Stop The Shooting

Note: This is unlike most of my blogs, but is a big part of my life.

It’s been twelve years since April 20, 1999. An ordinary morning.

That was the morning two teenage boys woke up, got dressed, and went to school to embark on a deadly rampage. They killed 13 people, injured 24 and committed suicide. Columbine became a household word. The bullets fired that day tore a gaping hole through the heart of America, leaving each of us groping for a sense of security that will be forever lost.

By nightfall, April 20, 1999 was recorded as the third deadliest massacre in United States history on a school campus. Since then, Columbine has dropped to  #4. (Virginia Tech, 2007, left 32 dead.) Evidence shows that shooting started at 11:19.  The shooters took their own lives less than an hour after the rampage began.

It’s been twelve years. Ordinary years.

I think of those students and their teacher, and where they would be today if they had not crossed paths with two evil people that day.*

Rachel Scott, the first victim,  would be 29, and she would probably still be making “to-do” lists and doodling in margins and celebrating a love for community service.

Coach Dave Sanders would be 59 today, and no doubt doing the math toward “the rule of 80,” or whatever state-regulated teacher pension plan he was on.

And Steve and Kyle and Cassie and Daniel  and the others would be bursting from colleges and grad schools and into society – building families, traveling, chasing dreams, and joining their friends in probably mostly ordinary lives.

Ordinary lives. Ordinary days.

Rachel Scott, 17
Daniel Rohrbough, 15
Dave Sanders, 47
Kyle Velasquez, 16
Steve Curnow, 14
Cassie Bernall, 17
Isaiah Shoels, 18
Matthew Kechter, 16
Lauren Townsend, 18
John Tomlin, 16
Kelly Fleming, 16
Daniel Mauser, 15
Corey DePooter, 17

I  have had a lot of time to think about Rachel and Coach Sanders and Corey and Cassie and the others who died that day. I think of Columbine High School and Jefferson County, Colorado often.  In an ordinary week, I talk about it at least once or twice. Not as often as I used to, but it does come up in regular conversation in my world.

You see, I have a day job that could land me a spot on the old television program,  “What’s My Line.”

In  real life,  I am the Director of Communications for a national law enforcement training center  based at Texas State University-San Marcos:  The Advanced Law Enforcement Rapid Response Training (ALERRT) Center.

Our program teaches first responding police officers how to go into an active shooter situation like Columbine or Virginia Tech or Fort Hood and stop the shooting. In fact, Mark Todd and Kim Munley, who stopped the shooter at Fort Hood in 2009, had just been through our training. The official Department of Defense After Action Report cites ALERRT as the standard in active shooter response training that ended the massacre and saved lives.

The ALERRT program started in San Marcos, Texas in the spring of 2001, in the aftermath of Columbine. Fuzzy black and white video of the shooters in the cafeteria, photos of students running from buildings and clinging to one another were burned into our minds.  The Jefferson County, Colorado after-action reports had been released.  The media had shouted out  questions that regular people were whispering in front of televisions in living rooms across the nation:  How could this happen?  Who can we blame? Where were the cops? Why didn’t they stop it?

The first responding police officers did exactly what they were trained to do. The first shots were fired at Columbine and reported. The first patrol officers arrived on the scene, secured the perimeters and called in the Jefferson County SWAT team. The SWAT team, as is standard in most communities, was comprised of law enforcement officers who volunteer for the SWAT team above and beyond their regular assignments. They answered the call-out, left their regular assignments, assembled, and arrived 49 minutes after the first officers rolled onto the scene. In that time, 13 were killed and 24 injured.

A quick history lesson takes us back to the University of Texas Tower Shooting in 1966. A former Eagle Scout and Marine killed 16 people that day from a sniper’s perch atop the landmark tower. On-duty Austin police officers Houston McCoy and Ray Martinez climbed 29 flights of stairs to the top of the tower and took out the shooter. This effectively stopped the killing.  And was a turning point in law enforcement training and procedure.  Elite, highly trained, special weapons and tactics  (SWAT) teams were created to deal with such violent, high risk operations. The first SWAT team rolled out in 1968 in Los Angeles. A few major cities even created fulltime SWAT teams.

By 1999, even smaller populations had multi-agency teams who would answer the call to action when needed. The  Jefferson County, Colorado SWAT team was one. The Hays County SWAT team based in San Marcos, Texas was another.  And the standard procedure that law enforcement trained to was to do exactly what the cops at Columbine did. Secure the perimeter and call in SWAT.

