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Every second matters.

That is the key concept to remember during any school-shooter situation or bomb threat, school and police authorities across Northwest Indiana said.

In the wake of recent school shootings, most recently the Feb. 14 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, in which 17 people died, 14 of them students, school districts across Northwest Indiana have strengthened safety and security plans. They said they are working more closely with local police and inviting them to hold active-shooter training in school buildings to familiarize themselves with the building.

They regularly are talking to teachers and school staff about what to do in the event of an intruder in the building, a bomb threat or any other threat to students and staff.

They stress that after dialing 911, the next important steps to follow are: Run. Hide. Fight. Those three words are part of federal guidelines adopted by several local police departments.

This stepped-up activity is taking place as a rash of school threats in Northwest Indiana occurred the past few weeks, including:

* An alleged threat against Griffith High School. Students presented a school resource officer with a video by a former student making threats. A warrant has been issued for former Griffith student Torin Michael Dillon, 19, now of Indianapolis.

* A Chesterton parent who was upset posted on Facebook that was interpreted as a threat to an elementary school. The post was addressed and taken down.

* An investigation at St. Thomas More School in Munster regarding a threat that was determined not to be credible.

And there have been others.

Staying vigilant

Crown Point schools Director of Personnel Arthur Equihua said the Crown Point Community School Corp. takes every threat seriously and cooperates fully with law enforcement.

"We also encourage all members of our school community to share any information they have with us and local authorities through phone calls, emails and our anonymous tip line: 219-663-4885, ext 9," he said, adding that information is passed on to authorities.

Equihua said the district has safety specialists in every building, regular drills for crisis situations, maintains locked doors with a monitored entry for visitors, screens visitors and volunteers with background checks, and provides faculty and staff with alert-badges so they can request help with a press of a button. He said emergency responders also have aerial photos and maps of all campus sites.

Some parents in the Lake Central school district, one of the largest in Northwest Indiana, have said they believe the district should arm teachers, install metal detectors and have an officer on every floor at each school as part of an enhanced safety plan.

Lake Central parent Ric Hernandez, who has two students in the district, said he remains concerned about ensuring doors are locked and enhancing controls over who enters the schools.

"I understand the high school does have a policy for having a certain set of doors open, and the principal responded to me by email about their safety plan," he said. "I think the drills need to be done at all schools. I think Lake Central has done a good job of investigating the threats. They do take them seriously, and I commend them for that.

"I don't think any school is exempt from potential violence. We can't predict the future. I think school leaders ought to look at possibly arming teachers. I'm not saying that's the answer, but we need to look at all options," Hernandez said.

Lake Central schools Superintendent Larry Veracco thinks armed security detail should be handled by law enforcement who are extensively trained in the proper use of weapons and safety protocols.

"I do not believe it is fair to expect teachers to shift from in-depth explanation of content to security detail in a matter of moments," he said.

"All tips must be tracked back to the original source. Our SROs (School Resource Officers) and local law enforcement agree with this stance. I am on record as stating my strong reservations regarding the installation of metal detectors or the use of wand detectors for every student at arrival every day.

"I do believe more armed security may be beneficial, and if that is what our community decides makes us safer, we need to work with local police departments and town councils to arrange for sharing these officers as we currently do with our two SROs now," Veracco said.

He also said only the door to the main office is open, and visitors must be let in electronically.

Law enforcement prefer to lead in any safety crisis

"All of the schools have a safety plan," Lake County Sheriff Oscar Martinez Jr. said Thursday. "I intend to meet with everyone to reassess those plans. We are being proactive in addressing this issue."

Martinez said two days before the Florida shooting, he held a meeting with police chiefs and school resource officers to develop a countywide protocol in the event of a school shooting.

"We had an active-shooter training at a school in Hobart the week before that meeting," he said. "We had more than 100 officers participate. We are also working with churches and local ministers about the protocol. We intend to meet with teachers, administrators and fire departments to address new policies and training for teachers.

"Seconds matter once someone calls the 911 dispatch, but by the time we get there, the shooting could be over or it's time for us to immediately get in there and neutralize the threat. We're trained for that," Martinez said.

The sheriff also said sometimes the active shooter will pull the fire alarm to get students to come out of the classroom, and then will open fire.

