A school shooting in Denton is a tragic prospect, but one that local officials have been forced to diligently plan for.
After a teenage gunman shot and killed eight students and two teachers at Santa Fe High School near Houston on May 18, people across the country have continued to butt heads about the underlying reasons for such massacres. The Santa Fe incident marked the 16th school shooting this year, The Washington Post reported. Some say the prevalence of guns is the issue; others say firearms are the only way to prevent shooters from claiming more lives.
Over the past week in Texas, Gov. Greg Abbott hosted a series of roundtable discussions at the state Capitol to talk about school safety and possible solutions to gun violence. The conversation continued in Denton County, where Sheriff Tracy Murphree spoke publicly about arming teachers and Jared Patterson, the Republican nominee for state House District 106, called for a meeting among school superintendents.
But as ideas flow, local schools and emergency responders continue to look for their own concrete ways to mitigate or prevent the damage from shootings.
Fire and police agencies throughout Denton County have started adopting a “rescue task force” approach to active shooter scenarios, in which police accompany paramedics into a building with an ongoing threat to quickly treat the wounded. School officials also have emphasized the need for additional funding to add counselors to focus on students’ mental health.
“We aren’t sitting around saying, ‘That’s never going to happen here,’” Lewisville Fire Chief Tim Tittle said.
‘A big change’
From a public safety standpoint, Tittle’s department has tried to keep county agencies talking about active shooter scenarios by hosting monthly meetings.
Police and fire representatives from Denton, Carrollton, The Colony, Highland Village, Flower Mound, Argyle, Sanger, Grapevine and the Denton County Sheriff’s Office are among those who have attended at least one of the four meetings held at Lewisville’s Jerry R. Galler Public Safety Training Center, Tittle said.
The ultimate purpose of the gatherings — which Lewisville started hosting after the February school shooting in Parkland, Florida — has been to keep everyone on the same page in the event of a mass shooting.
Most departments already train for those incidents on an annual basis, but the agencies need to know what to expect from each other during a large-scale disaster, Tittle said.
The meetings also serve to shore up the smaller agencies’ response plans, he said.
“We’re all pretty much playing by the same playbook, with just a few tweaks across the bigger cities,” Tittle said. “And smaller cities don’t really have a playbook, so this is part of helping them develop a plan.”
The “rescue task force” approach has been among the most recent modifications police and fire departments nationwide have made to their active shooter response plans. Some Denton County agencies, such as Lewisville, already have implemented those tactics and tweaked them in recent years. But many other police officers and firefighters, such as those in Denton, will start drilling the new response methods in the coming months.
In Denton, the new response plan involves at least two police officers accompanying unarmed firefighters into a building with an active shooter. Ordinarily, firefighters wait for police to clear the building before they enter, but in a school shooting, paramedics may need to assist wounded students or teachers in critical life-and-death moments.
The firefighters would wear helmets and ballistic vests, but the new methods still bring a level of danger firefighters historically haven’t trained for, said Denton Fire Department Training Capt. Collin Skipper.
“In a firefighter’s mind, there’s a difference between running into a burning building and running into a building where guns are going off,” Skipper said.
He added: “It’s traditionally seen as a police matter, but now as we’re learning, saving victims needs to happen pretty rapidly.”
Skipper said the first police officers on the scene usually contain the shooter before firefighters arrive, but firefighters still would have to enter the building during an active threat. In any case, there’s considerable added risk, he said.
He said it’ll take meticulous coordination with police over the summer to learn about each other’s movements and terminology.
“I definitely think it’s going to be a big change for us, and there are things that membership is going to have to get used to,” Skipper said.
Officers at the Denton Police Department have been in the classroom over the last three or four months learning about the rescue task force methods, department spokesman Bryan Cose said.
This summer, they will work through real-world scenarios during live training exercises with firefighters. Challenges likely will include moving together at a specific speed in a tactical formation, which Denton police have never done with paramedics, Cose said.
“I think the biggest thing, for the most part, is that firefighters and paramedics don’t train in tactical movements in situations where there may be gunfire,” Cose said.
As part of the rescue task force strategy, Denton police officers now are expected to enter a building where there may be an active threat without waiting for additional officers.
This change follows harsh criticism of a sheriff’s deputy in Broward County, Florida, who did not immediately enter Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School on Feb. 14 as a shooter killed people inside.
Previously, Cose said, Denton police officers could have decided to wait for additional officers in a large-scale emergency situation. That’s no longer the case, even if an officer is alone, he said.
“[No more] standing outside and waiting for a team of officers to show up so you can form a team to go through the school,” Cose said.
Confronting a shooter is something Murphree emphasized during a Denton County Commissioners Court meeting after the Parkland shooting.
“We do not take cover in a parking lot, and we do not wait for another agency,” he said in a prepared statement. “We go in and do our duty.”
Since the Santa Fe High School shooting, Murphree has appeared on NRA TV, the National Rifle Association’s video streaming channel, brushing off concerns about the prevalence of guns. During the broadcast last week, he advocated for arming teachers and adding police officers at schools.
He said any public discussions about deadly shootings should include law enforcement.
“I can’t speak intelligently about the psychology of why these things are happening,” Murphree said. “I’m a cop, and my job is to protect these kids … and that’s why we have to have a seat at the table. It’s important that we all sit down together.”
Some school districts have already taken steps to arm teachers and bolster police presence on school grounds.
Argyle ISD has allowed select staff members to carry concealed handguns on campus since 2014, while Pilot Point ISD announced after the Parkland shooting that the district would begin arming teachers next year. Aubrey ISD recently hired two more officers to staff the district’s police department.
Denton ISD Superintendent Jamie Wilson said he doesn’t expect his district to start arming teachers but added that school board members will soon review their policies on school resource officers and get public input.
The input Abbott received from safety experts, shooting victims, gun-rights advocates and mental health professionals during his three-day round table discussion led to a laundry list of recommendations, according to The Dallas Morning News. But much of the conversation boiled down to an increase in campus law enforcement and more mental health resources in schools.
During a Tuesday meeting, Denton school board members zeroed in on the mental health aspect, advocating for more state funding to hire extra counselors and psychologists. Area Superintendent Gwen Perkins agreed those positions are sorely needed in schools, citing student mental health data from the district’s counseling department.
“The increase in suicidal ideations and homicidal ideations is tremendous,” she said.
Wilson echoed those sentiments and said mental health needs to be included in any discussion regarding school safety.
“We need more school psychologists,” he said. “We need more counselors. We need additional early childhood education dollars so that you can try to understand the ‘why’ behind these things and not be reactive all the time. There’s got to be a combination of both of those things.”
But Wilson also noted, as many already have, that potential solutions can only go so far in today’s climate.
“When you think about what just happened at Santa Fe, which was tragic — they had good training, they had officers on campus, and still, something happened,” he said. “I think that’s the harsh reality. We can do all the things we want and try all the things we want to try, but if someone is really committed to doing those things, then it’s really hard to prevent that from happening.”