So ALERRT was born when the Hays County and San Marcos SWAT team members Terry Nichols, David Burns, John Curnutt along with Sheriff Don Montague and Police Chief Steve Griffith started looking at ways to better prepare. A training program that would offer our local first responding officers basic, life saving SWAT tactics and skill sets  to enable them to go into an active shooter situation and stop the killing.

Flash forward from April 20, 1999 to the summer of 2001. The economy was tanking and small newspapers were taking the hit. I had left a career in journalism to take a job as the City of San Marcos grants coordinator.

Terry and David and I created the first grant proposals for ALERRT,  with strong support from Texas State University and the Texas Tactical Police Officers Association, to share this new training program with other law enforcement professionals.  We were awarded a few hundred thousand dollars from the governor’s office  in early 2002 to take this training to other small agencies around Texas – agencies who didn’t have fulltime SWAT teams and could not afford much training.

9-11 happened about two months after we rolled out the program around Texas. ALERRT tactics and training  was not exclusive to school violence.These tactics and principles would work with domestic terrorism and workplace violence. Our program became the first law enforcement operational training delivery approved by the United States Department of Homeland Security  and  today, ALERRT remains the only active shooter response program in their state catalog.

By 2003,  the ALERRT program became a training center in the Texas State University’s Department of Criminal Justice. Five of us came to work fulltime to support this vital program.

Today, in our tenth year, we have trained more than 32,000 officers around the country through more than $23 million in federal and state funds. We have trained in 41 states and have been adopted as the state standard in a dozen states, with more on the request list to ramp up their programs. Beyond the small agencies we targeted from the beginning, large metro areas have adopted ALERRT as their standard training for active shooter response.  (San Antonio, Houston, Dallas, Atlanta, New York, to name a few). And our request list continues to grow.

Our program teaches first responding patrol officers to go into a live fire situation, head toward the sound of gunfire,  and stop the killer. In reality, that generally requires deadly force.

And it saves lives. I could go into detail about the fact that we also teach terrorism response, team maneuvers and low light tactics, entry breaching, and building approaches, but the ultimate goal is to stop the shooting.

I am honored to be a part of this program. It is anything but ordinary; and a good, if unlikely, profession for me.

I consider among my friends and heroes, John Michael Keyes and his wife Ellen, who lost their daughter, Emily, to an active shooter in Platte Canyon, Colorado.  They turned from a successful software industry to create the “I LOVE U GUYS” Foundation, named for the last text they received from Emily. They developed a Standard Response Protocol, advancing student and school safety,  that is available at no cost to school districts around the nation.

And  I am proud to know A. J. DeAndrea, one of the Jefferson County SWAT team captains who led the charge into Columbine High School, as well as the Platte Canyon High School shooting in 2006.  I’ve visited with Darrell Scott, whose daughter, Rachel, was the first fatality of the Columbine shooters;  and  I regularly talk to boots-on-the-ground heroes from around the country who have been first on the scene of active shooter situations that have made headlines.

But most importantly,  every day I am privileged to work with people whose actions and efforts prevent tragic headlines.  And allow for ordinary days to play out in unremarkable ways.

So that the Rachels and Kyles and Laurens and Coreys in our communities can grow old.

And live ordinary lives.

Really, it’s not too much to ask.

Listening to: Joan Baez – “Forever Young

(*  Without even thinking, you can probably name the University of Texas tower shooter by name – but do you know the names of any of the victims of any of the active shooter events through the years? It is a sad fact that more people know the names of the shooters in these events than the names of the victims. We ask the media to stop making celebrities of these evil shooters.  Wishful thinking? Maybe so. But we can hope.)

The Soundtrack of My Youth

Do you remember the first record you ever owned? Mine was the Beatles’ “A Hard Day’s Night” and Santa brought it with my portable record player the Christmas I was six.

We had a stereo console in the living room. It was a big piece of furniture, encased in a maple finished cabinet and had two sliding doors in the top and  gold flecked speaker upholstery. My mother had a good collection of albums: Roger Miller, Nat King Cole, Andy Williams,  The Ray Conniff Singers, Vikki Carr, Perry Como, Ray Price,  and soundtrack albums of every musical Rodgers and Hammerstein ever wrote.

Almost too sophisticated for 45s, that grand old machine did have one of those adapters the size of a toilet paper roll that you could lock in and load with a stack of records, so they would drop and play automatically. You could stack LPs too, in case you were too lazy  to get up and change records every 18 minutes. And of course, it had the tuner and played AM and FM, but we didn’t discover FM until KRMH (Karma) came along a decade later.

