Combating the Threat of An Active Shooter 

Edited and packaged by John Camera and Maria Enea

The basement room in Deyo Hall was filling up with students. Most came with friends. A few walked in alone. The talk was of weekend parties and a challenging chemistry test. At 8:30 p.m., Lt. John Ritayik walked into the room. He was there to inform students on what the New Paltz campus would do if a shooter were to attack their campus.

The lights went out and everyone’s attention turned to the bright projection screen. Students silenced their phones and put them away.

The video started with loud gun shots. A shooter walked into a campus building with a huge gun in his hand. He tried to find a classroom to get into. Some students ran safely away, but others had no other option than to hide in the classroom they were in. As a last resort, students fought for their life by kicking, punching and distracting the shooter.

As the credits began to roll, some students shook their heads. Others started to talk quietly.

 “I don’t know if I would have the courage to fight someone with such a big gun,” one student said.

 Another student said, “What if that were to actually happen on our campus?”

The lights came back on. Ritayik settled everyone down for a question and answer session. Immediately five hands went up.

One student asked, “What is the campus doing right now to prevent an event like this from happening?”

Data from Citizens Crime Commission of New York City

In 2007, a mass shooting at Virginia Tech University, claimed the lives of 30 people and left 17 wounded. It was the deadliest college shooting rampage in U.S. history. Gun violence at colleges is rare, but it is an increasing problem. According to the New York Crime Commission, between 2008 and 2011 there was an average of nine shootings a year. From 2012 to 2015 the average number of shootings increased to 20 a year. College campuses are implementing new technologies and strategic plans to cope with the problem, even as the answer to the student’s question — how to prevent shooting in the first place — remains elusive.

SUNY New Paltz Campus

At SUNY New Paltz, located in New York State’s Hudson Valley region, halfway between Albany and New York City, University Police Chief David Dugatkin and Emergency Manager Scott Schulte team up their departments to work as a cohesive group that can plan and implement Emergency Response Plans.

The campus has three plans. The essences of these plans are to give each group of people their own set of guidelines to follow in an emergency situation.

Student Emergency Response Plan

  • Provide important information to students in the event that an emergency or natural disaster may occur within or near the college.
  • Outlines how to profile an active shooter
  • Practices for coping with an active shooter situation
  • How to respond when an active shooter in is your vicinity (RUN/HIDE/FIGHT protocol)

Faculty Emergency Response Plan

  • Lists the roles of the Department Emergency Response Coordinators (Faculty members on campus responsible for their department)
  • Adds what faculty should do to assist in anticipating emergencies
  • Outlines the procedures of Shelter-in-place and emergency lockdown
  • Informs faculty on appropriate responses to lessen the extent of injuries limit equipment, material and property damage

The last plan is called the Overall Plan. This plan can only be seen by campus police and emergency team members. It lists the specific things the campus, police, and Emergency Team Members would do in the response to an active shooter.

Dugatkin says students should become very familiar with the RUN, HIDE or FIGHT protocol. If an active shooter is in your building, you should first try to get out. If you can’t leave, find a place to hide. As a last resort, and only when your life is in danger, fight back — throw things at the shooter, improvise weapons, yell.

“This protocol has a nice level of stages,” said Dugatkin. “They are easy to remember and follow in a time of panic.”

Training for the threat of a mass shooting is something that is taken very serious by University Police. Every year police officers on campus attend a training course called Active Shooter Awareness. During this course University Police officers team up with the Town of New Paltz Police to rehearse an active shooter situation.

In these scenarios, Schulte says, someone plays the role of a shooter with a fake handgun. They use fog machines, in the event that the shooter has started fires, blackout windows, and even set off fire alarms.

“We want the situation to be as real as possible,” Schulte said. “It’s the only way we can be trained properly and fully prepared.”

Digital telephone in Chief Dugatkin’s office

New safety technologies are also a big part of the New Paltz campus. This year alone the campus has installed approximately 900 digital telephones. Dugatkin says, he hopes to have digital telephones in every building on campus by the start of the Fall 2017 semester. Currently, digital telephones are in most offices, classrooms and residence halls.

