Before the school break in December, a young student at Shelley Elementary in American Fork asked the principal if she had heard about the "bad man in another town who went in to a school and shot some students and teachers."
After Principal Peggy Crandall told him she had indeed, the boy's eyes widened, and he continued: "But you'll keep us safe here, right?"
She told the young student that she had met with the teachers for a safety plan review, ensuring all would be protected in an emergency. The boy managed a smile and said: "My mom told me you would take care of us!"
As students, teachers, parents and principals wonder whether a school shooting can be stopped in American Fork, the police department is reluctant to divulge how it is prepared for such a scenario.
At the police station on Wednesday, Ms. Crandall met with six other principals from elementary schools in American Fork and Cedar Hills. They were joined by principals of the junior high and high school and representatives from Child Protective Services, the Division of Family and Children Services and Wasatch Mountain Health, in a meeting held to examine school safety.
This monthly meeting is not new, but it is part of the police department's bolstered strategy to identify at-risk students and coordinate lockdown procedures. AFPD Sergeant Gregg Ludlow and Lieutenant Sam Liddiard, as well as Dawna Whiting, who leads the Victim's Assistance program for American Fork City, are part of the orchestrated efforts, which have made it the envy of other communities.
"It's a program that we started here before the Sandy Hook incident, and it has worked well," said Lt. Liddiard. "And other communities have come here to see how it works."
A monthly meeting among school principals, the police department and mental health experts is a rare example of governmental coordination, which could play a key role in dealing with a school shooting. When schools are not in session, for example, the police and SWAT teams are allowed full access to their buildings, so they can familiarize themselves with the classroom setups, closets and even storage facilities.
It used to be that police responded to an incident by surrounding the school building and waiting for the SWAT team to show up. One of the drills now practiced by the American Fork police is called "immediate action drill," where any officer already on scene will enter the school and proceed to stop the threat.
School-shooting training, which has gained momentum since Sandy Hook, also takes place when the school is in session, with classroom evacuation drills and visits by a police officer and member of the SWAT team, wearing his full, tactical uniform. The police say they want the children to familiarize themselves with what the good guys look like.
While the lockdown is ultimately the principal's decision, the police observe the drills and work closely with the school to improve procedures. They also tell the school what to expect from the police.
"Because the police department is very well aware a school shooting could happen in our own neighborhood, we're trying to train, practice and prepare for it," said Lt. Liddiard. "We hope just like anyone else that it doesn't happen. If it does, we feel like we have a response plan."
The monthly meetings have already had positive results helping at-risk students, the police said. AFPD once dealt with a young man on the streets and learned through the safe-school meeting that the American Fork Junior High had been trying to reach him. With police assistance, the school located the student and helped him enroll back into school. The reason the student hadn't registered was because he couldn't provide an address: He and his parents were homeless.
Danny Crivello can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, via phone at 801-477-6397 or on Twitter.