With Newtown in mind, Fort Mill, Tega Cay police train to ‘expect the unexpected’

mharrison@fortmilltimes.comDecember 25, 2012 

— Two weeks before a gunman entered an elementary school in Newtown, Conn., and murdered more than two dozen students and staff, a construction worker here spotted a man with a rifle walking toward Banks Trail Middle School.

The Nov. 29 incident near Banks Trail was harmless – a disoriented hunter who didn’t realize he was near school property when he exited the woods. No one knew that at the time, however, and minutes after the construction worker called Fort Mill police the school went on lockdown.

Last week, on the last day of classes before winter break, students at Nation Ford High School were herded into the library to get them as far away as possible from an object discovered in a parking lot that resembled a bomb but turned out to be a band prop.

In both cases, officials followed guidelines to maximize safety while trying to avoid creating panic.

“We wanted to be careful and vigilant and at the same time not cause any false alarm,” Tommy Schmolze, assistant superintendent for the Fort Mill School District, said after the object at Nation Ford was identified. “We have protocols at the school and with law enforcement for this type of event and we followed those.”

Marty Connor, principal at Banks Trail, said he can’t think of anything he and his staff did wrong during the school’s precautionary lockdown. But after the shooting in Newtown, in which 20 children and six adults were killed, he might consider changing the crisis plan.

“Of course the primary goal is to keep our students safe and secure,” he said.

“Luckily no one was in harm’s way and we feel we did the right thing. Of course we did go back and review and did make a few adjustments here and there. We want to make sure our communication is effective in the building and that opportunity gave us a chance to go back and make minor adjustments, but we feel like our plan was effective, even in light of (the shooting).”

Still, before the next school year begins, “we’ll review and look at what we would do with what occurred two weeks ago (in Newton),” Connor said.

For law enforcement, the scenario at Sandy Hook Elementary School, where the murders occurred Dec. 14, is one they prepare for. Local police and county deputies regularly train with “active shooter” drills in schools and other buildings to simulate a response to a gunman on the loose.

Tega Cay has two schools inside city limits – Gold Hill Elementary and Gold Hill Middle – and a third elementary school is under construction. Capt. David Nelson of the Tega Cay Police Department said all of his officers are required to familiarize themselves with the inside of the schools so they can respond more quickly in an emergency.

“If they know the layout, they don’t have to worry about blueprints and that’s a huge step in the right direction if you have to respond,” Nelson said.

Nelson said the TCPD started active shooter training soon after the Gold Hill schools were annexed into the city about three years ago and live fire is simulated with paintballs and airsoft rounds.

Nelson, who spent part of last summer at the FBI Academy for higher level training, said he “absolutely” learned things about “leadership and command” that can help “how we operate in the community,” including an active shooter response.

Although confident in his department’s training and planning, Nelson said what happened in Newtown had a ripple effect.

“Are we concerned? Absolutely,” he said. “Every (law enforcement) agency that has schools are revisiting their policies. My little girl goes to York Preparatory Academy and I talked to the principal just to make sure where we stand and make sure they’re as prepared as possible.”

Capt. Bryan Zachary of the Fort Mill Police Department said he was pleased with the school resources officers’ initial response to the Banks Trail and Nation Ford incidents and that it reflects well on the department’s procedures and training.

“Very efficient,” Zachary said.

He also praised school district personnel and said communication between the district and the department is key.

“I can’t say enough about what a good working relationship we have with the Fort Mill School District,” he said.

Like Nelson, Zachary said the shootings in Connecticut will be considered when the department assesses its active shooter drills, but that planning for what already occurred somewhere isn’t always the goal.

“We train to expect the unexpected,” he said.

At Banks Trail, Connor said he wants to have a secure but seamless environment.

“We want schools that feel welcoming,” he said. “We want to make it safe, yet still warm and inviting and you can’t do that if you have a citadel.”

Fort Mill Times is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service