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From the Archives: School Violence - Concerns for First Responders

Author: Nancy J. Rigg

Copyright: 9-1-1 Magazine, Feature Content

Date: 2012-07-23
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Originally Published in our July/August 1999 issue.

School violence has moved out of its usual urban setting and into the headlines of an increasing number of “safe,” small-town communities.  From Alaska to Arkansas, children have been killing and injuring other children with alarming frequency.  Altercations that at one time might have involved fistfights, knives, or an occasional handgun, can now involve sophisticated semi-automatic weapons, with hundreds of rounds of ammunition that can fell scores of victim in an instant.

Studies show that the United States has the highest rates of childhood homicide, suicide, and firearms-related death in the industrialized world.  A report released by the Federal Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) indicates that although the overall annual death rate from illness and accidents among children aged fifteen and younger has been decreasing, childhood homicide rates have tripled, and suicide rates have quadrupled.  A 1998 report from the National Center for Education indicates that during the 1996-97 school year, about 4,000 incidents of rape or other types of sexual battery were reported in public schools.  11,000 incidents involved physical attack or fights in which weapons were used.  There were 7,000 robberies, and 190,000 fights or physical attacks not involving weapons.  And, according to the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, every day, ten American children aged 18 and under use guns to commit suicide or lose their lives in gun-related homicides and accidents.  Many more are wounded. 

In every instance, from high-profile school mass shootings to “routine” incidents involving single gunshot wounds, while politicians, religious leaders, mental health professionals, and special interest groups line up to debate the cause and haggle about solutions, emergency workers are left to pick up the pieces, tend to the wounded, and join with grieving families to bury the dead.

 

Stockton, California: A Wake-Up Call

On January 17, 1989, Stockton Fire Department dispatcher, Mary Coronado, took a 9-1-1 call from a man reporting that a car was on fire near the Cleveland Elementary School.  “While I was talking to him,” Coronado recounted, “he suddenly added that there were shots being fired from what sounded like an automatic weapon.”  As Coronado quickly advised responding units to approach with caution, “the phones just started ringing with people reporting a shooting at the school.  The information was coming in so fast that before we could even get a call out we were getting more reports with an increasing number of victims.”

There were three dispatchers on duty at the time a 20-year old lone gunman mounted his assault on innocent children and teachers.  According to Audrey Mills, the secondary dispatcher, “the suspect set his car on fire around the corner from the school, using that as a diversionary tactic before he walked onto the school campus.  We sent as many resources as we could, including three air ambulances.”

Paramedic-Captain Paul Willette was working on a paramedic engine that day.  “We happened to be on another medical call at the time they started dispatching the school incident,” he recalled.  “When you hear a long dispatch with two or three engines, and you know another one has already gone, and then you hear another string of five or six ambulances, the first thing that goes through your mind is that this must be a drill.  We all hoped it was a drill.  Then, as they asked us if we could clear to assist, we realized it was not a drill.  It was reality.”

With its history of earthquakes, fires, and floods, California has long been at the forefront of disaster preparedness.  Communities throughout the state have developed detailed mass-casualty plans that are coordinated through the Incident Command System (ICS).  And countywide disaster drills are held on a routine basis.  Although the Stockton Fire Department’s mass-casualty plan had “never really been tested to this magnitude before,” Willette indicated that because a scaled-down version of the plan was used routinely on incidents with just three to five patients, all the elements quickly clicked into place. 

“Some people could argue that for incidents with only three to five patients, you don’t need to use a mass-casualty plan with incident command,” Willette explained.  “I would argue the contrary.  If you have a plan for a 30-patient incident, and something like the school shooting is the only time you use it, you’re probably going to be rusty, since 30-patient incidents are mercifully few and far between.”  The routine use of a flexible, well-coordinated mass-casualty plan “really paid big dividends in this incident,” Willette said.

