High schoolers in Mobile say they remember having more drills for active shooters than for fires or severe weather — one of a number of ways a generation of teenagers has come to view the potential for a violent attack on their schools as a common concern.
Asked if it’s strange practicing procedures in preparation for someone walking into her school shooting a gun, Murphy High School student Chlöe Duren said “not anymore.”
Duren has heard people older than her talk about where they were on 9/11 or when they heard about the Columbine shooting in 1999, but she can’t recall what she was doing when she heard 17 students had been killed in a Feb. 14 school shooting in Parkland, Florida. She said it all starts to run together if you’ve grown up in it like she and her classmates have — another day, another death toll, another drill.
“Sometimes when I walk into a new classroom I think, ‘where am I going to hide if a shooter comes in? Would I jump in front of my friends?’” she said. “These are the kind of things we have to think about, and some people still want to say our concerns aren’t valid.”
Since the Parkland shooting, some students have called for tighter gun regulations across the country. Those students, led by survivors of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shootings, seem to have found a voice of their own on the issue.
So far, Congress has held bipartisan discussions on how to make schools safer but has yet to bring up any major consideration for a full vote. Meanwhile, the Alabama Legislature has focused on campus security and ways to make schools safer without limiting citizens’ right to bear arms.
As the familiar scenario plays out, local school systems are trying to learn from a situation some believe could have been prevented by focusing on what they can control today — security within their institutions, and mental health and social services for troubled students.
Safety in the classroom
When the Feb. 14 shootings took place, the Mobile County Public School System was in the middle of a week-long break for Mardi Gras. However, Security Director Andy Gatewood said it was one of the first things he and his staff discussed when they returned.
A former Mobile Police officer, Gatewood supervises the system’s 12 school resource officers who oversee each MCPSS feeder pattern. He said safety is always a top priority for a school system of its size but an event such as the one in Florida reaffirms “how important this task is.”
“We see things get defeated and realize we can take a better approach here,” he said. “We try to be proactive, and some of the events in the recent past have brought to light some of these things.”
After 26 students and teachers were killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut in 2012, Gatewood said MCPSS, like many systems, installed magnetic locks to the entrances of its elementary schools — giving staff members the ability to grant or deny access into the school remotely.
Similarly, because police in Parkland had trouble with a significant delay in the school’s security camera feed, he said MCPSS plans to continue an ongoing effort to “systematically update” the more than 6,000 cameras used throughout the district’s 80-plus schools.
Over time, that will replace older analog camera systems operating on a closed circuit with internet protocol systems that can send and receive digital footage in real time. It would also allow local police to access school camera feeds remotely in an emergency situation.
But Gatewood said resource officers, enhanced entrances and improved surveillance are not fail-safes against someone with ill intent. That’s why MCPSS develops and routinely reviews individualized “school safety plans” based on student population, location and school layout.
Superintendent Martha Peek said those plans cover many aspects of how students and teachers should proceed in situations such as an active shooter scenario, a fire or a weather event.
“It’s good to have a plan, but you have to make sure everybody in the building is educated on what that plan is, and you have to practice,” Peek said. “In our schools, those drills are conducted on a regular basis and school resource officers observe each of those at least twice a year.”
Drills for “code red” situations, which include an active shooter on campus, are required by the state Department of Education. They’re also the type of drill students Duren and other students say have become “run of the mill” in recent years, but Gatewood argued that’s a good thing.
He said executing those school safety plans needs to be second nature to teachers as well as to students. In schools without armed security, he said, those plans can be critical to minimizing casualties between the time a shooting starts to when police can respond to the scene.
“We have to make sure our kids and teachers are prepared. We have to give them the tools they need to be ready to act in these kinds of unfortunate events,” he said. “Our intent is that this never happens here, but we have to be prepared if it does.”
MCPSS uses handheld metal detectors during routine sweeps of middle and high schools but only has walk-through units at two of its alternative schools that have small populations and serve students with a history of behavioral issues.
Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey and U.S. Sen. Doug Jones have spoken in favor of putting more metal detectors in schools throughout the state since the Parkland shooting, but Gatewood said while those devices are successful in small settings, a broader application for the local school district could be as expensive as it is impractical. A school with more than 2,000 students and multiple entrances, he said, would require a large increase in time, manpower and funding.
Within the current security framework, though, there have been multiple reports of students bringing guns onto MCPSS campuses in recent months. In October police investigated a 14-year-old student who brought a gun to Murphy High School, and less than a month later a Baker High School student was suspended for bringing an unloaded handgun to school in his backpack.
In January, a Murphy student was arrested for firing a handgun into the air on school grounds during an altercation with another student. No one was hurt, but the school went into lockdown until police took the student into custody, which reportedly took several minutes. The student has since been expelled.
Nat Trejo said she was in Murphy’s band room when the lockdown occurred that day, though she expressed concern that she couldn’t actually hear the announcement that initiated it.
“We usually don’t hear the announcements in there because we’re playing. There was a lockdown a few weeks before that and nobody heard it either,” Trejo said. “Thankfully, no one was hurt, but in that situation, you could not know what’s going on until it’s potentially too late.”
Trejo and some of her classmates said if the student had more than a handgun or had come to school intending to hurt someone, the situation could have been “disastrous” in places like the band room, the gymnasium and older areas of the school such as the biology building.
Who has guns at school? Who should?
While local schools use a combination of high-quality cameras, magnetic doors and school resource officers, many don’t have all three at the same time. Only MCPSS elementary schools are outfitted with secure entrances, and the district is still in the process of updating its camera systems.
It also came as a surprise to several students that MCPSS resource officers do not carry a firearm on any school campus. Gatewood said SROs were armed from the 1970s until a legal change in 2007, but have been prohibited from carrying weapons since.
A 2014 Attorney General’s opinion reaffirmed that all school systems need rules “prohibiting all persons, other than authorized law enforcement personnel, from bringing or possessing any deadly weapon or dangerous instrument onto school property” to comply with state law.
“We’re no longer allowed to carry firearms because we’re employees of the school system, even though we all have law enforcement training and went through our own qualifying for judgmental shooting,” Gatewood said. “For my guys, the requirement is a minimum five years of law enforcement experience in the field and at least a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice.”
Gatewood and Peek said they’d support any law change allowing SROs to carry on campus again, though both said they were opposed to arming teachers with concealed weapons.
Despite lots of talk on the subject, a number of school administrators, SROs and educators in the state have criticized the idea of arming teachers. Peek said educators aren’t law enforcement officers and arming them wouldn’t make students safer.
“What happens if a gun is stolen? When I speak with [local law enforcement], the first thing they say is that most guns in the hands of young people are stolen,” she added. “I would have no problem with our resource officers being armed because they’ve been trained, they know how to handle guns and they know how to make decisions about when appropriate force is needed.”
Five Murphy students expressed similar concerns over how teachers would make the determination of when to use a gun, and how a gun could be kept inaccessible to students but accessible enough for a teacher in the event it is needed.
Senior Tiffany Trotter posed the question: “What if they’re trying to break up a fight between students and one takes a swing at them? Is it OK to pull out their gun then?”
That doesn’t even get into the cost of training teachers to appropriately use a weapon, and it’s unclear in most proposals who would pay for teachers’ guns. MCPSS Director of Social Services Denise Riemer said her schools need more resources for counseling, not handguns.
“I want to be armed with knowledge to help these children, but I don’t want to be armed with a firearm. If we could have more funding for mental health issues or residential treatment for these children exhibiting mental health problems, that would certainly be money well spent,” Riemer said. “We have to be proactive. That’s the better way to keep children safe.”
Mental health at school
The Parkland shooting was carried out by a former student who teachers had concerns about for years. He’d been placed in alternative educational settings, prevented from bringing a backpack to school and was eventually expelled about a year before he returned with a gun.
That backdrop has made in-school social services and mental health programs the focus of efforts to prevent similar occurrences in the future.
