The shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut shocked the nation in a way that prior school shootings had not. People were shaken by the image of six and seven-year-old students being gunned down in a place that they considered completely safe. The crime raised many issues regarding guns, mental illness, disaster planning, and emergency response, among others. This paper will discuss the emergency planning that existed in the school prior to the incident as well as measures that have been adopted since.
On December 14, 2012, 26 people including 20 students and six adults were shot and killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Ct, a suburban town approximately 60 miles outside of New York City. The shooter, Adam Lanza, went to the school with multiple weapons after shooting and killing his mother at their home in that town. He was armed with three guns taken from his home: a semiautomatic AR-15 assault rifle in addition to pistols, and went to the elementary school wearing black fatigues and a military vest (Sandy Shooting: What Happened?, 2012.) At the school, classes were taking place for the nearly 700 students who were in attendance. The school had implemented a new security system early in 2012, when the principal, Dawn Hochsprung, had an innovative security system put into the school requiring that visitors be identified visibly and buzzed in. Part of the security system in place involved school locking it stores every day at approximately 9:30 AM. When the crime occurred, the doors to the school were locked. The gunman, Lanza, used his assault weapon to shoot his way into the building, therefore easily bypassing the security measures involving locked doors.
When the school principal heard loud popping sounds, sheet, accompanied by the school psychologist and vice principal when out of their offices to investigate what was happening, and the school principal and psychologist were shot to death immediately. When at 9:30 AM, announcements were being read over the PA system for the students, shots were audible in the background. Students were immediately pushed into bathrooms and closets by their teachers as soon as the shots were heard. Lanza entered two classrooms consisting of kindergartners and first-graders; in one room, Lanza shot all 14 students and their teacher, and in the other classroom, the teacher was able to transfer her first-graders away from the door before Lanza burst in and shot her. She and six of her students were killed in that room. By the time the shooting stopped, 20 students and six adults were killed, as well as the gunman.
The shootings at Sandy Hook were relevant to emergency planning issues because the school had taken steps, albeit relatively minor, to protect its students but was completely unequipped to prevent the disaster. This incident could have happened in virtually any school in the country, and that is certainly one of the reasons that the memory of it has been so troubling to Americans and people all over the world. Any parent who previously had sent their children to school had an expectation that they were in a safe environment. Sandy Hook completely destroyed that illusion.
Newtown, CT, has been involved in emergency planning for several years, operating its Emergency Operations Center at a central location from which department and agency heads could meet to manage large-scale and small-scale emergencies. Located inside of a building that formerly housed a psychiatric facility, the EOC houses a 911 dispatch center as well as conference arenas, videoconferencing equipment, many display boards, and computer software monitoring that assists local officials to make decisions during emergencies (Emergency Operations Center, n.d..) Prior to the Sandy Hook shooting, this was the facility from which emergency planning took place, as both the police and fire departments had the ability to quickly access information and to communicate with each other.
In addition to the emergency planning facility in Sandy Hook, the state of Connecticut operates a Connecticut State Emergency Response Commission, which establishes a network for emergency planning, guaranteeing that the public has access to the community information and resources necessary to prepare for and protect themselves from emergencies (Connecticut State Emergency Response Commission, 2012.) The problem with both the local and the state facilities for emergency planning prior to the Sandy Hook shooting was that there was simply no anticipation of the type of emergency that would eventually occur in Newtown. The emergency planning operations on both a state and local level anticipated situations such as the release of toxic chemicals and other environmental catastrophes rather than the sort of gun violence that resulted in the tragedy at Newtown. It was simply impossible to imagine such an event prior to its occurrence.
In the aftermath of the Sandy Hook shootings, there was a great deal of acknowledgment that whatever emergency planning had been in place prior to the incident, it was not adequate to avert such an occurrence. Very little is known about the effectiveness of public health emergency preparedness and response, what is effective and what is redundant, and how so many complex networks can work together to protect the public safety (Revere, 2011.) Nevertheless, it was necessary for the Newtown community to develop protocols involving an active shooter in a setting, so that the response to such a situation could be implemented in the event of another catastrophic event. In addition, it became clear that external security issues at schools had to be confronted, and that it was essential to establish an Incident Command Center to address the immediacy of such emergencies (Lessons of Sandy Hook Elementary School, n.d..)
As a result of the shooting, active shooter response training is implemented twice a year, so that police officers can develop familiarity with weapons, tactics, and fellow officers in order to establish a protocol of automatic response for situations involving shooters (Lessons of Sandy Hook Elementary School, n.d..) In addition, part of the emergency preparedness and planning involves preplanning that includes school emergency procedures, media and press conference locations, and the establishment of mobile command centers. Regarding schools in particular, several developments have been put into place, such as securing points of entry, evacuation routes, making decisions about sheltering on-site versus evacuation, and providing first responders with ways to enter buildings with either pass keys or master keys (Lessons of Sandy Hook Elementary School, n.d..) The emergency plan also includes the establishment of a check-in or release of students in the event of such emergencies, so that attendance is taken when students arrive at a designated safe area, again periodically during the event, until eventually arranging the release of students to authorized guardians.