Both private and fire department paramedics and emergency medical technicians (EMTs) responded to the shooting.  A private paramedic served as Medical Group Supervisor, with overall incident command handled by the fire department.  “There were a lot of resources to coordinate,” Willette said.  “The medical group was a huge component of the fire incident command system.  The police department was also heavily involved, and they were trained in incident command as well.”

A “huge media presence” and scores of concerned parents flocking to the school added to what Willette described as an “absolutely hectic” scene.  “We had a designated public information specialist,” Willette said, “and in this situation, the media demonstrated restraint and didn’t shove their cameras into the faces of the little kids.”

Five children died that day, and thirty more were wounded by the gunman, who was clad in a flack jacket and armed with a Soviet-style AK-47 semi-automatic assault weapon and two pistols.  The rampage ended when the suspect turned a gun on himself and committed suicide.  It was this high-profile incident that sparked the first nationwide changes in laws restricting the sale of automatic weapons.

 

Lessons From The Urban Battlefield

By Los Angeles County standards, the City of Glendale is a growing community with pride in its emergency services, school system, and city government.  But like other cities within the county, Glendale is struggling with issues like school over-crowding and the intrusion of crime on campus.  Although no mass shootings have shattered the lives of Glendale citizens, as with any community in the nation, it could happen here.

There are three high schools in Glendale, with more than 5,000 students crowded into two of them.  As Glendale Fire Capt. Steve Wood observed, “That’s a lot of students jammed into one place.”  In addition to the numbers, Wood explained that “there are more than 250 languages now spoken in Glendale schools.  We’re having to deal with a variety of ethnic, cultural, and diversity issues, including customs, expectations, and things that are sacred to each group.  This creates an additional layer when something happens.”

For medical incidents, both the fire department and a private ambulance service respond.  ICS is used during events that require the careful coordination of resources, or pose a potential danger to emergency personnel.  “For our own safety,” Wood said, “if it’s gang-related or an assault, we wait to be escorted into the school by law enforcement or the campus security police.  We wear body armor to shootings, stabbings, assaults, or any situation we think might be questionable.”  But because it might confuse or distress injured students to see firefighters and paramedics decked out like the SWAT team, Wood added, “We try to be unobtrusive about it and wear protective gear under our light brush jackets.”

Image conscious communities are not always eager to plan for incidents involving large groups of injured students and teachers.  This resistance only compounds efforts to develop a serious response plan.

Wood indicated that every school system should have a flexible, but carefully orchestrated mass-casualty contingency plan that includes teachers, school administrators, and the parents and guardians of students.  “We need to work in partnership with everyone who might be potentially involved,” he said.  “We need to get school administrators to understand that they are a really important part of the emergency response team.  Plus we need to work with parents, so that if something does happen, they don’t all flock to campus at the same time and increase the mass hysteria, confusion, and accountability problems.”  Wood noted that image conscious communities are not always eager to plan for incidents involving large groups of injured students and teachers.  This resistance only compounds efforts to develop a serious response plan.

In Glendale, Wood noted that some training has been done with teachers, and consultants have been hired to work with local schools.  But he worries that there is “not enough follow-up.  We need to work out the exact details for a ‘what-if’ scenario.  If something big happens on campus, do you go into fire drill mode, do a lockdown, go into classrooms and shelter in place, do a special bell ring that identifies that something has happened and everyone else should get down and stay down, or what?”

For Wood, planning is the key to any potential situation, from a flood to a mass shooting.  “Once upon a time it was acceptable to do fire drills and earthquake drills once in a while.  And it was okay to have classroom doors open all the time, with easy access to the school campus.  But with the horrendous violence of multiple fatalities in schools, the rules have now changed.  Many of us in the fire service have kids.  Like all parents, when we send our children off to school, we want to make sure that they come home safe and sound at the end of the day.”

