The Wauwatosa School District, no stranger to tragedy, has quietly taken steps to prevent or deal as swiftly and effectively as possible with the kind of threat that ended in horror Friday morning at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, CT, with 27 dead, most of them young children.
"We have a crisis response plan in place," said Dan Chanen, human resources and communications director for the district. "We all have different response roles should anything like this happen.
"Last spring, we conducted a multi-agency drill, with the police and fire departments, to react to just this sort of tragedy."
The police and fire departments also regularly conduct their own departmental and joint trainings for "active shooter" and "multiple victim" scenarios – and often use school buildings during the summer for live simulations, said Wauwatosa Police Capt. Jeff Sutter.
In fact, every sworn officer in the Wauwatosa Police Department – desk officers, ranking officers, the chief – must participate in such training at least once a year. Special Response Team members do so many times a year.
"I believe we are well-prepared," Chanen said on behalf of the schools, "and probably better prepared than perhaps many school districts are, because we have been through such a tragedy before."
Chanen referred to the fatal shooting of Associate Principal Dale Breitlow at Wauwatosa West High School on Dec. 1, 1993. Leonard D. McDowell, a 21-year-old former student, was found guilty of the murder and was sentenced to life in prison.
Murder made Wauwatosa security-minded
Although the death toll and the number of children as victims sets the shootings in Connecticut far apart, there are similarities to Breitlow's death. Although much remains to be learned, it appears that a very disturbed young man in Newtown targeted his own mother, a teacher, but also opened fire on what she represented – a nurturing figure to her kindergarten class.
McDowell targeted a well-liked authority figure in Breitlow, whose stature many thought represented to McDowell a shaming reminder of his own failures.
Ever since the shooting at West, Wauwatosa has been super security-conscious. All schools entrances are kept locked during class hours and visitors must call in to the office to be admitted. Once inside, all must go directly to the main office and sign in.
Schools have security surveillance camera covering entrances and key areas of the buildings. The four middle schools and high schools each have a dedicated police School Resource Officer in the building during school hours. Staff receive crisis response training.
"We make every effort to be as fully prepared as we can be for any threat to our students and staff," Chanen said. "Whenever a major incident occurs, we do reflect on, if that were our community, how we would react.
"Our hearts go out to those in Newtown, Connecticut."
Chanen said that while no message has gone out to staff or parents in regard to the Newtown shootings, the district is ready to offer help if needed, such as grief counseling services.
"We believe our principals and teachers are very ready to handle things like this," Chanen said, "but if they ask, we are ready to commit any and all resources to help."
Condolences from state and nation
Wisconsin State Superintendent of Schools Tony Evers offered his condolences and support to Newtown as community members deal with the tragedy.
“These will be difficult times for parents and school children everywhere, including in Wisconsin," he said. "We must support and care for our children as they hear about this tragedy and try to understand that which is incomprehensible and senseless.”
President Barack Obama said Friday afternoon that he had spoken to Connecticut Gov. Dan Malloy and said the federal government would "offer every single resource that he needs to investigate this heinous crime, care for the victims, counsel their families."
In his remarks, Obama also referenced the August mass shooting at an temple in Oak Creek when he said:
"As a country, we have been through this too many times. Whether it’s an elementary school in Newtown, or a shopping mall in Oregon, or a temple in Wisconsin, or a movie theater in Aurora, or a street corner in Chicago — these neighborhoods are our neighborhoods, and these children are our children.
"And we're going to have to come together and take meaningful action to prevent more tragedies like this, regardless of the politics."