August 13, 2007
By ANDY KIRKALDY
VERGENNES — The entrance to the library at Vergennes Union High School looks innocent enough. The door sits back about 10 feet from the hallway, flanked by windows that offer views of a computer room on one side, an office on the other, and long rows of bookshelves beyond.
But to Middlebury policeman and school resource officer Scott Fisher and another half-dozen cops with drawn guns on Wednesday, that entry looked like a death trap. Fisher called it a nightmare.
Fisher was one of 18 local police officers, eight of them full- or part-time members of the Vergennes Police Department, prowling the VUHS hallways, offices and classrooms. They were being trained by four members of the Vermont State Police Tactical Services Unit (TSU) to handle a true worst-case scenario: a shooter loose in school.
And that library entrance posed a potentially deadly problem. To those more often at VUHS, the windows are helpful: Students can find their friends, and teachers and administrators can keep an eye on what’s going on.
But to cops trying to find an armed killer, the windows looked like a gauntlet. There was no cover between the hall and the door, and plenty of cover on the other side.
“It’s what you have to deal with,” said VSP Lt. Rob Evans, the head trainer, responding to Fisher’s comment.
Of course, Vergennes Police Chief Mike Lowe and Sgt. Pat Greenslet hope never to use the TSU training that they requested on behalf of their and other local departments — one VSP, one Shelburne, three Bristol and five Middlebury police officers joined the city police at VUHS. Only around 30 school shootings occurred throughout the U.S. since 1996.
But Greenslet said the spate of school shootings, which began in Columbine, Colo., almost a decade ago and touched down in Essex last year, have forced local departments to be ready to save lives.
“What it comes down to is it’s going to be the Vergennes PD, assisted by Bristol, Middlebury, troopers and the sheriff’s office, that are going to be responding to this sort of thing here,” Greenslet said. “We can’t sit outside and wait for a special services team to deal with the situation. It’s going to be us.”
The shootings have required law enforcement experts to re-evaluate their assumptions and tactics. Police in the past were always taught to establish a perimeter and wait for the SWAT teams and hostage negotiators.
Veterans like Lowe and Greenslet have learned to follow those procedures, but times and strategies have changed, Lowe said.
“Since 1999, the tactics of the bad guy have changed,” Lowe said. “Instead of us going to a one-on-one hostage situation where you do freeze it, you do take your time, you do be careful, and you do hostage negotiations, unlike that you have children where their lives are at stake and may be being killed as we speak. Therefore, now … we are being taught to get in there as soon as possible with groups as small as two to four officers, and do what we’re being trained right now to do, which is work our way through the school and stop the shooter.”
Evans and his three fatigue-clad TSU colleagues were probable the right ones to offer the training. They handled the shooting a year ago in Essex, in which two adults were killed, and cleared the school afterward, and Greenslet said members of the unit have taught local police at three dozen Vermont schools.
The centerpieces of the tactics are how police should proceed through the hallways and how they should work together to enter rooms. Evans also touched on the issue of maintaining communications in what can be chaos — if more than one team is operating in a school, he said, a potentially lethal “blue-on-blue situation” must be avoided.
Not all entries pose the same challenge as the VUHS library, but officers must learn to position themselves differently if doors open in or out, to the left of the right, or if they are recessed from hallways. The rear member of the two-member team that enters the room must also tap the front member to signal the move forward, and they must enter the room together, with the first one looking left and the second looking right to cover fully the interior.
In the hallways, the ideal formation is a four-member diamond, with a point-man calling out doors, windows and hallways, a rear member making sure the group is not attacked from behind, and the other two members checking the rooms one by one.
In the early afternoon Evans and the other TSU officers ran small groups through the hallways, offering tips, advice and demonstrations of the proper techniques.
At about 2 p.m., the TSU officers ratcheted up the tension a bit, turning all the school alarms on and hiding in rooms pretending to be shooters.
Lowe said the simulation forced local police to think on their feet and use what they had learned.
“They had somebody in the rooms … and would encounter a suspect. It would make them think a little quicker,” Lowe said. “It made them think under duress.”
Greenslet said the training will help if city police ever have to use it, because they will have to move and make decisions quickly and will have a template to follow.
“The first four guys on the scene are … going to have to develop a plan among themselves to enter the building and start to deal with the threat,” Greenslet said. “It’s starting to develop the skill level with the guys coming in and dealing with the building itself, the different obstacles there might be, dealing with the room clearing, dealing with the open and closed doors, how they can move down the hall, being able to say, ‘You’re going to be the point man, you’re going to be the rear security, I’m going to be the team leader, to decide what the pace is going to be down the hall,’ that sort of stuff.”
Lowe believes the training paid off, both for his force and the other local departments.
“As people did it, they just got a little bit better and a little bit better,” Lowe said, adding, “It gave us a lot more knowledge. It opened our eyes. It gave us enough information to know we can do things differently.”
VUHS Principal Ed Webbley agreed that the VUHS emergency plan had lacked coordination between school officials and police in the case of a shooter inside or outside the school. He was happy to have VUHS host the training, both so that city police better know the school’s layout and that communication between police and school officials is improved.
“Compared to where we were a year and a half ago, we feel a lot more integrated with police, fire and rescue,” Webbley said. “It makes you feel like you’ve got a more solid foundation, so you can reassure parents we know what we’re doing to some extent.”
Webbley said VUHS already had its own protocol for shooters at the school. In the case of someone in the school, teachers are told to lock their rooms and have students move to the walls out of the line of sight of windows in their doors, and have nobody respond to knocks or voices at the door. If a shooter is outside, they are told to have students move to the outside walls where they cannot be seen through the windows.
And although police rushing into classrooms with guns drawn is not something anyone wants to see at VUHS, Webbley said city police are typically a welcome daily sight at the school.
“We’ve got officers in the school every morning, a regular presence, a friendly presence. It’s really made a big difference. The kids don’t freak out every time they see a policeman around here,” Webbley said. “The kids feel safe having them around.”