Police chief: 'This keeps you up at night'Police prepare for worst in ongoing drills at schools
Rockland — The Dec. 14 shooting massacre of 20 pupils and six staff members at a Connecticut elementary school has reawakened concern for safety at schools at all grade levels in the country.
"The phenomenon of violence is not going away," said Rockland Police Chief Bruce Boucher in an interview Dec. 17. "This is the stuff that keeps you up at night."
He said when Maine passed a law to have schools engaged in operations planning for security, local schools began to participate right away.
"In 2007, we participated in active shooter training in schools with the Rockland, Rockport, and Camden Police Departments and the Knox County Sheriff's Office," Boucher said.
The "active shooter" he refers to is a hypothetical mass murderer like the one at the Newtown, Conn. school.
"The Maine State Police Tactical Team conducted the training at the former Rockland District High School during the Christmas vacation that year when the school was vacant," he said.
"The training we received was the same training officers received all over the county," he added.
Boucher said the training was encouraged by former School Administrative District 5 Superintendent Alan Pfeiffer and the use of the school was set up by former principal Michael Gundel.
The training gave all officers new opportunities to respond, he said. "Tactics were changed, and there were new events. Officers from all of the neighboring police departments took part."
Boucher said the surrounding departments have mutual aid agreements if a call goes out.
"We've prepared ourselves," he said. "We've been actively engaged with protection since then," he said. "I've been doing this since 1997."
Rockland police have recently taken part in two lock-down drills with officers from the Knox County Sheriff's Office and the state police at the Mid-Coast School of Technology and two at the middle school in Rockland, he said.
"Now we are asking ourselves, 'How do we make our schools safer?'" he said. "Schools have to put these policies in place, and that's the new norm we build on," Boucher said.
Boucher said that as a result of the mass shootings in the nation since the one in a Paducah, Ky., high school in 1997, in which three students were killed and five were wounded, and the one at Columbine High School in Colorado in 1999, where one teacher and 14 students were killed, and 27 were wounded, police officers have known that mass shootings is a phenomenon that is not going away, he said.
The chief said the peak was at Virginia Tech in 2007 with 38 deaths.
"These things are going to happen," he reiterated. "We need to plan, detect, deter, defend and defeat," he said of the new 4 D's program law enforcement goes by.
Boucher pulled out a chart showing the progression of mass shootings and a corresponding increase in incidents and numbers of deaths since the expiration of the 10-year-old federal law banning assault weapons in 2004.
The U.S. Police Chiefs Association had supported the ban, according to published reports at the time.
Boucher said recent privacy laws, depending on how they are used, make it more difficult for law enforcement to get information on individuals who might be inclined to commit mass murder. The Federal Educational Rights and Privacy Act, known as FERPA, protects disclosure of students' records, said Boucher.
But not everything is protected by FERPA, he said.
"If a teacher overhears a student telling a plot to blow up the school, that teacher has a responsibility to disclose that information to school authorities and police," he said. "That information is not protected by FERPA."
At the same time, the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996, known as HIPAA, can block valuable mental health information from police if it is not used properly, he added.
"We have laws designed to protect our privacy, but not at the expense of our safety," he added.
While Rockland police have jurisdiction over schools in the city, the Maine State Police and Knox County Sheriff's Office help with protection in outlying school districts.
"As far as being prepared, nothing will ever prepare anyone for the horror of what just happened in Connecticut. Yes, law enforcement trains, trains and trains. We are very much aware that there are crazies among us who have no respect for life. We will do what we need to do and act accordingly," said Knox County Sheriff Donna Dennison in an email.
Dennison said she cannot divulge any security or response plans, but deputies are well-trained to respond to a school situation as needed.
The sheriff said deputies were visiting local schools this week to offer support to them and speak with students who may be apprehensive about being in school.
Maine State Police Trooper Jeremiah Wesbrock of Troop D in Augusta is involved in protection in Hope and Union.
"The Maine State Police started building relationships with schools four years ago," Wesbrock said in a phone interview Dec. 17.
We started developing an emergency action plan at Hope Elementary School, and it spread out from there to rural schools in the three counties of Waldo, Knox and Lincoln," he said.
"I'm at Hope Elementary," he said. "They provide lock downs four times a year.
"At first, the principal was concerned about the effect this would have on the children, especially the kindergartners and first-graders, but the kids already knew what was going on, and they wanted this drill. There were things we wanted the kids to know," he said.
"We've worked closely with the schools, and certain troopers are selected," he said. "It helps us to build a relationship with the kids."
In the beginning, Wesbrock said he devoted two to three hours a week at each of his schools at the beginning of a school year. As time went on, and the pupils became knowledgeable about the safety drills, he spent less time with each school.
Still, Wesbrock plans to make two to three school visits each week to maintain the relationship he has made with the children.
"It's an ongoing program," he said.
Courier Publications reporter George Chappell can be reached by phone at 207-594-4401, ext. 117, or by email at email@example.com.