Think it can't happen here? Then keep your hat on
By Bob Slate
Call us alarmist.
Say we’re Henny Penny, running around screaming the sky is falling.
We just pray it doesn’t happen here.
Details are still coming in about Monday’s tragic massacre on the campus of Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Va., but it is believed a lone gunman, now identified as Cho Seung-Hui, 23, a student originally from South Korea but raised in the U.S., took the lives of a female acquaintance and her male friend in a dormitory at about 7:15 a.m., then opened fire in a different building across campus two hours later, killing 30 more of his fellow students and wounding dozens before turning a gun on himself.
It is the deadliest shooting spree in our nation’s history.
Of course, something like this couldn’t happen in Decatur.
On Nov. 3, 16-year-old Austin High School junior Durell Jaquise Clay was shot in the stomach on the parking lot of West Moulton Mini Mart. The shooting took place at 11:30 p.m., about an hour after the completion of the Decatur-Austin football game. Witnesses told police a group of 25 to 30 teens gathered and a number of fights broke out right before the shooting.
Also close to home, the Limestone County Board of Education earlier this month expelled a 13-year-old — a seventh-grader — who took a gun to West Limestone High School on April 4. Another student saw the gun and reported it to school officials. Limestone County Sheriff Mike Blakely said the student claimed he needed the gun for protection from a student who threatened him.
Obviously, the two local incidents are the exception rather than the norm. Austin and Decatur high schools and Oak Park Middle School are recent recipients of the Alabama Attorney General’s Safe School Award. And Decatur City Schools utilize student resource officers in the buildings, although there has been some talk of trimming that program for financial reasons.
We won’t go into the logistics of how a 13-year-old obtains a handgun. Obviously, there are ways, frightening as that may be. Without getting into an argument about Second Amendment rights, reasonable people can agree that many teens lack the maturity needed to safely carry a firearm. And we can agree that weapons don’t belong on our public school campuses.
So what are local school administrators doing to prevent a tragedy here?
Phil Hastings, supervisor of safety and alternative education for Decatur City Schools, said safety is an ongoing, cooperative effort of school staff, local police and fire departments (including school resource officers), juvenile authorities and other emergency personnel. They get together on a regular basis for drills and to share information about things that are happening on the campuses as well as in the community outside of the schools.
“It’s not just a reactive approach, but also a proactive one,” Hastings said. “It’s an ongoing process. Communication and preparation are key. An incident can happen anytime, anywhere. But if you have a plan in place, you’ve got a better chance of preventing a tragedy.”
Hastings said a Decatur student was caught bringing an unloaded pistol to school in an alternative setting this year. An expulsion hearing is planned for that child, who is now in the juvenile justice system. Occasionally, students are discovered carrying knives. Those incidents are dealt with on a case-by-case basis, most often with the offender being assigned to an alternative school setting.
Hastings said a strong code of conduct is important. While school officials know there is gang activity among teens away from school, they do not tolerate it on campus.
“They can get together outside of school,” Hastings said. “Being in a gang isn’t illegal. But some of the things they do are, and that can carry over when they see each other at school. If we find out about gang activity at school, they can be expelled.”
School administrators adopted a no-hat procedure at high school basketball games this year in an attempt to prevent conflict among gangs. The rule prompted an outcry and protests from a vocal sector of the community.
Most of those who complained were adults, not students.
“Some people may scoff at us (over the hat rule), but the principals agree that there were fewer incidents at games,” Hastings said.
Decatur schools have large, walk-through metal detectors available, Hastings said. But logistics, such as user training and herding students through a common portal, prevent their use on a daily basis. Student resource officers have hand-held, metal-detecting wands available if it is suspected that a student has a weapon.
“If you have an incident and a threat, we could certainly use them,” Hastings said of the larger detectors. “But they can create more problems than they prevent.”
In addition to reviewing procedures after safety drills, he said, school officials, police and juvenile authorities often discuss incidents that happen away from school.
“If you’ve got a student with a gun out in the community, there’s a possibility he could bring it to school. We feel like sharing information is one of the best things we can do to prevent an incident.”
Until Monday, residents of quiet Blacksburg never dreamed such a tragedy could happen in their community. But it did happen. And in its wake, many are questioning the reaction of Virginia Tech authorities. Hindsight says authorities could have done more to prevent the second round of shootings that took so many young, innocent lives. Critics wonder why officials didn’t lock down the campus after the earlier shootings until the gunman was captured. Even if police thought the incident was an isolated, domestic disturbance, why didn’t they err on the side of caution and immediately send in a SWAT team?
“If you get a crazed shooter that is homicidal and suicidal (like at Columbine High School eight years ago or at Virginia Tech on Monday), there’s nothing you can do to prevent it,” Hastings said. “What you can do is be proactive and have a plan. We learned a lot from Columbine and I’m sure we’ll learn a lot from the incident in Virginia.”
Of course, something like this could never happen in Decatur. But just suppose, for a minute, that local school officials caved in to public pressure and lifted the hat ban. And then imagine a fight breaking out at a crowded basketball game and, in the heat of the moment, somebody pulls out a gun ...
Is removing your cap at a high school event really such a high price to pay to possibly prevent a tragedy?
Bob Slate is a Daily copy editor. He lives in Decatur with his wife, Maryemily. They have three children. He can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.