More Nebraska Small Town Cops Training for Horror of Mass Shootings

Dec. 27, 2019, 8:45 a.m. ·

Nebraska officers in training face an active-shooter exercise. (Photo by NET News)

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For the kids at Mitchell, Nebraska's elementary school safety drills are part of the routine. They practice how to respond in case of a tornado or if a fire breaks out.

For the past three years, they also rehearse what they need to do if someone shows up with a gun.

Last fall fifth-grade teacher Kris Keener let the class know after their lunch break "they want us to practice lockdown."

As matter-of-factly as any other important lesson, Keener reminded the students that when prompted, "we go to the safest place in the room."

"Where is the safest place?" she prompted the children.

All knew the drill and pointed to the far corner away from the windows and out of sight from the door.

"You guys are sharp!" Keener told the class.

In 2016 Nebraska state law required school districts to prepare safety plans in partnership with the local police. The Nebraska Department of Education developed surveys and checklists to make sure every school in the state was using best practices and preparing for the potential of violence.

"Unfortunately, we are to that point where we can't predict others' behaviors and, and things society has gotten to be where it is," said Katherine Urbanek, superintendent of the Mitchell Public Schools. She equated rehearsing school drills with getting students ready for any important topic or activity in school.

"We feel as though the best we can do is prepare our kids for anything that they may face, and unfortunately, this is one of those things," Urbanek said.

About 1,600 people call Mitchell home. One out of every four of the mass shootings in America took place in towns with fewer than 10,000 people.

"Geography has very little to do with whether school safety will happen," she said

Mario Scalora of the Public Policy Center at the University of Nebraska believes small communities realize they can't be complacent and assume that bad things won't happen in quiet, rural villages.

"If you look at some of the federal data on this, these issues are as likely to happen in smaller schools or in smaller communities as they are in more urban communities," Scalora said.

He advocates large and small police agencies have a plan preparing for targeted violence and practicing it regularly.

The principal of Mitchell Elementary put his school to the test. Mitchell's police chief, Mike Cotant, arrived and made his way up the hallway swarming with kids.

Mitchell, NE Police Chief Mike Cotant arrives to assist with school lockdown drill.

Officer Mandy Murphy surveys the hallway at Mitchell Elementary.

Fifth graders pull curtains to shelter their classroom during the drill.

Lockdown drills to protect against school violence are routinely conducted along with fire and tornado drills. (Photos by NET News)

"This drill we're going to do this afternoon helps the teachers know what to do with their kids," Cotant said. "It teaches the kids to be safe and to trust us to keep them safe."

Officer Many Murphy stood by with Chief of Police Cotant watching the students return to their classrooms after lunch.

"I think it makes it a lot more difficult when the kids are there," Officer Murphy said. "Just thinking about if a real situation would happen how they would react to that."

On cue, the principal sounds a brief alarm and makes his announcement on the public address system.

"Please lockdown. Please lockdown right now."

The goal is to get students out of harm's way, any students in the hallway rush into rooms, and the doors are closed.

In Ms. Keener's room, children reacted with practiced urgency. Three boys quickly shut the blinds. Everyone else scampers to the far corner.

A teacher's aide whispers "Quickly. Sit down. Quick. Quick."

At that point, Chief Cotant explains "the lights are off, and they will not open those doors until they're given a clear signal which will come either from myself or the principal."

Huddled in the dark, the students remain unsettlingly calm and serious.

The principal roams the hallway looking for unlocked doors, rattling handles, looking for signs a room might not be secure.

Officer Murphey notices "just seeing their reaction, even to a drill, you can tell they're a little unsure."

In a real-world crisis, Murphey noted there would be additional steps taken.

"We'd have our dispatchers try to be on the phone with somebody inside the school," but it's possible she or another officer on her four-person department might have to head in alone.

"We would try to get another person to go in with us, but a lot of times that's not available in Mitchell because we're not going to wait for anybody," Officer Murphey said.

With a small department, Murphy said it's necessary to "take whoever we have or just one person and just start clearing the school. We just go straight to the sound of gunshots to take out the threat at that point."

In a matter of minutes, it's over.

"We don't scare our children; that's not something we ever want to do." Superintendent Urbanek said. "But we do want to prepare them, and they practice hard because we hope we never have to use them, but if we do, we do know what we're doing."

Brenda Urbanek, (no relation to the superintendent) runs Nebraska's Law Enforcement Training Center in Grand Island. She believes the mass murder at Columbine High School in Colorado "changed how officers responded to horrific events like an active shooter."

The one-time innocence of small towns in America seems to have become a target.

"In the last 20 years, people have recognized that if you truly want to hit Americans hard, you hit the school, because everybody cares about the kids. Whatever the reason is, the act is going to require that local department to be prepared."

Awareness of the reality of targeted violence goes beyond meeting fire with fire. Scalora advocates communities to understand the value of 'threat assessment" to assess when an individual or a group seems to be on the verge of posing a substantial risk.

"You want to know what's going on with the individual before you show up cold at the door."

Departments look for signs something might be about to go very badly in their community. Police departments are urged to review alarming social media posts and carefully evaluate concerns raised by family and friends when someone hints at violence.

"With targeted violence, we learn that when there are warning signs, and we react to them, we can disrupt the possibility of this becoming a violent event," Scalora said. "This type of activity happens all over our great state in many of its communities."

Even as communities attempt to head-off potential violence, Scalora maintains there's also a need for intruder drills, especially in schools across Nebraska.

After the exercises in Mitchell, school superintendent Katherine Urbanek debriefs her staff in the hope they learn from the police and police from teachers and students.

"They're humans as well," Urbanek said. "Those people coming in, they're coming in to help us don't always know what to expect, either. We have to set the stage for them to be as successful as possible."

While it's required by state law, by the end of last year less than half of Nebraska schools took part in intruder drills regularly.