Is Norwood Prepared?
By Donna Lane
Between 1982 and May of 2022, gunmen have killed or injured hundreds of people in churches, supermarkets, malls, nightclubs, at a Walmart, a McDonald’s, a Post Office, at a concert on the Las Vegas strip, and in numerous colleges, high schools, and elementary schools.
To date, residents of Norwood have escaped the tragedy of a mass shooting, but as Norwood Police Chief William G. Brooks III stated in a recent message to parents of children in the Norwood school system, after the Uvalde, TX school shooting, “I wish I could guarantee you that nothing bad would ever happen in a Norwood school, but I do want you to know that the safety of your children is our highest priority and something we think about every day.”
In a follow-up interview, the Chief credited the work of Deputy Chief Christopher Padden, the Norwood School Department, and the Norwood Facilities Department with coming up with a plan that would prevent unauthorized persons from entering our schools but allow all police officers entry – unlike what happened at Uvalde. He said that master keys hang in all Norwood Police Department radio cars and every officer is issued an access pass card that will admit them through any electronic door at any Norwood school. And the School Department has a policy of locking all doors to all buildings and admitting only those visitors they know.
In addition to master keys and access cards, all Norwood police cars carry battering rams and other equipment that would allow them to gain entry into most facilities in an emergency.
On April 20, 1999 at Columbine High School in Littleton, CO, two teens went on a shooting spree killing 12 students and one teacher and injuring many others. The federal government doesn’t track school shootings, but The Washington Post tracked how many children have been exposed to gun violence during school hours since the Columbine massacre. (They actually pieced together the numbers from news articles, open-source databases, law enforcement reports and calls to schools and police departments.) Their research says that more than 311,000 students have experienced gun violence at school since Columbine.
Also, they report that there were more school shootings in 2021 – 42 of them – than in any year since Columbine. And, so far this year, there have been at least 24 acts of gun violence on K-12 campuses during the school day. Beyond the dead and wounded, children who witness the violence or remain behind locked doors to hide from it can be profoundly traumatized.
“Since the Columbine tragedy, our police officers have been training each year to enter the schools to confront an active shooter,” Chief Brooks said. “We practice inside Norwood schools at times when the kids are not present and we often use firearms just like our duty weapons – but retrofitted to fire simulated ammunition. [Officers practice] how to make their way down a hallway, how to turn a corner – there’s a right way and a wrong way – how to go through doorways, how to work as a team, how to work alone, how to communicate with someone on a regular basis. We also carry all the tools and equipment needed to deal with an active shooter event. Officers are equipped with helmets and ballistic vests that are rated to be effective against rifle fire, and each patrol car carries a hand-held ballistic shield. Officer training is typically done over the course of the summer.”
The Department’s school resource officers work closely with school staff when a student needs extra attention or when comments are heard, either verbally or online, that are concerning. Threat assessments are conducted jointly with school officials on a regular basis.
“The vast majority of threat assessments end up being a misunderstanding,” Chief Brooks said. “But he cautions that if a student reads something online or overhears something that doesn’t sound right and they think they should possibly call the police, they probably should. Or, at the very least, tell a parent or a responsible adult who can contact the police.
Chief Brooks has been a police officer for 45 years. During that time, mass shootings have increased throughout the course of his career, particularly in the last 20 years. He also serves on the Board of Directors of the Association of Chiefs of Police and he co-chairs the firearms committee, so this is problem he works on not only for Norwood, but other communities as well.
Asked what he thinks causes this behavior, the Chief paused for a moment.
“The cause is still unknown,” Chief Brooks said. “There is a misconception that someone has to be mentally ill to do these things. But most mass shooters do not have a pre-diagnosed mental illness so it’s very difficult to If we were somehow able to cure all mental illness in the United States, it’s still not likely that we would eliminate mass shootings. There are more firearms in this country than there are people, and it’s very difficult to claw that back, especially in the U.S. with 330 million people.”
So, if they’re not mentally ill, what’s the reason?
“I think most of the reasons for these shootings are some kind of perceived grievance,” Chief Brooks opined. “The perpetrator feels like they’ve been treated improperly – like a kid being bullied at school – they identify a group responsible for that and they get even.”
Because many of the mass shootings are by young men, the Chief was asked what advice he would give to parents.
“Don’t let your kids have secrets,” Chief Brooks advised. “Have the password to their phones ... ask what’s going on ... know who their friends are ... listen to the cues ... and, it may sound corny, but have dinner as a family and talk to each other.”
If there is currently no answer to this problem, what can we do?
“We have to be ready,” the Chief said. “Prevention is the best policy and we spend a lot of time and effort making sure that we are not missing any danger signs. We also work with concerned businesses in the community. Non-school shootings tend to occur on soft targets; that is, places the shooter believes he will receive little resistance. We do training for companies in town to help employees know how they should behave if something like this happens and we also talk with management and look at all the locks and access points and make recommendations accordingly.”
The Department of Justice has named a team to go in and investigate the Uvalde, TX mass shooting from a response standpoint. Chief Brooks is confident that when the report is finalized, police departments around the country will have to make changes to their procedures.
“I don’t anticipate that we will have to make many adjustments, but we may have to make some as well,” Chief Brooks said.
Meanwhile, officers were at every school for drop-off and dismissal every day through the end of the school year; not sitting in a police car watching passively, but engaging with the children on a personal level.