You are working with Lane County Sheriff’s Department, Eugene Police Department, Cottage Grove Police Department, Springfield Police Department. They’re all there. And they’re in your classrooms with you as you’re going through this training. There’s a couple officers with you and they’re working through and talking through these scenarios with you.” 

Cottage Grove Police Officer Matthew Walker is a certified ALICE trainer and has led sessions at Cottage Grove High School. He has purposely stayed away from coverage of the Parkland shooting.

“But you can liken it to Virginia Tech,” he said. “When he went into the main building, he barricaded the doors with chains and padlocks which was a deterrent to stop anyone from being able to respond and he set up boobie traps so the response rate was slow because they couldn’t get into the building.”

Cottage Grove High School is located approximately one mile from the police station on Main St. Police Chief Scott Shepherd said the response time to an active shooting would be less than five minutes. Cruz was reported as actively shooting for an estimated five minutes. 

“Teachers and students can have a tremendous impact,” he said of those first few minutes of an incident. ALICE, provides training to make those minutes count. 

“The old method of a lockdown means calmly get up, move to the corner of the room, turn off the lights, pull down the blinds and wait,” Walker said. “That doesn’t work. That has been catastrophic. That’s when you end up with outcomes like Sandy Hook.”

When he teaches ALICE, Walker goes through several scenarios from blockading the door to create a time barrier before the shooter’s potential entrance, to what happens when CGPD arrives. 

“You’re going to get guns pointed at you, you’re going to be manhandled. Everyone is treated the same,” he said. “Unfortunately, if you’re wounded or in need of medical attention, I’m going right past you after I assess you’re not a threat because I’m going to where the threat is.”

“You can’t take the chance that the active shooter is working alone and not with someone else. There could be fires, explosions, they could pull the fire alarm and you have that noise going on or sprinklers are activated,” Shepherd added. “I mean, it’d be like a catastrophic movie scene.” 

On May 20, 1998, the scene outside Thurston High School in Springfield, Oregon could be described as catastrophic. Teenagers emerged from the school, blood on their skin.

“There are details from that day that I can pick out,” Cottage Grove High School Principal Mike Ingman said. At the time, he was in graduate school, studying to become a teacher.

“I remember (local reporter) Rick Dancer crying but honestly, it didn’t deter me from wanting to be a teacher, from wanting to make a difference in young people’s lives,” he said. “As an administrator, I see these school shootings happening and I just believe that we’re vigilant, we follow-up on every rumor. The bottom line is, we’re doing everything possible to make sure kids are safe.”

In Elkton, the conversations are similar. Being a town of just 200 people with a charter school that has around 100 students, they, like every other school, are working to make sure they are prepared as best they could be for the worst to happen. 

“I don’t think we can ever be enough prepared for an event like that. If it would happen, the aftermath is always really worrisome,” said Elkton High School Principal Andy Boe.

“We’ve thought about it but I don’t think anyone can ever prepare for how it would be,” he said.

When trainees in Walker’s ALICE training tell him they’re not “violent people” and don’t wish to engage, he offers them other options because, he says, having a plan saves lives. 

“I tell them do the right thing, do the wrong thing, at least you’re doing something because more often than not, the one who does nothing, doesn’t make it. The thing about ALICE is, it works.” 

Part of ALICE’s effectiveness may be in its authenticity. Trainers act as shooters, teachers barricade doors and law enforcement storms the halls as if in pursuit of a shooter in an effort to prepare faculty for the real possibility of facing a school shooting. 

“It’s unfortunate that we have to do this and talk about this,” Shepherd said, “but unless a big fluffy cloud goes over the entire country, I think this is, unfortunately, our reality for the time being.”

Editor's note: The second installment of "Guns and our schools" will hit stands next week and focus on the tradition of gun ownership in Cottage Grove, current Oregon gun laws and how our children interact with firearms at local shooting ranges, in JROTC and other organizations. 

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