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Local officials review Virginia tragedy

By Holly Hollman 340-2445

ATHENS — Principals watching the front door. Bus drivers looking for suspicious vehicles. Teachers concerned about unknown repairmen.

That's how local school staff react after shootings, such as the slaughter Monday at Virginia Tech.

"We're like cops looking for anyone or anything out of place," said Donnie Powers, Athens City Schools transportation director. Powers worked 30 years for Limestone County Schools prior to his job at Athens.

"The state has told bus drivers to watch for strange vehicles, and I know principals tell me they watch those doors for who is coming in," Powers said. "The other day, a teacher called me about a strange man in her school, and it turns out he was a repairman. But cautious is what we all have to be."

Powers was among local school and law enforcement officials who attended a teleconference, which Sheriff Mike Blakely offered Tuesday at his office, called "Columbine — What Happened and Why." The eighth anniversary of the Columbine High School shooting is Friday.

"We scheduled this long before the Virginia Tech shooting, but it sure made it more relevant," Blakely said.

Retired FBI special agent and supervisor G. Dwayne Fuselier presented the program and referenced Virginia Tech, where gunman Cho Seung-Hui, 23, a senior, killed 32 people and shot himself.

Fuselier said the shooting should be reviewed from a factual perspective, which is not possible early in the investigation.

"First they will have to find out what happened," Fuselier said, "and that takes time."

Fuselier said students make statements to the press, and those statements can be misconceptions that the public believes are real.

For example, he said there was belief a sniper was on the roof at Columbine. That person turned out to be a repairman trapped on the roof throughout the ordeal.

The Columbine program included 911 calls, cafeteria video of the gunmen firing at students and photographs of the bombs Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold planted throughout the campus.

"The school is in a panic. ... I've got the kids under the table," teacher Patty Nielson told a 911 operator. Screams and gunfire are heard in the distance.

"He's in the library. He's shooting at everybody."

In all, Harris and Klebold killed 12 students and a teacher before killing themselves.

The duo had 99 bombs, most small, handmade bombs called crickets. Thirty exploded in the school and about 40 devices littered the campus, unexploded because of malfunctions. Authorities saw the bombs and thought the two had booby-trapped the school.

Fuselier said law enforcement at Columbine received criticism for not doing enough, but he disagrees. Fuselier was the supervisor of the FBI's shooting investigation task force at Columbine.

He said law enforcement had multiple concerns that included a possible sniper, an unknown number of gunmen, helping injured students, bombs, fires, students hiding throughout the complex, and parents and the media coming to the campus.

Athens police Lt. Floyd Johnson, chief of detectives, said the program gave law enforcement a reason to study first response actions and investigative tactics.

"The worst thing you want to do in a situation like this is cause even more panic," Johnson said. "We need to go over our plans continuously to be prepared to react to such a tragedy. And in the investigative stage, you need to look in many directions for the answers to the whys and hows."

For example, the FBI enhanced Nielson's 911 call to pinpoint how many shots are audible and to create a timeline. Authorities also collected writings by Harris and Klebold, in which they expressed depression, anger and frustration.

Fuselier observed that the name "Columbine" no longer is synonymous in people's minds with a flower or a high school known for academics or sports. It's a catchphrase, such as, "We don't want another Columbine."

Local authorities don't want any of their schools to become a catchphrase.

"As an administrator, your biggest fear is what is outside of your control," said East Limestone Principal Dennis Black. "We can plan, but as was evident at Columbine and Virginia Tech, there's no way to guarantee your kids will be 100 percent safe. If someone plans it, is determined to do something this destructive, that's something that is out of your control."

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