In wake of Uvalde, West Linn police rehearse active shooter scenarios
One month before the end of the academic year in the West Linn-Wilsonville School District, a gunman walked into Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas and killed 19 students and two teachers.
While the massacre took place, hundreds of law enforcement officers waited outside for over an hour. The lack of action from officers at the scene prompted local fallout and national outage, as well as questions about how prepared law enforcement agencies are for shootings that are becoming increasingly common at American schools.
During the last week of July, with about a month until the start of a new school year, West Linn police prepared for the possibility of a local school shooting. Over three days, nearly all officers of the West Linn Police Department ran through various scenarios of a gunman at West Linn High School.
Sergeant Bill Garland, who organized the active shooter exercises, said the training wasn't prompted by the Uvalde shooting — command at WLPD had talked about such a rehearsal for a while — but he highlighted some of the mistakes responding officers made in Uvalde when instructing WLPD officers.
'We have to keep training current'
When Garland came to WLPD in 2019, the department hadn't run an active shooter training in a few years, he told Pamplin Media Group.
The department held one training in early 2020, but COVID-19, a lack of police access to schools and low staff numbers kept the department from holding another one until now, Garland said. Now, he hopes to hold these trainings at least annually.
"We have to keep training current and keep the skill level and knowledge level of the officers up," Garland said. "That's a priority for everyone on the leadership team, even though it's a struggle schedule-wise because of staffing levels."
Garland said the training is also important because it can help officers control their fear when they get into dangerous scenarios.
"The training and having been put in those situations during training gives you something to fall back on. I know that if I execute this tactic well, our chances of success and chances of me living through this are very high — but if I don't execute, then those odds aren't as favorable," he said. "I don't like to speculate because I don't know anyone in Uvalde, but in reading the reports and watching the video, it looked like guys were scared. And that's to be expected, but it looked like nobody really had an idea of what to do. One person with some training and an idea of what to do could have changed that entire situation."
Specifically, Garland said the officers in Uvalde appeared to be using tactics associated with a "barricade" situation, where officers believed they did not have access to the gunman.
"We treat a barricade way differently than we treat an active threat or a hostage situation. You're not really applying pressure. You're just trying to contain the problem and negotiate," Garland said. "The word getting out that it was a barricade and then treating it like that, it was an error because he was still armed and still had access to victims. You got to get in and stop those things."
What Garland wants to instill in officers, and what law enforcement in Uvalde failed to do, is keeping pressure on the gunman.
"Through us putting pressure on them, they may divert their attention to us," Garland said. "They may run. Whatever it is they're doing, they're not killing innocent people anymore because they are preoccupied with the pressure we're putting on them."
Another mistake highlighted in analyses of the response at Robb Elementary was the lack of communication and organization between officers. According to Garland, agencies across Clackamas County began coordinating efforts well over a decade ago to make sure they are on the same page in an active threat response.
About 15 years ago, all the local police departments of the county and the Clackamas County Sheriff's Office met together to decide tactics to teach and how to coordinate when multiple agencies respond to an incident.
"So what we taught our guys is being taught all over the county," Garland said. "So let's say something happened at West Linn High School, and (Student Resource) Officer (Jabral) Johnson is there but it's an Oregon City unit or a county unit that gets there before a West Linn unit to help Officer Johnson — we all know the same tactics, we all know roughly how the response will go because we've agreed on how to train."
According to Garland, officers put their shared training into action during the deadly shooting at Clackamas Town Center December in 2012. Cells made up of officers from different Clackamas County agencies methodically searched Clackamas Town Center, where a gunman had shot and killed two people.
During the role-play segments at the July training exercise, police officers were given multiple scenarios to work through. They used blank rounds to practice "eliminating the threat" and shot at the ground in the presence of role players. The fake shooter was another trained officer.
