ELLSWORTH — While children are frolicking outdoors this summer, members of the Ellsworth Police Department will be in the hallways and stairwells of the Ellsworth Elementary-Middle School working through scenarios to subdue an “active shooter” and protect lives.
“We just think it’s critical under recent developments to get our folks in there,” said Ellsworth City Manager and Police Chief Glenn Moshier.
The safety of schools in Hancock County and everywhere is on the minds of citizens in the wake of the May 24 Uvalde, Texas, mass shooting at Robb Elementary School in which 19 children and two adults were killed by a lone gunman.
“Every summer we review the current emergency plans for all of our schools with the School Department, superintendent and others,” Moshier said. The discussion includes requests from the School Department as well as whether best practices from law enforcement perspectives have changed.
But, the agency also conducts drills during the school year so that students and staff are familiar with what to do should someone start shooting.
Officers and school personnel go through the schools from door to door to make sure they are all locked and secured, the chief said. “We’ll go through the whole building; it takes an hour to an hour and a half depending on how much staff we have. Twice a year in each building is the goal.” As part of the training, the students are instructed to be quiet and gather in a spot that provides an additional layer of safety, the chief said.
Having the opportunity to be in the buildings and familiarize officers with the layouts, “that’s the most critical part of those lockdown drills,” Moshier said.
The Police Department also is located just a mile from EEMS and the high school. Response times are crucial in shooting incidents.
“Our focus from a law enforcement perspective is to get there as quickly as possible with as many officers and the appropriate gear to protect our officers,” Moshier said. “Schools, they do everything in their power to control and delay the person from getting access to the students.”
Ellsworth also staffs a full-time school resource officer who travels among its three schools: Ellsworth High School, EEMS and the Hancock County Technical Center.
The Bucksport Police Department has also staffed a school resource officer for its schools “for many, many, many years,” Public Safety Director Sean Geagan said. The Bucksport Police Department is also just a couple minutes from the school campuses.
But, the picture is different in outlying parts of Hancock County, including interior towns such as Aurora, Eastbrook and Waltham, as well as schools on the Blue Hill Peninsula and on Deer Isle-Stonington, which don’t have dedicated police departments.
There, students and staff may have to wait for help in an emergency unless there are deputies or Maine State Police troopers patrolling in the vicinity.
“When push comes to shove, there’s one person with a gun and there’s no one else there with a gun,” said interim School Union 76 Superintendent Mark Hurvitt, who was Union 93 superintendent on the Blue Hill Peninsula for many years. “Everything that’s happened in America has happened so quickly. It’s happened in 10 seconds.”
Hurvitt, along with former Union 76 Superintendent Christian Elkington, had lobbied for a shared school resource officer a few years ago with Hancock County Sheriff Scott Kane, but the Hancock County Commissioners rejected their proposal in a split vote.
However, Hancock County Emergency Management Agency Director Andrew Sankey explained that in the case of a school emergency, anyone with a gun and a badge is pressed into service.
That means a Marine Patrol officer or a Maine game warden out on the Schoodic Peninsula, or perhaps a federal wildlife officer from Petit Manan might respond in the interim in addition to other patrol officers.
“Anyone who has a gun and a badge is going to respond first and foremost,” Sankey said.
Hurvitt said after Sandy Hook [Elementary School shooting] there was some action taken.
“We spent some time, we spent some money and spent some effort to make things better,” Hurvitt said. “We all have emergency plans. We all have lockdown plans. We all have our outer doors locked. We all have to buzz in. I remind everybody not to prop open back doors with rocks or chairs all the time.”
“It always seems like we’re not doing enough,” he continued. “The question is what do we do next? I don’t know. School administrators in Hancock County are taking it very seriously, trying to do the best we can.”
There have been threats and other incidents in rural Maine schools.
On May 31, a few days after the Texas mass shooting, a Searsport District Middle School student threatened to commit violent acts in school, according to the Republican Journal. The student was charged with terrorizing and creating false public alarm after the incident.
With any school safety training and planning, staffing, or lack thereof, is an issue.
The Hancock County Sheriff’s Office is planning to do some active shooter training but has been shorthanded, said Sheriff Kane. “We’re slowly getting our head above sea level here.”
The office needs two more deputies, one to fulfill a contract for patrols on Swan’s Island and one for the local Maine Drug Enforcement Agency team, Kane said.
“We’re actually looking at a school safety specialist to do presentations for the principals,” Kane said. “It’s right up there on our list of things to do.”
One thing parents and caregivers can do is make sure they know the location of the reunification center for their child’s school, Sankey said. For example, in case of a school emergency in Blue Hill that would result in a school closure, St. Francis by the Sea Episcopal Church is where parents should plan to retrieve their students.
All schools should have a safety plan for all hazards, not just for active shooters, according to Sankey and Richard Bishop, who is a retired major from the Hancock County Sheriff’s Office but who has specialized federal training in school safety and consults with schools statewide.
“If you don’t have plans, we’re happy to do so for you,” Sankey said.
Every classroom or school bus should have a guide about what to do in an emergency.
Sankey said it may not be a regular teacher on duty when something happens. It could be substitute or new staff, “a lunch lady” or bus driver or an electrician who’s there to fix something who may need to take charge of the situation.
“There’s all these different variables,” the director said.
It’s often little things that need to be changed to better secure a building such as no longer propping open doors after school.
Another potential complication is that schools are often used as community centers in rural Maine towns and thus wide open to everyone.
“They have town meetings in all of these buildings,” Bishop said. “That’s the way they were designed. I remember years ago when everyone had a key to the gym for basketball.”
Both the Ellsworth Police and the deputies make stopping at schools a part of their routine patrols.
Moshier said when he took over as chief and had officers start visiting as part of the routine, the schools would get calls from concerned parents upon seeing a cruiser in the school driveway. That doesn’t happen anymore.
Working with students who may be at risk or who make threats either directly or indirectly is also crucial for the department.
Moshier said his department has been aggressive in telling people “If you hear something, say something.”
“Any kind of information about a threat, we carry that threat investigation out to the fullest extent,” Moshier said. Ellsworth has had officers go to students’ homes in the middle of the night to speak with parents and ensure the students aren’t able to carry out any threats.
“There’s no way to guarantee that something like this isn’t going to happen, but I think we do a pretty good job of lessening the odds,” the chief said. “You have to buzz into all three of our school facilities.”
What about increased gun legislation? Might that be the answer?
“I think it’s hard to say,” the chief said. “People that want to do bad things with guns are going to get guns.”
“I’m not sure tougher gun control is necessarily the answer,” Moshier said. “Rather than tougher gun control, maybe we need to focus on responsible gun ownership. Make sure there are laws on the books to make sure people secure their firearms. Responsible gun ownership is critical in preventing some of these tragedies from happening.”
Of course, shootings can and do occur anywhere, not just in schools. The FBI has produced a video to demonstrate three tactics people can use to keep themselves and others safe during an active shooter attack: “run, hide, fight.”
“Learning these principles now will prepare and empower you to put them into practice — and survive — should the unthinkable occur,” the federal agency stated. Watch the video at https://www.fbi.gov/about/partnerships/office-of-partner-engagement/active-shooter-resources.