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Editorial: Coaching on safe schools

We hope the new year brings movement towards more rational gun control in the United States. In the meantime, because of the horror visited on Sandy Hook Elementary School, educators and police in the Valley are helping people understand how to respond to and confront threats to school safety.

Their outreach can help immediately. Both the Amherst school system and the University of Massachusetts Police Department are providing advice to the general public and to educators who are now rethinking whether they are doing all they can to safeguard children from an intruder’s violence.

In Amherst, school administrators had the foresight to tape a conversation on school safety they had a week after the Newtown killings. Amherst Media scheduled repeat showings of the session this past week and weekend.

By tuning in, residents were able to hear directly from Superintendent Maria Geryk, Police Chief Scott Livingstone, Fire Chief Walter “Tim” Nelson and other school leaders, including Amherst Regional High School Principal Mark Jackson.

Viewers learned that since the 1999 school shooting in Colorado, Amherst schools have taken steps to prepare themselves for tragedies like this. Today, schools are locked while classes are in session; the Amherst system is now considering new protocols, including a requirement that visitors be escorted from the office where they check in to their destinations inside schools.

At UMass, police are showcasing a campus security training program that has already helped 5,000 participants grapple with the decisions that must be made quickly in the face of a school invasion. In the last four years, this “Response to Active Threat” program has worked to give people who respond options beyond the initial strategy of locking down a school or campus and seeking refuge from someone with a gun.

The program was developed after the mass shooting at Virginia Tech. Last Thursday, UMass police offered a workshop at their station. A second session will run Thursday from 5 to 7 p.m. at the station. To register, send an email to Det. Lt. Ian Cyr at ipc@admin.umass.edu.

The program helps first-responders make smart choices about how they deploy and react to what’s happening inside a school under siege. It looks beyond the “shelter in place” concept to include wider options, such as leaving the premises or confronting an intruder.

These are all terrible things to imagine, but by articulating them, the UMass program is providing a potentially life-saving service to local communities.

Thankfully, most training like this is never used. And the day it is needed, we expect that no amount of preparation can fully prepare police and educators to handle the unpredictability of armed intruders bent on mayhem.

With semi-automatic weapons still available in the United States, schools can be quickly transformed into war zones, as we saw in Newtown. Members of the armed forces train for months and years to handle themselves in firefights. It is impossible for local police, or an officer stationed at a school, as the National Rifle Association now proposes, to be able to stop or turn back all threats.

As Vice President Joe Biden continues his work leading a task force on gun control which is expected to present its findings next month, it is heartening local experts are sharing strategies they worked hard to develop.

These acts show a deep and commendable commitment to being part of the solution to one of our country’s most heartbreaking problems.


Educators and police in the region are acting now to help our communities be better prepared for the unthinkable — a deadly school invasion.

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