The stereo was in the living room, and the television set in the den, so I could listen anytime I wanted –  as long as I didn’t put my feet on the furniture or make a mess.  My cousins were members of a mail order record club, and owned two records I wished were mine.  One was Gene Pitney’s  The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence. The other was Leslie Gore’s It’s My Party. Odd that those albums stand out in this random stream of consciousness. My cousin thought Gene Pitney was dreamy. And I liked the revenge of  “Judy’s Turn to Cry.”

My mom bought some good stuff, too.  I liked Nancy Sinatra the best. The coolest record albums we owned when I was a kid were Nancy Sinatra’s Boots and Country My Way.  I wrote down the lyrics and learned every song on both records.  I was about ten the year I got some light blue jeans  and a striped shirt  almost exactly like she wore on the cover of CMW. And I bought my own single of “Something Stupid.”  Good stuff, that.

We had one store in town that sold vinyl. B&O Music also sold cork wax and Black Diamond strings and bongos, and maybe short wave radio equipment.  Before long, I owned the Monkees and Herman’s Hermits, Paul Revere,  and a stack of other pop hits. I got my music advice from Tiger Beat and Sixteen magazines so I didn’t jump right into being cool. I pretty much started at the shallow end of the cool pool.

Summer camps led to my discovery of folk music.  We called them camp songs. Peter Paul & Mary and Pete Seeger,  Woody Guthrie and The Kingston Trio taught us songs that made us feel nostalgic at the ripe old age of twelve.

Junior high dances added to our social consciousness.”Billy, Don’t Be a Hero” and “Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love To Town” found their ways onto the playlists of our lives.  We wondered aloud what Billy Joe McAllister threw off the Tallahassee Bridge.

As soon as someone was old enough to drive and anyone had a couple of dollars for gas money, we’d pile in and head for the nearest dance hall to shuffle the night away to country classics. We waltzed across Central Texas, and two-stepped through the hill country. My high school summers were a blur of steel guitars and fiddles.  Dance halls with names like Club 21, the Rockin’ M,  Crystal Chandelier, Ramblin’ Rose and Texan Palace featured cover bands like The Velvets, The Moods, and the Country Nu-Notes. Once in a while, Hank Thompson or Ernest Tubb would travel through on a big old, diesel-belching tour bus and play the Watermelon Thump or Camp Ben McCulloch Reunion,  and we’d hear the real thing – the stuff you heard on  jukeboxes.

Then came the summer of ’73. The summer before my junior year in high school. We said “We’re going to a picnic and a dance at a ranch over by Drippin’ Springs.”  And our mothers said, “Okay, be careful.”

Willie Nelson put Hays County on the map with that first 4th of July picnic and set the course of my musical taste forever. It was our own Texas version of Woodstock: Kris and Rita, Waylon, Billy Joe Shaver,  Tom T. Hall… and Willie sitting in and singing with all of them.

Today, almost 40 years later, I can still feel the kick of the bass in my chest in the hot Texas sun.

Those great American poets left a mark on my soul.  And I still remember all the words.

Listening to: Willie Nelson – “Whiskey River”

A Reading Addiction

Reading is more than a hobby for me. It is an addiction.  I read at train crossings and long traffic lights. I read to go to sleep, and sometimes while I am blow-drying my hair. I read acclaimed memoirs and trashy beach novels, best sellers and quirky sleepers. I read cereal boxes and instruction sheets. And I have read my car owner’s manual from cover to cover.

Reading for Meaning.

I can clearly remember when I had my first taste. It was the dawning of the 1960s. I was about four and my older cousins were already established school kids. They went to Lutheran Elementary School and were picked up by a Volkswagen micro-bus every morning. More than anything, I wanted to go to school.

And so we would play school when they got home. Kathy would be the teacher and sometimes Gary, the principal.  Kathy had old copies of the entire pre-primer series of Tip, Tip and Mitten, etc. She had even somehow managed to get her hands on a discarded  spiral-bound, teachers edition of The Big Show, which was the follow up to the Tip and Mitten series.

While Kathy was a kind and motivating, six-year old teacher, her older brother was not so patient. It seemed his role was to  grade my tests and threaten “licks” with his mom’s paddle-shaped, wooden cutting board should I fail. I never got a “lick” but looking back, this may be why I have a touch of test-taking anxiety nearly fifty years later.

But I digress. I loved the scruffy dog, Tip, in the book. And his friend, Mitten, the cat.  And their people, Jack and Janet. And their friends, Penny and Tommy and Willie. And most of all, I loved the power of reading.

