Friday morning, on the eighth anniversary of the Columbine High School massacre, two dozen police officers descended on the 200 block of North Scoville Avenue to prepare for something similarly horrific-a violent armed assault on Oak Park and River Forest High School.

If Columbine taught any lesson, it’s that there’s no dramatic foreshadowing to warn of disaster in real life, no chord change in the score to tell people things are about to turn dark and strange.

At 11:20 the morning of April 20, 1999, Sheriff’s Deputy Neil Gardner was finishing his lunch as he sat in his squad car monitoring a group of students in a popular spot in a park just northwest of the Colorado high school where he was assigned as the school resource officer. He received a panicked radio call from the high school’s custodian calling him to the parking lot behind the school’s cafeteria, followed immediately by a dispatch call of a “female down” in the south lot of the school. He activated his lights and siren, thinking someone had been hit by a car.

What he would soon confront, however, was the worst school massacre in American history-until last week. It would claim the lives of 12 students, one teacher, and the two killers. Sadly, the grim numbers of Columbine were surpassed April 16 when a rageful loner gunned down 56 people on the Virginia Tech University campus, killing 32.

Could it happen here?

Realizing that what happened at Columbine could happen here, in May, 1999, Oak Park Police Chief Joe Mendrick and Commander Robert Scianna sat down to begin discussing the most effective ways to respond. That discussion has continued for eight years, as has regular training involving police, fire, schools and dispatch staff-all of it done to prepare people to react effectively if any of Oak Park’s schools or institutions are assaulted.

Not only do police not know when or where an actual incident will occur, they can’t predict who will be on duty if it does.

“It’s who’s on the street at the time it happens,” said Scianna. That’s why the department trains every officer on the force annually at its spring in-service on how to respond to such situations, wherever they occur.

“It’s situational awareness,” he said, “sizing up what’s going on and reacting correctly.”

The officers who initially responded to the Columbine massacre, for instance, assessed the situation reasonably well, but they didn’t take the most effective action.

Scianna has the benefit of hindsight, and he’s made the most of it.

“We learned you can’t do what, at the time, was standard operating procedure,” he said. Accepted procedure then was to contain the situation by surrounding the area, setting up a perimeter and waiting for the SWAT team to arrive.

“Speed is an absolute requirement,” he said. “They were waiting as was proper procedure, and upstairs in the library those guys were systematically executing people.”

“The first [officers] who show up have got to go in,” he said. Those officers may be rookies or 20-year veterans.

Cops aren’t the only ones involved in the planning. A successful response, all agree, requires school staff to respond quickly and effectively. Teachers are instructed to get their students to secure areas when the announcement goes over the school address system.

Meanwhile the West Suburban Consolidated Dispatch Center staff has to handle the information flow to police accurately and well.

Anticipation is critical

Thinking about what can happen and planning to deal with it beforehand is crucial to helping keep a school safe, experts say.

“It was made very clear to us many years ago that we needed to have a very clearly articulated plan,” said school spokesperson Kay Foran. “We’re extremely fortunate to have a police department that takes training seriously and collaborates with us.”

Everyone seemed pleased with last week’s exercise.

“They were exceptionally good today,” said Scianna of OPRF staff. “It was done within seconds.”

Foran shared that assessment, saying, “We were extremely pleased with the professionalism of our staff and with the complete cooperation of our students. It went exactly as we hoped it would go.”

Part of any good drill is keeping it as realistic as possible, and Scianna said he purposely told the person who called in to 911 not to give any details to the dispatcher. He wanted the calltaker at WSCDC to have to ask additional questions, just like calltakers often have to do in actual emergencies when they’re dealing with agitated or traumatized people seeking assistance. He got what he was seeking.

“WestComm (WSCDC) got an A-plus today,” he said. “She asked more questions than I thought of.”

“What we try to do is get our calltakers to think outside the box,” said Ron Gross, the assistant director of the WSCDC. The goal of the questioning is to elicit information for responding police as quickly as possible.

“One question [the calltaker] asked was what wing of the school it was in,” said Gross.

The people going through a door with guns drawn aren’t the only ones dealing with nerves.

“Yeah, our adrenaline was pumping,” said Gross, who monitored the entire exercise. “Even though we knew it was a drill, we didn’t treat it as such.”

That mirrors Scianna’s philosophy, which is to train the way you may one day have to actually act. Scianna said he’s studied the after-reports of the Columbine attack, as well as other such incidents. He’ll do the same with the Virginia Tech attack.

“Every time one of these things happen, we learn something,” said Scianna.

Don’t tip your hand

What Scianna doesn’t want is for anyone outside of the police department and school officials to learn anything about their emergency plans. While both police and school officials want the public to know they’re working to prepare for such an incident, they insist the details are not-cannot be-anybody else’s business. Secrecy, they say, is a necessary component in a world where people wishing to harm others can readily find out how to construct bombs or plan a “killing field” from the Internet. Officials say they can’t chance giving potential predators an opportunity to study their planned responses.

As a result, such drills are conducted with very little notice-the school and police contact neighbors and parents the morning of a planned exercise. Even the cops who responded Friday were not notified until Friday morning’s roll call.

But in light of the Virginia Tech horror four days earlier, there were concerns that nerves were raw, and it was decided to avoid upsetting anyone who might see the police response and think a real incident was taking place. This time, the school contacted parents and neighbors a full 24 hours in advance.

The day before the exercise, Scianna, a relaxed and affable man who serves as the department’s primary contact with the news media, admitted he was “out of his comfort zone” with the advance notification. He wouldn’t discuss a single detail of the plans police had developed to respond to threats to schools and other institutions in Oak Park. He’ll only disclose that his department holds such exercises “all the time.”

The exercise Friday, which started with a radio dispatch just after 10 a.m., involved responding to an armed intruder holding 25 students in a classroom. Less than 10 minutes later, an officer radioed “Subject down,” then, “He’s in custody.”

The incident commander then asked for confirmation that there wasn’t a second suspect still loose.

At 10:12, someone announced, “It’s over.”

The response itself took less than 10 minutes. The debriefing afterward on the parkway across from the school maybe 15 minutes. It’s all a learning opportunity for the next time, which, everyone hopes, will just be another drill.

But maybe not.

As if to underscore the possibility of violence striking anywhere without notice, less than four hours after the OPRF exercise, a gunman invaded the highly secure NASA Space Center in Houston and murdered a hostage before killing himself.

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