TERRE HAUTE —
In today’s American society — when “active shooter” drills are practiced in public schools in addition to the standard fire and tornado drills of decades past — local law enforcement and education officials are becoming pro-active about security in hopes of warding off school shootings and massacres such as the December 2012 tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Conn.
Recently at Rio Grande Elementary, everyone in the building went through a drill scenario to practice what to do if a violent intruder enters the building.
“This is a Code Red drill,” Principal Susan Shackleford announced through the intercom.
Immediately, doors throughout the building closed and locked, and lights went out.
Silence — broken only by the fast footfalls of Shackleford as she ran through the hallways, jiggling the door handles of each classroom.
“I want the teachers to feel how quick it would be if someone got in here,” Shackleford said on the run, referring to the rapid response she expects from teachers and staff during the drill.
Sheriff Greg Ewing and deputy Larry Hopper followed along to observe, looking for any improvements that could make a difference if an active shooter makes it into the school.
“As soon as we heard the announcement, you heard the doors lock and close,” Ewing said following the drill. “I’m impressed.”
In fact, the school seemed to be empty during the drill. With most lights out, not a sound could be heard from any child or adult in the building.
“This is just like any drill,” Ewing said. “When you get them conditioned to do this, you bring down the panic level.”
The drill began a few minutes after 10 a.m., and by 10:07 a.m., normal school day activities had resumed. Schackleford asked teachers and staff to report any suggestions or observations about the drill to her at some time during the day.
Ewing and Hopper also reviewed points of the drill with Shackleford, with Ewing noting that each school building has its own quirks as well as security assets and issues.
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Patrolling elementary schools for security is not something Hopper ever thought he would be doing as a law enforcement officer.
After more than 10 years on the midnight shift for the Vigo County Sheriff’s Department, Hopper now begins his work day at either Lost Creek or Rio Grande elementary, or at Otter Creek Middle School. He has been re-assigned as one of the county’s school security officers by Sheriff Ewing, who is working with Vigo County Schools Superintendent Dan Tanoos to make sure that each school day is a safe day for students, teachers and staff.
In the event of an active shooter at one of those schools, Hopper will likely be the first person — and hopefully the last — that the shooter encounters in the school.
It’s a dangerous assignment at its core, but just having a security presence in the schools has already proven valuable in diffusing some potentially hostile situations.
In early January, police were notified that an angry parent was enroute to Lost Creek Elementary during the school day. Hopper was among police officers summoned to the elementary as a precaution.
Hopper recalls that when the parent arrived and saw the many police cars already waiting at the school, the police presence gave that parent some reason to calm down. The man still voiced his concerns to the principal and staff, but he was not as confrontational as was suggested by the concerned person who notified authorities.
Having a police car parked outside the schools at varying times of the day sends a message to the public, Hopper said. People will know that the school is protected by an armed individual, so bad behavior in general is thwarted. People also know to expect that they are being observed as they arrive at the school. Parents can be confident that their children are in a secure building, learning what they need to know for their futures, and not having to be so concerned about their safety.
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The secretaries at Lost Creek’s main desk have a video intercom to communicate with people who walk up to the front doors. Once a person is approved to enter, the doors buzz open and the person approaches the desk.
A few parents accompanied their children into the building as late arrivals for the day for various reasons. Most of them made eye contact and exchanged greetings with Hopper as he sat at the front desk.
He had already walked a tour through the building, checking all exterior doors and looking for anything out of the ordinary, both inside and outside the building. He made contact with some of the staff, and — stereotypes aside — he knows where the doughnuts are stashed.
Hopper enjoys seeing the friendly smiles of the children, giving high fives in the hallway, and being a male role model for kids who need an adult to look up to. Those are some of the enjoyable perks of the security job.
“I really enjoy trying to be a positive role model to the kids,” Hopper said. “So I guess for me, it’s not only being here for security. It’s about being a role model to the kids.”
As a child who didn’t always have a good relationship with his own father, Hopper said he looked up to his best friend’s dad, who was a conservation officer.
Now, Hopper finds himself in that same position of respect with some of the youngsters he sees at the schools.
Hopefully, neither he nor anyone else in Vigo County will ever have to be a local school’s first line of defense in case of school violence. Making a positive connection with today’s students, parents and school staff may be the correct step in heading off future problems.
Reporter Lisa Trigg can be reached at 812-231-4254 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @TribStarLisa.