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Behind the badge: How we respond to school threats

Recently the Sheriff’s Office responded to a call on May 16, for a man reportedly shooting a gun near two of our elementary schools. Luckily for all involved, the gun turned out to be a pellet gun and no one was injured.

We were lucky that this was not a real school shooting incident and we were also lucky that four brave students at A.G. Richardson Elementary School and the principal reported what they saw to law enforcement. I thank them for their concern, awareness and promptness in calling us.

I wanted to use this column to shed some light on the process that my deputies go through when we get calls such as the one on May 16.

Our first concern is the safety of students and teachers at the school. All units on duty will respond to such a call because we have to assume the worst and be prepared for it. On the way there we will start formulating a response based on the information people on scene report to dispatchers.

Our response will depend on what the threat is. For example, if a real shooter were inside a school, we would have a different response than if he were outside. We may have to set up a command post at the scene and call in our SWAT team, K-9 units or manpower from the Town Police and Virginia State Police.

In an incident command post, roles are determined and coordinated by a nationally-recognized response system. Under this system, all of the agencies involved would know their role at the scene of a school shooting.

In order to inform the public about these situations, the county has a CodeRed alert system managed by the 911 dispatch center. We used this system on May 16, to let the public know that we had received a call for someone shooting near the schools, but that we determined it was a pellet gun and all suspects were taken into custody. For us, we wanted to make sure residents knew the threat was not real and stop any worrisome rumors before they started. CodeRed sends a reverse phone message to all county land lines and to those cell phones which are registered to receive messages.

In a real school-shooting incident, we understand that parents and guardians would want to rush to a school to pick up their children. In the event students are evacuated to a safer location, we could use the Code Red system to let people know exactly where to go to pick them up safely.

If you haven’t already signed up your cell phone for the county’s CodeRed system, please do so. A link is available on the county’s E911 web page.

While we have a rapid deployment plan in place for school shooting scenarios, we are also actively working on revising plans to better equip ourselves for any given situation. Our plans will evolve based on events that occur nationally at other schools.

I continue to pray that a real school-shooting never happens in this community, however, if it were to happen, we will respond with whatever force it takes to end the threat and keep students, teachers and parents safe on school grounds.
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