Keeping Kids Safe: From Digital Dangers to Active Shooters to Heroin Use

The Berks County, Pa., program has included annual symposiums on topics ranging from bullying to heroin use to suicide prevention. In 2012, the symposium focused on the county's all-hazard planning and standard response protocols, an effort to coordinate responses to tragic, large-scale events like a school shooting.

by David Mekeel, Reading Eagle, Pa. / December 12, 2018

(TNS) - On April 16, 2007, a 23-year-old undergraduate student walked into a classroom at Virginia Tech University with a pair of pistols and opened fire.

He shot the instructor first, then turned the weapons on the students seated at their desks. When he ran out of bullets, he stopped and reloaded.

One second passed, and then another. A third second went by, perhaps more.

During that brief interlude, that short reprieve as the killer prepared to continue his onslaught, none of the students in the classroom moved. They didn't try to run, they didn't try to fight back.

They were frozen with terror.

The story is one retired Lt. Jack Cambria of the New York City Police Department tells often, including during a symposium at the DoubleTree by Hilton hotel in Reading. The students' reactions are a common one for people in an active shooting situation like the one that unfolded that day in Blacksburg.

"The common response is fight, flight or freeze," he said.

Cambria's message, the one that he shares during presentations all across the country, is that the last of those three options can't be a choice.

"Run and hide if you can," he said. "If you can't run, you must fight. Your life depends on it."

The symposium in October focused on guidelines and practical applications for surviving an active shooter incident, bringing together the school, law enforcement and mental health communities. Nearly 300 people attended the event, which was sponsored by the Berks County Intermediate Unit, Berks County District Attorney's Office, Berks County Office of Mental Health/Developmental Disabilities Program, Berks County Chiefs of Police Association and Berks County Fraternal Order of Police.

And while the event, which also included a presentation by Intermediate Unit 13 safety and security manager John Baker, provided a lot of great information for those who attended, it was really just the tip of the iceberg.

In Berks County, joint efforts aimed at protecting children, such as the active shooter symposium, have been going on for a decade.

An established program


"This has been an ongoing effort," BCIU Executive Director Jill Hackman said recently as local education, law enforcement and mental health officials sat down to discuss that effort. "This is not something new, this has been a commitment since 2009."

The Keeping Kids Safe program, which is coordinated by the BCIU, kicked off in 2009 with a symposium on digital dangers and gang activity. Then-state Attorney General Tom Corbett, who would later go on to serve as governor, was the keynote speaker.

In the years since, the program has included annual symposiums on topics ranging from bullying to heroin use to suicide prevention. In 2012, the symposium focused on the county's all-hazard planning and standard response protocols, an effort to coordinate responses to tragic, large-scale events like a school shooting.

Participants involved in the Keeping Kids Safe program say it has been invaluable and created a venue for cooperation and coordination.

"We are fortunate in Berks County with the leadership at the district attorney's office, the chiefs of police and the mental health community," Hackman said, adding that those leaders recognize the need to communicate with local schools. "The education community feels very fortunate we have such great leaders."

As a result, local police have had chances to take part in active shooter training at local schools and are on hand for lock-down or fire drills. Mental health professionals are now on hand any time the county's Community Emergency Response Team is called to an incident.

And all the county's school districts are using the CrisisGo phone app, which provides vital information to law enforcement and the public during incidents like a school shooting.

In an active shooter situation, all that communication and cooperation is crucial.

Cambria, the symposium keynote speaker, was part of a team that reviewed the response to the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando in 2016. The review found that 300 officers from 12 agencies responded, but because those agencies hadn't trained together there was a sense of confusion and lack of cohesion.

Coordination is key

Berks County is working hard to make sure that won't be the case if a similar tragedy unfolds here.

"If we're not on the same page and we have an incident, it's going to be chaos," District Attorney John T. Adams said. "The bottom line is: We have to be prepared."

And that's why the Keeping Kids Safe program is so important, officials said.

Fleetwood Police Chief Steven Stinsky said data show an average active shooter incident lasts about three to five minutes, while the national average for police and EMS response time is three to eight minutes.

"We need to figure out, while police and EMS are getting there: What can we do to bridge the gap?" he said. "How can we slow down the shooter?"

Officials said it's also important for those responding to an incident, particularly at a large building such as a school, to be familiar with their surroundings and aware of the emergency procedures students and staff have been instructed to follow.

"There has to be a common understanding of process, there has to be a common language used among us," said Edward B. Michalik, administrator of the county's mental health/developmental disabilities program.

Moving forward, the officials involved with the Keeping Kids Safe program said they plan to continue their educational efforts, training and retraining school staff.

There is also interest in providing active shooter response training to the general public. Michalik said a shooting or other incident can happen anywhere, and people need to be aware of what to do if something were to occur at a mall or an office building.

"It's become a matter of public safety for everybody," he said.

Contact David Mekeel: 610-371-5014 or dmekeel@readingeagle.com.

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