In the police dispatch center, campus security has the ability with just the touch of a button to let out an automated message that states an active shooter is on campus. The phones act as a loudspeaker to notify students, professors and faculty of an emergency situation happening on campus in a matter of seconds. Picking up the phone is not necessary because these phones acts as an actual loudspeaker.

“In a situation when there is an active shooter on campus these digital telephones they get the word out to a lot of people in a quick way,” Dugatkin said.

Students, staff and faculty can also download Rave Guardian, a smartphone safety application, to check in with family, friends, police or others you trust to help you stay safe on and off campus.

Features of Rave Guardian App:

  • Set up a Safety Timer- Allows you to notify people you trust to check in on you if you are alone or in an unfamiliar place. Once safety timer is activated they will be able to see your status and location
  • Manage & Message Your Guardians- Invite family, friends or others to be your Guardian, and communicate with them within the app as needed.
  • Easily communicate in an emergency- Call safety officials directly for help if you are in trouble and send text tips — including photos — if you see something suspicious.

Self-locking doors is also a new feature the campus is in the process of implementing. To date, all the residence hall doors that go out to the public, meaning doors that go outside, have this safety feature and about one third of the academic buildings. This feature allows safety officials in the police dispatch center to lock all the self-locking doors, with just a push of a button. This is a technology that can be crucial in the event of an intruder on campus from getting into as little of the buildings and classrooms as possible.

Dugatkin says, the installation of these doors in the resident halls cost the campus approximately 3 million dollars. The plan is to eventually install these doors in all the buildings on campus but the process can take many years, due to financial reasons and time.

Lt. Ritayik answering students questions

The changes on campus are meant to address a crisis situation. Back in the basement of Deyo Hall, the student continued to push for answers about what to do to keep one from developing in the first place.

“What can we do as students to help prevent a shooting before it happens?” he asked again

“You have to be aware of the possible warning signs of a shooter and report it to either a teacher, an administrator, or even one of us,” Ritayik said.

At the SUNY New Paltz campus, students can discuss in confidence any worries, uneasy feelings or difficult situations they are experiencing, free of charge, at the Psychological Counseling Center(PCC).

Joel Oppenheimer, a senior counselor at the center, talked about the process of assessing students when they come in for counseling.

“Every student that comes into the PCC is assessed for violent behavior,” Oppenheimer said. “Although we don’t diagnose, if the case is serious enough, where it is clear that the individual wants to hurt other people, or themselves we will notify University Police and Student Affairs.”

According to an analysis by the Central Florida Intelligence Exchange (CFIX), 79 percent of mass shootings since 2011 have been attributed by claims of mental illness. In addition, CFIX analyzed 14 mass shooting incidents that occurred between 2011 and 2013 and found that only three of the shooters had no history of mental illness.

Recent bills have been passed by the government to help strengthen the care for mental illness.

 Mental Health Act of 2016

  • Strengthens leadership and accountability for federal mental health programs
  • Ensures programs use the most up-to-date approaches to treat mental health conditions
  • Supports flexibility for states and communities to improve mental health care
  • Promotes increased access to mental health care, including at-risk populations
  • Takes important steps to improve patient care.
  • This smaller bill then led to the 21st Century Cures Act, signed by former President Barack Obama on Dec. 13, 2016 which boosts funding for medical research and reforms federal policy on mental health care.

The bill authorized $6.3 billion in funding, mostly going to the National Institutes of Health, an agency of the United States government responsible for biomedical and health-related research.

Students then have the opportunity to get the help they need that benefit their well-being and the safety of others.

Sandy Hook Promise (SHP), a national non-profit organization dedicated to preventing gun violence, recently launched a “Know the Signs” program to teach children and adults how to identify, intervene and get help for individuals before they hurt themselves or others.