"The use of marking rounds and blanks provides a more realistic experience for the officers taking part in the training, which is extremely beneficial," Garland said. "The level of realism they provide helps to make the lessons learned by the officers stick with them. This is a fairly standard practice for this type of training."
Throughout the training, the officers practiced navigating schools in search of the threat, managing hostage situations and working in different environments, like staircases and dark rooms. Then the officers would gather and debrief on what went right and what could be improved on.
School district keeps staff and students informed
The West Linn-Wilsonville School District was not part of WLPD's July training. However, the school district works "closely" with law enforcement in other circumstances to prepare for potential active threats on school grounds, according to Director of Communications Andrew Kilstrom.
"We host quarterly meetings with local first responders to practice table top exercises and familiarize one another with expectations in addition to regular drills mentioned above," he said.
On Dec. 6, 2021, a purported threat at West Linn High School prompted an investigation from local law enforcement. The potential threat was later found to be a resurfaced social media post, and students were determined not to be in danger.
West Linn law enforcement was contacted immediately, and officers began an investigation that involved speaking with the student who wrote the post. Adding an additional layer of caution, the district also initiated its Threat Assessment Protocol, a detailed process that involves administrators, school resource officers and mental health experts.
That group evaluates any concerns with students returning to class and what resources the school may need in the aftermath of a potential threat.
During situations similar to the Dec. 6 threat, the school district relies on local law enforcement to provide direction if there is a potential threat to safety in a nearby area. A school may enter "secure" or "lockdown" status depending on the situation, according to Kilstrom.
"If there is an active threat on a school campus and a lockdown has been initiated, school and district staff follow police direction. A lockdown or secure (status) is not lifted until law enforcement has given the 'all clear,'" he said.
Further, the school district has many components that reinforce safety protocols for staff and students, like their security systems in schools and various trainings.
The last two capital bonds have also prioritized safety on campus. Some of the features added at schools include security check-ins before entering buildings, safety hardware on classroom doors and a school-wide safety system that alerts staff to engage in lockdowns.
During a potential emergency, when a school's safety may be in danger, the district initiates one of the responses based on the threat level. The school district uses a Standard Response Protocol from the "I Love U Guys" foundation, which is also used by other school districts in Clackamas County like Lake Oswego. The national guideline is based on the following actions: hold, secure, lockdown, evacuate and shelter.
Staff and students regularly practice the standard response protocol, which includes lockdown drills.
"During a lockdown, students are instructed to move away from sight, maintain silence and silence cell phones as much as possible. Staff are instructed to lock classroom doors, turn off the lights, move away from sight, wait for first responders to open doors, maintain silence, silence cell phones and silently take roll to account for students as possible," said Kilstrom.
Drills often take place with local law enforcement in attendance. And district staff debrief after exercises to review the lockdown drills.
Garland added that these drills teach students and staff to make their classrooms unattractive to someone looking to cause harm. If met with some sort of barrier, a shooter hoping to cause as much harm as possible in a short amount of time will likely move on, Garland said.
The school district also has an in-depth threat assessment — a three-tier process that is used to identify a potential threat and what the next steps are to help students who are part of the threat assessment.
In 2022, there has been an average of 13 mass shootings a week, according to data from the Gun Violence Archive. Many studies have shown the intersection of mental health issues and mass shootings on school campuses.
"Social-emotional learning is a major component to teaching and learning in our district. Teachers work closely with counselors in the event that student interventions are needed or extra support could benefit a student. Care and connection with all students is a priority for staff, with the goal of building student connections to their school, teachers and peers. In the event that a student behavior or safety-related concern arises, staff may initiate a formal threat assessment," said Kilstrom.
Since May's shooting in Uvalde, Garland said people are rightfully learning more about active threat response.
"The school district's expectations of police are the same as everyone else's: that we're going to get in there and solve the problem, take care of the problem however that turns out to be," Garland said. "If we have an active threat inside the schools, the expectation of the public and the expectation of the school district is that police are going to get there and make things safe."
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