EVERETT — Snohomish County schools and police together prepare for the unimaginable, the worst, the what-if.
They train. They swap maps. They make policies and plans.
They have to consider the unthinkable.
A mass shooting at an elementary school in Connecticut on Friday morning sent shock waves through the United States and the county. Even those who dedicate their lives to protecting people, especially children, from violence were left deeply shaken.
National media reported at least 28 dead, including 20 children and the 20-year-old gunman.
“You just can’t imagine,” Edmonds Police Chief Al Compaan said. “All these kids, why?”
For some people who work in schools, the news was the worst they’d heard since the 9/11 terror attacks, said D.J. Jakala, spokeswoman for the Edmonds School District.
“As more news comes out, I don’t know that there is one person connected with public education that is not shaken by this,” she said.
Many in public life sent thoughts and prayers to the victims and their families.
“Everyone wants to know that they can send their children off to school and they can be safe,” Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., told The Herald. “I know this impacts every single person who’s hearing about it in Washington state, and our hearts go out to those families.”
Police in some local communities Friday assigned extra officers at schools or increased patrols, including Arlington and the Snohomish County Sheriff’s Office.
Police didn’t believe there was any immediate danger but wanted “to assure parents and our community that their children are safe and secure,” sheriff’s spokeswoman Shari Ireton said.
Local police since at least 2006 have trained together specifically for school-shooting scenarios, Ireton said. They keep maps of all school floor plans, train on school campuses and meet with school staff.
The idea is to make certain police aren’t “walking into that situation blind,” she said.
Everett Police Chief Kathy Atwood said training is important, but police know its limitations.
“We have a really robust response,” she said. “I feel confident about that part, but I don’t know how you’d ever prepare mentally for something like this.”
In Mukilteo in 2011, the police department and the school district staged a review that included firefighters and others who likely would be called to a school shooting.
“If the real deal does hit, we’ll be able to react well and have a plan,” officer Cheol Kang said at the time.
Schools also conduct regular lockdown drills and have precautionary lockdowns even if there’s police activity in the neighborhood, Mukilteo School District spokesman Andy Muntz said.
Kristin Foley, a spokeswoman for the Snohomish School District, said the district regularly updates emergency preparedness plans and will do so again next week, meeting with students, staff and police.
Some dads and grandfathers called the school district Friday to sign up for the Watch D.O.G.S. program, she said. The program puts a dad or granddad in schools each day as volunteers, helping out where needed.
Snohomish school officials know what it is like to have students’ lives at risk from sudden violence.
In October 2011, two Snohomish High School freshmen girls were repeatedly stabbed in a random attack by another student. They both survived, and the attacker was sentenced.
Weapons are a fact of life in Washington schools, data show. The state requires school districts to report all weapons-related incidents.
Data from the 2010-11 school year show that out of nearly 1,200 incidents statewide, 103 involved firearms. Of those, 45 involved handguns and in seven the weapons were rifles or shotguns.
In Snohomish County schools, 255 students were expelled or suspended over weapons-related violations. One case involved a handgun. The bulk involved knives.
Are we doing enough?
Much of the burden falls to schools, said Martin Speckmaier, a retired Edmonds detective who travels the country holding school safety seminars.
It’s hard for schools, especially elementary schools, to think about an adult predator coming onto campus, he said. People want to think only older kids, college kids or mall shoppers could be targeted.
Schools are making progress, but many need more planning, more practice, he said. They also need support from parents. For a safety plan to work, parents have to follow it, even if that means checking in at the front desk and getting a sticker, he said.
People who plan attacks on schools look for weak points, complacency, he said. Schools need to find partners in the community, including organizations that provide mental health services, Speckmaier said.
“We in school communities need to understand that violence that happens in schools isn’t a school problem, it’s a community problem,” he said. “We as community stakeholders with community responsibilities need to be sharing information cross-system to help identify, assess and manage individuals that make and/or pose serious threats of violence.”
Many folks in Snohomish County on Friday were finding ways to be together to process what happened. At least one public vigil was planned for the evening, in Monroe.
Rikki King: 425-339-3449; firstname.lastname@example.org
Tips for parents
Many schools on Friday sent notices to parents about the shooting and provided counselors for students.
Mary Waggoner, a spokeswoman for the Everett School District, also provided tips for parents. Counselors advise parents to turn off or closely monitor broadcast coverage of the shootings, she said.
“Endless news programs can heighten anxiety,” she said.
It’s also important for parents to maintain a normal routine, provide factual answers for children’s questions and be calm and reassuring.
“That’s what they need of the adults around them,” Waggoner said. “Remind them of safety plans at the schools and the family’s safety plan.