 

Jonesboro: Tragedy Strikes Again

One of the most chilling incidents of school violence unfolded recently in the quiet suburbs of Jonesboro, Arkansas.  On March 24, 1998, 11 and 13-year old cousins pulled the fire alarm at the Westside Middle School and ambushed students and teachers as they filed outside.  Four girls and one teacher were killed, and eleven others were wounded.  Paramedic Charles Jones, of the Keller Ambulance Service, had just walked into a restaurant and was getting ready to sit down to lunch when the first calls started coming in.  “I’m normally in the office,” Jones explained, “but that day I was working one of the ambulances.  I heard our dispatch office dispatch three ambulances to one call, which is highly unusual.  We don’t dispatch three at a time to anything.”

Because he also serves as public information officer for the company, Jones immediately headed out to the school.  “As I was en route,” he said, “our first unit on scene advised that we needed to get everything out there that we could.  So at that point I switched gears, stopped worrying about administration and public information, and put on my paramedic hat.”

In Jonesboro, the fire department does not respond to medical incidents.  There are three private ambulance companies that handle all medical calls.  “The ambulance services don’t race one another to scenes,” Jones said, “but to be blunt, it’s a highly competitive market.”  One immediate problem was in the area of communications.  Other than the hospital frequency, there was no common radio frequency shared by all ambulance units.  “Law enforcement agencies were able to communicate with one another,” Jones explained, “but the ambulance services were not.” 

Communications problems were compounded by a lack of command on scene.  To fully understand the situation, Jones carefully described the layout: “When the fire alarm was pulled, everyone started coming out of the back of the school, and the boys started shooting.  The ones that were the most seriously wounded dropped immediately.”  Everyone else, including those with “more superficial injuries” ran between two buildings to get out of the line of fire.  “When the EMTs and paramedics got out of their ambulances, instead of setting up incident command and doing triage, they started helping the kids they got to first,” Jones explained.  “These were the ones who were the least seriously injured.  Luckily, it was only a matter of seconds before the ones with the most life-threatening injuries around back were reached.”

Because there was a “massive EMS response,” with nearly as many ambulances on scene as those who were injured, Jones added that the slight delay did not jeopardize patient care.  “In a situation like this, incident command and triage are there for a reason, which is to effectively treat as many patients as possible as quickly as possible,” he said.  “For us, this was a lesson learned.”

The shock of exposure to so many wounded children had a powerful impact on emergency personnel.  “Paramedics are used to seeing adults in various stages of trauma,” Jones explained.  “So we get to where we can deal with it mentally.  But when it’s a child that’s placed in front of you, all of the sudden that mental preparedness that you have for adults totally gets dropped.  It’s not that you forget your training, but personal and emotional issues start coming into play.”  Despite the confusion and distress that comes with an incident like this, Jones emphasized that “everyone worked as a team, and things went really well.”  But he cautioned that agencies should not depend on luck and teamwork alone.

“Those boys had hundreds of rounds of ammunition on them, and seven high-powered weapons, with scopes on the rifles.  If they had chosen to fire more rounds, this could easily have doubled the number of injured people down.  Had that been the case, with no incident command in place, we could have had a serious problem.”

 

Aftermath: A Time For Healing

Critical Incident Stress Management (CISM) programs have found increasing acceptance among emergency services agencies nationwide.  Even in 1989, although it was a fairly new program at the time, Stockton Fire Department personnel were provided with Critical Incident Stress support following the Cleveland School shooting.  Audrey Mills explained that for dispatchers it was a new experience.  “Because it was our first time,” she said, “nobody wanted to express their anger and grief.  There were no dispatch peer counselors then, so it was hard for us to open up and share with everybody else, including people who had been in the field.  Our dispatch peer group grew out of this incident.”

In Jonesboro, once all of the victims had been attended to, Keller Ambulance personnel who had been on scene were relieved of duty and the Critical Incident Stress Debriefing (CISD) team was quickly called into action.  “Because of the immediate intervention that we got,” Charles Jones explained, “we have been able to recover.  We recognize that it was a successful event from the EMS standpoint, and that helps a lot.  If anything, it’s solidified our team and made the level of cooperation between ambulance services rise tremendously.”