Riemer said MCPSS has programs in place to help students with mental or behavioral issues, but they’re already stretched thin. She’s one of just five full-time social workers who serve more than 55,000 students but says Mobile County is fortunate to have “strong community partners.”
AltaPointe provides 20 therapists for 36 schools selected by need, and The Bridge Inc. facilitates behavioral in-school rehabilitation programs. Riemer said counselors don’t work with every student, but those in need can be identified by teachers or classmates who interact with them nearly every day.
She said administrators work to impart a “see something, say something” mentality and students, to their credit, have reported a number of incidents involving suspected guns on campuses and social threats in recent years.
Riemer said MCPSS also makes use of federal funding to train teachers to recognize signs a student might be struggling with mental issues or problems outside of the classroom, such as sudden changes in behavior, appearance, friends or attendance.
“It may just be something going on at home, but we want teachers to be aware of those nuances of difference, because sometimes that’s all we get,” she said. “Teachers are the front lines. Any teacher can tell you the students in their classroom that might be having a rough time.”
Riemer said the school system also works through child and family-based programs established by the Department of Youth Services, law enforcement agencies and the district attorney’s office. But intervening in certain situations can be challenging, especially when a student has an uncooperative family or — as was the case was in Parkland — is already legally an adult themselves.
When students who could pose a danger to themselves or others are identified, unless they’ve already done something or made a specific threat, security officials have very few options for addressing it. Gatewood placed some of the blame on a lack of state mental health facilities.
“It seems as though we’ve lost many resources, and that affects the way we’re able to handle some things that could be similar to this situation in Florida,” he said. “Even if we say someone’s a potential threat, and in some cases even if they’ve made particular threats and need treatment, we — as in the state of Alabama — really lack the resources to provide that treatment to them.”
March For Our Lives
In conservative Alabama, even Democrats have to tiptoe around most proposed gun restrictions, but high school students do not. Even if there are no sweeping reforms — such as a national ban on certain types of weapons — some students say they’re just tired of seeing nothing change at all.
That’s why Duren and her classmates organized events to keep local attention focused on gun violence as opposed to letting conversations about more rigorous background checks and gun restrictions fizzle out, as they have after mass shootings in the past.
On March 14, with the approval of Murphy’s administrators, students plan to join a nationwide walkout for 17 minutes — one for each of the Parkland victims. Duren said she expects at least 50 students and teachers to participate.
The same group of students have also organized a separate gathering at 1 p.m., March 24, to mirror the national “March For Our Lives” event in Washington, D.C. Locally, students plan to gather in Public Safety Memorial Park on Airport Boulevard to host a series of speakers and discuss ideas they believe will prevent school shootings in the future.
Those ideas include, but are not limited to, raising the minimum age for purchasing all firearms to 21 as well as a ban on bump stocks, silencers and what they described as “assault weapons.”
While many of those are controversial proposals, organizers say they want to take as much of a bipartisan approach as possible and invited even those who disagree with them to sit down at the event and look for common ground on what can be done to make schools safer.
That said, a couple of their proposals have actually seen traction. Bills banning “assault weapons” — a term loosely used to describe semi-automatic rifles built on the AR-15 platform — have been introduced at the federal and state level, though neither has progressed very far.
Florida passed a Senate bill raising the minimum age to purchase rifles from 18 to 21 as part of a larger package that would also arm some school personnel, though the House has yet to take up that particular legislation.
While a familiar political stalemate may be brewing among lawmakers, the response to Parkland has been unique in how vocal survivors from the school have been and how quickly their advocacy has spread to other student groups such as the one at Murphy.
Many who don’t share those students’ views have decried them as “too young” or “too naive” to have anything to say about politics, and the Murphy students have no doubt similar comments will be made about them. They also don’t really care that much.
“The children at Sandy Hook didn’t have the articulation to talk about their experience, but these are high school students. They’re in the prime time for discovering yourself and your political views,” Trotter said. “Look at the Civil Rights movement or the Vietnam protests. At the head of most any political or social movements, you’ll find young people.”