Whether preventing a tragedy or being prepared for one, Utah police train for school shootings year-round

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Detective Scott Russell of the South Jordan Police Department on duty at Bingham High School in South Jordan, where he serves as a resource officer, Friday Feb. 16, 2018.

Twenty years ago, a girl was walking through the hallway at Alta High School when she overheard a new student say he had a gun.

She reported what she heard to the hall monitor, who told Capt. Justin Chapman. It was the school resource officer’s second day on his new assignment at the Sandy school.

Because of the tip, Chapman discovered that the new student had brought an assault rifle to school.

Months later, 12 students and a teacher were killed in a massacre at Columbine High School in Colorado.

The girl at Alta “prevented a shooting,” Chapman said, and the memory is a reminder of the importance of students, staff and law enforcement working as a team during emergencies.

Utah schools are prepared for all types of crises, officials say, from a fire to a bomb threat to an armed assailant on a rampage.

Officers stationed at schools work closely with administrators to update security measures and emergency plans, often conducting preparedness drills, said Sandra Riesgraf, director of communications for the Jordan School District. The school resource officers (SROs) — often sworn peace officers from local police departments — are in schools every day, Riesgraf said.

“Their presence alone is helpful,” she said.

Emergency preparedness is on the minds of school officials after a gunman killed 17 people and injured 14 at a South Florida high school Wednesday.

Parents of Canyons School District students called in after news of the shooting broke, district spokesman Jeff Haney said, to ask about local preparations for violence.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Detective Scott Russell of the South Jordan Police Department on duty at Bingham High School in South Jordan, where he serves as a resource officer, Friday Feb. 16, 2018.

Chapman — who, in addition to working full time with the Sandy Police Department, offers training courses for SROs from Utah and other states — said his best advice to students and staff members is to “E-S-C-A-P-E”:

  • Escape: If possible, get out of range of the threat; run the other way.

  • Secure: Look for safe areas that can be secured by locking a door, barricading yourself or putting obstacles between yourself and an attacker.

  • Conceal: Hide and try not to draw attention to yourself. Turn off the lights, and silence cellphones.

  • Attack: If there’s no way to get away from the threat, try to hurt the assailant.

  • Process and Evaluate: As the situation progresses, evaluate whether there is a safer place you can get to, or whether there’s a way you can get out of the building.

There is no one-size-fits-all response to emergencies, Chapman said, and effective training emphasizes options. Students are in classrooms most of the day, but plans must also take into account contingencies for hallways, restrooms and cafeterias.

If there were a shooter standing next to someone, Chapman said, that person should respond differently than if the shooter were down the hall.

The state requires schools to conduct drills periodically. They are to include fire drills that alternate with other emergency scenarios: earthquakes, violence, bomb threats, civil disturbances, hazardous-material spills, utility failure or severe weather.

Lance Everill, Jordan School District’s facility operations manager, said the response to emergencies can include a lockout in which all exterior doors are secured because there is a threat outside the building; a lockdown in which all classroom doors are locked and the students stay inside; or both at once.

The district, he said, also has students “shelter in place” at times, meaning they stay inside to avoid severe weather, a chemical spill or some other emergency. Other districts might have different terms for the practice.

The role of students and staff members in the district is outlined in a standardized emergency plan, Riesgraf said, so even if a teacher or student switches schools, the procedure is the same.

“We say, ‘The cops own the crime, fire owns the flames and schools own the students,’” she said.

When there’s a shooter, said Salt Lake City police Sgt. Phil Eslinger, officers are taught to “go toward the fire” and to pursue that person “with the intention of causing harm” to neutralize the threat.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Sgt. Phil Eslinger, who oversees the Salt Lake City Police Department's school resource officers, in Salt Lake City, Friday Feb. 16, 2018.

A schoolwide threat may occur once a year, he said, but on a typical day, officers build relationships with students and try to intervene when children and teens head down a negative path.

“This is an assignment that is so different from anything else in law enforcement,” Eslinger said. “We’re informal counselors, and we’re informal teachers and we are there in a law enforcement capacity.” Arresting students is the least enjoyable aspect of the job, the sergeant said.

Eslinger oversees a nine-person SRO squad for the Salt Lake City School District; eight of the members are police officers, and one is an anti-gang educator in a youth program.

Granite School District has 19 officers from its own department providing security at its schools, along with officers from city police departments. The district police are certified law enforcement officers who have the same training as their municipal counterparts.

The district, spokesman Ben Horsley said, created the department because its schools serve five of the state’s 10 most crime-prevalent areas. “Crime doesn’t stop at schoolhouse doors,” he said. In the summer, he added, police officers use the mostly empty schools to prepare for emergencies.

“I know we can’t prevent all of them,” Chapman said of school tragedies, “... but there are some opportunities that we can.”

Whenever a school shooting is in the national spotlight, it “hits home” for SROs everywhere, the Sandy officer said.

“Our first thought, of course, is always about the families and about the loss and about what they’re going through, the unimaginable pain that they’re feeling,” Chapman said.

When he found the gun at Alta High School in 1998, Chapman remembers thinking: ”Wow. Any of these kids in here, or many, many of them — they could have been killed today. Their lives could have ended. Their families’ lives would have been impacted forever.”

He said mass shootings are “a terrible reminder” to be vigilant at work.

Officers can evaluate what they know about the situation, Chapman said, and ask themselves: “What could I do, what should I do, what would I do in the event that that were to happen somewhere close to home?”

Hopefully officers around here won’t ever have to find out, he said, but if they do, they will be ready.