Late afternoon Saturday, Benton School District Superintendent Jeff Collum sent a message via telephone to hundreds of local residents to assure them that school district officials take the safety of their children seriously.
Collum was aware that many were focused on news accounts from Friday’s school shootings in Newtown, Conn., which took the lives of 20 children.
The tragic mass murders at Sandy Hook Elementary, which also cost the lives of six adults, once again put the issue of school safety back into the spotlight, and Collum realized the importance of communicating with residents.
“I just want to reassure parents that our schools are safe to return to and I hope that we are able to alleviate the stress and tension of parents,” he told The Saline Courier today. “I’m a parent myself, so I know what many are feeling. I want everyone to know that our schools are extremely safe. To help ease tensions, we are having an increased police presence at all of our schools through this week.”
The message Saturday was similar. After introducing himself to those who answered the phone or listened to their voicemail, Collum said, “I want to let you know the district’s administration has been working closely with the Benton Police Department and our district staff, and beginning Monday morning we will be taking additional measures to ensure the safety of our children.
“There will be a heightened police officer presence at all of our school campuses,” he said. “I wanted to inform you of this not to alarm you, but to reassure you that our district is continuing to make our students safety their number one priority. Thank you and please keep the Newton community in your thoughts and prayers.”
Collum explained that a partnership between the district and the Benton Police Department has been in place for numerous years, including a School Resource Officer program in which officers patrol the campuses. But because of to the increased stress parents may have because of the tragedy in Connecticut, the Benton Police Department is providing extra officers at each school facility until the students are released for Christmas break.
Lt. Kevin Russell, public information officer for the Benton Police Department, added that when students return in 2013, the extra police presence will continue.
“I know this morning officers were thanked by numerous parents, teachers and school administration for us being on the campuses,” he said. “When I was on an elementary campus today, one teacher told me how one of her students told her he felt much safer seeing so many officers around. That is what we want to do — let students and adults know that keeping them safe is our highest priority.”
The priority is not new, as the Benton Police Department has trained annually for numerous years in a program called Active Shooter. The national program was designed in response to the school shootings in California, Columbine High School in Colorado, and the March 24, 1998, shooting at Westside Middle School in Jonesboro. The program was designed years ago to simulate a worst-case scenario of a person or persons terrorizing schools and how law enforcement responds.
Through the years, Benton officers have trained in various facilities in the city, including the Saline County Courthouse and various school buildings. “This training is beneficial for everyone because, God forbid any actual scenario we are training for actually takes place in Benton or other areas of Saline County, whether it be at a school, courthouse or business, but it can happen,” Russell said. “But officers will be prepared to handle the situation in the most efficient way to minimize loss of life, not just for civilians but for officers as well.”
Benton Lt. Monte Hodge added, “It’s going to help officers become familiar with schools and other public facilities, and also learn the importance of a quick response to a situation so that it can be resolved quickly without loss of life. With the several agencies participating in the training, it will benefit the public knowing that the other agencies can respond with us and know our tactics.”
According to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, “An active shooter is an individual actively engaged in killing or attempting to kill people in a confined and populated area; in most cases, active shooters use firearms and there is no pattern or method to their selection of victims. Active shooter situations are unpredictable and evolve quickly. Typically, the immediate deployment of law enforcement is required to stop the shooting and mitigate harm to victims. Because active shooter situations are often over within 10 to 15 minutes, before law enforcement arrives on the scene, individuals must be prepared both mentally and physically to deal with an active shooter situation.”
“Officers learn different techniques and procedures with a wide variety of violent situations they might encounter someday,” Russell said. “The officers trained with this program when they went through a police academy, but we build on that here. We expand it each year and hope that we not only keep these scenarios fresh in the minds of the officers, but also by conducting this training, we will be able to properly respond should something happen in Benton. We hope it never happens, but if it does, officers will be there to protect and serve.”
This week, officers are reminding parents and students that their safety has been and will remain their top priority.
“We’ve got a partnership that goes way back,” Collum said of the Benton Police Department. “And when I talked to Chief Kirk Lane the other day, he assured me that anytime we need officers, they will immediately respond, and many officers are already on campuses. “This week, with the presence of more officers, we are displaying the already existing partnership with the Benton Police Department. I’ve also received numerous emails and phone calls from parents thanking the school district for this response. I think we are easing the tension and stress and in particularly allowing the kids to know that they are safe in the Benton School District.”