Bath Township school administrators open up about their preparation for an active shooter

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High tech surveillance system in Principal Dodson’s office at Bath High School. Photo by Alyssa Burr

As soon as visitors approach the doors of Bath High School, they are greeted by a security camera and a microphone. After a brief conversation with the secretary, they most likely will be allowed in.

Once they hear the buzz of the security system — normal protocol for schools in a mass shooting era — visitors will approach another layer of protection inside the building — metal gates.

On the other side of those metal gates is Sharon Murchie’s classroom, featuring a door with a tiny glass window, as well as a large glass window on the far side of the room, both which offers a peek at the approximately 30 students that fill the room everyday.

Despite added security measures, a simple architecture design like glass windows, actually poses a deadly threat for Murchie and her students, she said, in the event of an active shooter at the school.

“The doors locked, but there’s a window in the door, there’s a window right there, I mean, where are you gonna go?” said Murchie. “Where would you put 30 kids in this classroom?”

After the tragedy in 1999 at Columbine High School, which was considered the deadliest school shooting at the time when 13 people were killed, and again almost 20 years later at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School when 17 people were killed (now the deadliest school shooting of all time) school shootings have become more and more common in society today.

These are locations where school shootings have occurred this so far this year (as of April 2018) in America using data from CNN. Photo by Alyssa Burr.

This means that school administrators are having to become more proactive in ensuring that they’re prepared in the event of an active shooter, and while everyone wants to think that they have a perfect game plan, Matt Dodson, principal of Bath High School, said it’s not that simple.

“Nothing goes like you planned it and you gotta be able to change your plan on the fly,” said Dodson. “So yeah, we have plans, and we’re prepared for what we think pretty much everything, however, we understand the fact that we’re going to have to be very quick on our feet if something ever did happen.”

These plans Dodson mentioned are called “lockdown drills,” something that he said is important to specify when discussing the plans the school has for an active shooter.

“We don’t say active shooter at all,” said Dodson. “Whether we’re locking down for an outside threat, an inside threat, if we’re going into lockdown, which means a very specific thing, that means you’re going into the nearest classroom with an adult, and you’re locking the door, and you’re getting away from the door, and then you’re waiting for an all clear.”

A rundown of Bath High Schools lockdown procedure as told by Principal Dodson. Photo by Alyssa Burr.

The lockdown drill at Bath High School consists of two important elements: the Building Emergency Response Team (BERT) and the “go bags.”

BERT was put into place 10 years ago, and has become what superintendent of Bath Community Schools Jake Huffman said is an important role in ensuring maximum safety and efficiency during lockdowns.

“Those teams are made up of the building principal and a hand full of staff members, and their primary role is to review and communicate our emergency plans with the staff as a whole and also if there is an incident, go back and review, ‘OK, this is how we handled it. What went well? What could be better?’” said Huffman.

“Go bags,” a backpack hid under a teacher’s desk filled with emergency items including a list of a lockdown procedures, is another effort to try and maximize organization should an active shooter situation occur.

“It’s nice to be able to grab the bag,” said Murchie. “You’ve got an attendance list in there — I mean there’s stupid stuff in there, there’s duct tape in there which I use to fix the tables– but there’s also a water bottle in there and there’s some Band-Aid’s in there.”

The lockdown procedure directions inside teachers “go bags” at Bath High School. Photo by Alyssa Burr.

BERT and “go bags” haven’t always been normal for schools. Murchie, a teacher for 19 years, Dodson, a principal for 11 years, and Huffman, a superintendent for nine years, have all said they’ve seen changes in how lockdown drills have been executed over the years.

One change includes a 2014 State of Michigan law that now requires a minimum of three school lockdown/ shelter-in-place drills per year, a rise from the 2006 law that only required two.

“A lot of what’s changed is like the regulation and monitoring of it, so like the state now mandates a certain number of drills that you have to do, but they also mandate that you have to do certain types of drills,” said Dodson. “So like you can’t just do lockdown drills, you have to make sure one of them’s during a passing time because the building might not always lockdown when kids are in class.”

One thing that has changed that the students don’t see, however, is the training staff has to complete with the local police department during the summer which Murchie said is “incredibly uncomfortable.”

“Police come in and they do a whole enactment, where like you see one of your staff members laying on the floor saying ‘help me, help me’ and you just have to stand there and not do anything,” said Murchie.

Huffman said the Bath County Police Department has a good working relationship with the school.

“One of the things that’s very beneficial with them is that they do stay pretty visible in our district and visiting schools periodically, so that they’re around and everyone knows who they are and that kind of thing,” said Huffman.

Murchie’s intern, Katy Branigan, said the possibility of one day having to be in an active shooter situation never once deterred her from wanting to be an educator.

“It’s never made me second guess my career,” said Branigan. “I think there was a process of acceptance that that’s kind of in the job description now.”

Branigan adds, “I think that after Parkland I was like, ‘Yeah I would die for these kids’. I mean as morbid as it sounds, you know, it sounds really morbid actually when I say it out loud.”

This is the possible sacrifice school administrators are faced with everyday, Dodson even going as far as calling himself the “sacrificial lamb” when discussing his role in a lockdown.

“We’re a small enough school, essentially, these are like my kids,” said Dodson. “I mean I know every single one of their names, I know most of like, where they live and who their parents are or that they live with their grandparents or both of their parents have died and they live with a cousin who’s an addict… I wouldn’t want anybody else other than law enforcement.”

As harsh of a realization as that is for the adults in the school, they say they don’t want to discuss the possibilities with the students in fear of traumatizing them.

“We don’t need to give them PTSD as we’re practicing shooter drills in the hallways, that’s just not what we should be doing,” said Murchie.

In a White House briefing after the Parkland shooting, President Donald Trump expressed his criticism for lockdown drills.

“But active shooter drills is a very negative thing, I’ll be honest with you,” said Trump. “I mean, if I’m a child and I’m 10 years old, and they say, we’re going to have an active shooter drill, I say, ‘What’s that?’  ‘Well, people may come in and shoot you.’ I think that’s a very negative thing to be talking about, to be honest with you.”

Branigan said she’s even had students tell her what they plan to do in case someone starts shooting in the school.

“I had students pose to me questions like, you know ‘I know we’re supposed to stay in here but if I can get out that window, I’m going out that window. Would you come?’” said Branigan.

Dodson said during a lockdown drill at the high school two days after the Parkland shooting, he saw the different reactions students can have.

“You’ve got some kids who go one way and they’re like way over worried everyday someone’s gonna come in and shoot up the school, and then you’ve got kids who are like ‘Oh yeah, Florida’s like 10 million miles away’,” said Dodson.

According to the National Association of School Psychologists, warning signs stemming from severe trauma include a decline in school performance, school avoidance, or difficulty concentrating.

While the possibility of an active shooter is something that the school constantly prepares for, in order to keep student’s education first, Murchie said this is something to keep at arm’s length for now.

“If you only consider the terrible things that might happen you can’t do your job, and you’ve got kids who not only need an education so that they can be successful beyond these walls, but they have really important crap going on in their lives, there’s so many fires to put out,” said Murchie. “And I feel like this fire, it’s just not a fire we can put out, it’s just a fire we have to try to not touch.”