Unlike public safety agency CISM programs, school and community crisis counseling programs are generally not well organized nationwide.  Jones noted that school and community leaders, who quickly recognized the need for skilled intervention in the aftermath of the Westside School tragedy, welcomed offers of assistance from the local clergy and mental health professionals, including Lt. Col. Dave Grossman.  An internationally recognized authority on the psychological impact of violence and killing, Grossman said, “Here I am traveling around the world, telling people about reactions to killing and explaining the necessity for critical incident debriefing, and all of the sudden right here in my home town, the lessons of the battlefield are being applied.”

Sensitive to the fact that the majority of clergy and mental health volunteers lacked vital crisis intervention training, Grossman gave them a crash course, emphasizing key reactions and what to look out for.  “One of the main points I wanted everyone to understand is that when there are deaths like this, many more lives will be hanging in the balance for years to come if we don’t handle the aftermath right,” he explained.  “Look how many people across America are dying this year from murders, natural disasters, accidents, and fires.  The most conservative estimates indicate that as a direct result of this trauma, at least as many, if not more, will die from suicide or suffer permanently shattered lives.  We have the ability to save as many lives as have been lost just by helping people understand the kind of impact an experience like this can have on them.”

Charles Jones indicated that there is a need to develop community-oriented CISM programs nationwide, and draw upon them regularly in the aftermath of critical incidents that can affect the lives of survivors.  “Providing appropriate intervention is just as important when there’s one victim, whether it’s someone who has died in a tornado or a flood or been murdered, as in a situation like ours, with multiple casualties.  Unfortunately, the single survivor is too often overlooked.”

According to Paul Willette, several community-oriented events helped still the pain in Stockton.  “Some months after the shooting, when the survivors had healed physically, the whole school was painted and fixed up, and everyone who had participated in the response was invited back,” he said.  “There was some nervous apprehension, like maybe you didn’t really want to go back there if you didn’t have to, but all the kids were there, and we mingled, showed them the apparatus, put up the aerial ladder, and squirted water for them.”  To his astonishment, Willette said, “There were kids who actually walked up and handed notes and drawings to me and said, ‘thank you, you took care of me.’  I remembered glimpses and faces, but I would never have been able to pick one of them out in a crowd and say, ‘yeah, I took care of you that day.’  But they very vividly remembered who took care of them.”

For Mary Coronado, having a scholarship fund set up for the survivors was an important healing tool.  “Whenever we come around to the anniversary, a lot of the kids who were hurt have newspaper articles written about them,” she said.  “A lot of them are now graduating and heading off to college.  We’re seeing that no matter what happened to them back then, they made it.  Setting up the college fund laid a foundation for the future.”

 

Shooting in Springfield

As this article was being written, in Springfield, Oregon, another disgruntled youth, who had been suspended a day earlier for bringing a gun to school, swaggered into the crowded school cafeteria, climbed on top of a table, and calmly opened fire.  One student was killed immediately, a second died at the hospital, and at least 22 others were injured.  National television news programs were jammed, yet again, with many haunting images, including blood-soaked kids being taken away in a fleet of ambulances, terrified survivors having news cameras stuck in their faces, and a crowd of frightened, irate, confused, and anxious parents trampling through yellow police tape barriers in a mass scramble to locate their children.  In interview after interview, residents said they could not believe that such a horror had unfolded in their town.

The unfortunate message seems to be that communities need to prepare.  Charles Jones summed it up this way: “If you had told me a week before that sixteen people, kids and teachers, were going to get shot in Jonesboro, I would never have guessed that it would happen at Westside Middle School.  Don’t ever think that it won’t happen to you, wherever you are.”

Nancy J. Rigg is a writer, filmmaker and consultant with an extensive background in Search and Rescue, public safety education, and disaster prepardenss.  She is a frequent contributor to 9-1-1 Magazine.

See related story, The Shooting at Virginia Tech, archived from our Jan-0Feb 2008 issue.

 

 

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