When Sandy Hook Promise was founded in the wake of the 2012 massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School, the group’s efforts focused on gun control. Though some states, such as New York and Connecticut passed stricter gun laws, some states, especially in the South have weakened their laws rather then strengthening them. The organization is now doing more to focus on mental health and wellness programs that help spot people at risk of becoming school shooters.

Mark Barden is the advocacy director of Sandy Hook Promise. His 7-year-old son Daniel was killed at Sandy Hook. He’s had a hand in developing a package of programs to reduce social isolation and prevent school violence. “Start with Hello” is for younger students, teaching them to include socially isolated students in groups with a simple hello. Barden says the program is intended to be taught to younger students, but are skills that can be carried throughout their education, even once they go off to college.

Start with Hello is a free program that can be delivered in classes or assemblies. Training for the program takes approximately 50 minutes and provides a range of training activities and events to ensure integration into the school culture. SHP will train educators or students, or you can download a digital kit with presentation and resource guides, by entering your name, school organization, address, phone number and a few other follow up questions.

“One of our main goals is to build a climate of connectedness,” Barden said. “We don’t want anyone to feel left out.”

The “Say Something” program brings awareness to seeing the signs of a potential shooter through social media and to say something about it.

“If people are trained to identify a shooter these acts can be prevented”-Mark Barden

Barden said, this training is aimed to educate middle schoolers, high schoolers, and college students to be aware of potential warning signs of people posting messages on social media that can lead to violent behavior. For example, “I hate myself,” or “I just want my life to be over.” These are early signs that this program aims to educate people on so they can recognize, speak up and potential save the lives of many.

“If people are trained to identify a shooter these acts can be prevented,” Barden said.

SHP recently published a video a called Evan. In this short clip you follow a high school boy who is having a conversation with a mystery girl on a desk. Each day goes by and something new is written. They don’t end up meeting in person until the end of the year when they sign each other’s yearbooks and recognized the handwriting. In the background of this “boy meets girl” story is another student who post a picture of himself on social media with a gun in his hand, sits at the lunch table by himself, and looks up guns on the internet. It’s easy to miss until the end of the video, when they highlight the background of each scene with what the viewer missed when watching the story of Evan.

Signs To Look Out For (According to SHP) 

  • A strong fascination or obsession with firearms including excessive study of firearms and mass shootings
  • Excessive over-reactions or aggressive behavior for a seemingly minor reason
  • Gestures of violence and low commitment or aspirations toward school, or a sudden change in academic performance
  • Perpetrators of self-harm or violence towards others, long-term bullying
  • Extreme feelings of isolation or social withdrawal
  • Unsupervised, illegal and/or easy access to firearms, or bragging about access to firearm
  • Making overt threats of violence (spoken, written, pictures, videos, gestures)

“It’s important to note one of these warning signs on it’s own doesn’t necessarily mean that a person is going to commit a violent act, like a mass shooting” Dugatkin said.

Barden says, when many connected or cumulative signs are observed over a period of time, this could mean the person is heading down a path towards violence or self-harm.

When you know the signs, you have the power to intervene and get help for that person.

The essence of this program was highlighted in recent incident that happened on March 23 when the father of Nichole Cevario found his 18 year old daughter’s journal filled with plans to commit a mass shooting at her high school. As soon as the father found the journal he contacted Catoctin High School to tell them of a “potential threat of violence towards the school.”

Cevario was immediately removed from class and turned into investigators. Once taken out of the school, she was classified as a danger to herself and was taken to local hospital.

According to Maryland officials, Cevario was planning this attack for a long time. The journal included information on the behavior activities of the school, emergency procedures associated with drills, and obtaining intelligence on the School Resource Deputy. She also planned to die in the attack.

According to an article by CBS News, School officials at Catoctin were left in disbelief.

“We had no indication whatsoever that there were any issues with this student,” said Michael Doerrer of Frederick County Public Schools.

“You would never think that it would be her to do something like this. I knew something was up with her but I would have never imagined that it was this bad,” one student said.

Nicolette Sblano

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