And I wanted more. By the time I was in first grade, I was reading chapter books. My aunt was the librarian at the city library, and I checked out every one of Gertrude Chandler Warner’s Boxcar Children books multiple times.  Do you remember The Boxcar Children?

Okay. I have to go off in a tangent here. I just Wikipedia’ed The Boxcar Children to be sure my memory served me correctly and yes, (Warning: Spoiler Alert) the storyline has a family of orphan kids who run away rather than move in with their grandfather  who, though they have never met,  they believe might be terribly mean. They live in an abandoned boxcar and furnish their abode with broken dishes from a nearby dump. They take in a stray dog, who was abused by a wealthy woman. The oldest brother takes on odd jobs for food for the family. And somewhere along the way, they finally meet up with the rich grandfather who is not a bad guy after all, and they move in with him, but not before he moves the boxcar into his backyard. The series continues with the siblings living with Grandpa and solving mysteries. (Since they were evidently so good at solving the mystery of the mean but wealthy grandpa).

Anyway, those early sips  led to more and more as my habit grew stronger. My childhood best friend, Kate, and I fell in love with a comprehensive reading program in elementary school called SRA, I think. And I have no idea what those initials stand for. But we could come in to the room early before school or finish our work and get to pull a reading card from a box. We would read about dolphins or Ireland or percussion instruments or hundreds of other topics. And then we could take a test and prove that we understood what we’d read. We’d “self-grade” our tests and check that card off on our chart, and move to the next one. They were categorized by grade levels, and I think Kate and I were reading at grade level 13 in the third grade. I loved SRA.

The school library was almost as fabulous as the public library. We read periodicals and memorized the Dewey Decimal System,  which I continue to greatly prefer over the Library of Congress classification.  We didn’t have magazines at home, aside from the occasional grocery store splurge of a Good Housekeeping or Ladies Home Journal, but my Aunt Robbie was a member of the  National Geographic Society (one did not subscribe -but had to be a member of this elite organization). She saved their monthly magazines like precious thin golden encyclopedia in rows and rows in glass fronted oak bookshelves.

The library had Life and Time and Reader’s Digest and Boy’s Life. The doctor’s office had Highlights for Children. Does anyone remember “Goofus and Galant?” My first paid subscription was to My Weekly Reader.

I remember the first time the written word moved me to tears. I was about ten and the book was Toby Tyler, or  Ten Weeks With the Circus – and it was the part about the chimp, Mr. Stubbs. I won’t spoil it for you. But it was really sad.

Grandpa Hinkle gave me a Webster’s Dictionary for Christmas one year when I was about nine.  It was heaven.  A giant, hardbound book of words. I kept that big book under my pillow and would read it in bed at night. After lights out, I would read it under the covers. My mother just shook her head and rolled her eyes and pretended not to notice the flashlight glow coming from under my door.

Today, I am grateful for my cousins and all the reading teachers who came after them.  I am thankful to come from a family of readers, who allowed me to escape into a book and curl up in a corner and read from start to finish.   I savor the scent of a new book, and like to hold it in my hand and look at the cover and read the  flaps and the introduction and dedication.  I appreciate fine paper and readable fonts.

I love computers, but miss real card catalogs  – with little oak drawers filled with index cards with carefully typed  descriptions of each book and Mr. Dewey’s secret code number pointing  to its rightful place on the shelf.

My literary heroes include Pat Conroy and Wally Lamb and  Harper Lee and Flannery O’Connor, and all who can bring characters to life and lead me to wonder “what happened next,”  long after reading the last page.

And I am okay with this addiction. I have admitted it. But I don’t want to quit.  I have a stack of books next to my bed, and a book in the car, in case I get stopped by a train or tied up in traffic. Something in my handbag to read if I arrive at the restaurant early, and a stack of “need to reads” on the coffee table.

Today, a half-century after we met, I hope Tip and Mitten and  Jack and Janet have lived long and happy lives. I hope Harper Lee found happiness in her privacy. And Melvil Dewey got the credit he deserved.  And Pat Conroy is working on a new book.

Here’s to hardcover books with smooth dust jackets.  And epic paperbacks that swell up on beach vacations with salt water and sand. And My Weekly Reader. And readable fonts.

For now, I don’t need an iPad or a Kindle. But please don’t take away my library card.

Hello. My name is Diana. I am a reader…

Listening to: Gordon Lightfoot – “If You Could Read My Mind”