"I do not agree with the president's proposal to arm teachers," he said.

"As police officers, we're trained and we attend quarterly training sessions, and we become proficient with our weapons. We don't need teachers armed with handguns — and trying to neutralize a threat and having crossfire. Leave that to the police."

Martinez said schools also may want to spend money on bullet-proof doors and windows, and secured and locked doors.

"If you can't evacuate when an intruder is in the building, barricade yourself. We follow Homeland Security's policy of run, hide and fight," he said.

"If you can't get out of the building, hide. There is a difference between cover and concealment. Concealment is hiding behind something that is not going to stop a bullet. When you cover, you are hiding behind a structure that will stop a bullet. Lastly, defend yourself. If an intruder gets to the door, fight for your life using whatever is around you."

Munster schools Superintendent Jeffrey Hendrix said all principals and several central and building administrators are certified through the Indiana School Safety Specialist Academy.

"We work closely with the Munster Police Department, county sheriff, and EMS to practice active-shooter drills, and also natural and man-made disaster drills. Our staff and students go through numerous drills including active-shooter scenarios each semester," Hendrix said.

"Currently, we have secured entrances and exits. We have School Resource Officers in our schools. We have an excellent DARE program that focuses on school safety. We encourage our students to 'see something, say something' if they know that someone may be planning to harm students in our school."

Other districts step up security, awareness

Valparaiso Associate Superintendent Julie Lauck said all the district's buildings will have secure entrances as a result of building projects underway right now. She said the district has been forward-thinking in its approach to school safety.

"We maintain excellent partnerships with our local law enforcement agencies. We were active in the development of One County One Protocol with the Porter County Safe Schools Commission. We conduct all required safety drills, and add additional training through tabletop exercises and additional drills," Lauck said.

"We can’t stop someone from committing an act of school rampage violence. We can, however, be vigilant. The important thing to remember is this: parents are the first line of defense against school rampage violence. Parents need to get into and stay in their kids’ business. They need to monitor their social interactions both in person and via social media. Parents need to work with the schools to help find resources for kids who are showing signs of violent tendencies."

Valparaiso resident Walter Douglas said he doesn't have children in school today, and things were a lot different when he grew up in the 1970s. Threats to schools were rare, he said.

"If it's a prank, deal with it with maybe a slap on the wrist, but if it's something more, then a student might be looking at expulsion," he said. "It's hard to know someone's intent. Sometimes it's important to look at the history of the child to determine if the child needs to be expelled or stay in the school under certain conditions."

Douglas also opposes students carrying backpacks, where something could be hidden.

Portage High School teacher Andrea Flynn said she'd never be armed with a gun as President Donald Trump has suggested.

"My job is to educate and keep my students safe," she said. "We have SROs in the building and the police are minutes away. I put my trust in them and in all of the safety training I have received."

Michigan City Area Schools spokeswoman Betsy Kohn said the district "has a strong partnership with the Michigan City Police Department, and we are very grateful for their continued support. We have an SRO based at our high school, but in addition, each of our buildings has an officer assigned as a 'buddy.' This officer touches base with the principal on a regular basis and stops by the school to interact with students and staff during the school year.

"We appreciate that officers are not only familiar with the layout of our buildings, but have an ongoing relationship with our students and staff. In some cases we even have schools where police and fire (fighters) are stopping by to eat lunch with our students on a regular basis," she said.

Kohn said the district now requires school-level crisis teams to meet monthly instead of quarterly. She said they also changed some procedures during building-level drills, and are stepping up training and communicating with students regarding active-shooter procedures.

"Also underway now," she said, "we will be conducting a safety audit of all buildings, working with the Michigan City Police Department and Performance Services. This will give our district a comprehensive picture ... to keep us more secure."

Michigan City Police Sgt. Chris Yagelski said the most recent SWAT training police just did with the schools was on Feb. 27, active-shooter training with the elementary staff. 

"The Special Weapons and Tactics Team felt it necessary to research the grounds and rooms of the school to familiarize themselves to be proactive in any type of unforeseen incident that might occur," he said.


Education reporter

Carmen is an award-winning journalist who has worked at The Times newspaper for 20 years. Before that she also had stints at The Clarion-Ledger in Jackson, Miss., The Post-Tribune and The News Dispatch in Michigan City.