April 23, 2018

How universities around St. Louis prepare for the possibility of an active shooter

Colleges around the area practice two different methods, or combine them, when it comes to dealing with a shooter on campus.

Four colleges near Webster University – Fontbonne University, Washington University and the Meramec and Forest Park campuses of St. Louis Community College (STLCC) – each have their own approach to secure the safety of students and staff during a major act of campus violence.

At the St. Louis Community College campuses, an armed intruder lockdown drill happens twice a year. The two-part exercise is in its third year.

All students were notified by email a full day prior to the 15-minute drill last fall. The college’s notification systems, including the district-wide feed at STLCC Alerts on Twitter, announced the first drill.

Washington University and Fontbonne University also have campus-wide notification systems.

Chief of Police for the Eastern Division of STLCC Richard Banahan and Meramec Police Chief Tony Russo ran the drills last year at both campuses. The Forest Park campus is in the Eastern section of the district.

In the spring, Banahan said the stakes get higher for campus police and the response team. That drill includes tactical on-site training with the FBI.

All four campuses are linked to local off-campus law enforcement, including the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department, Clayton Police Department, Richmond Heights Police Department, University City and St. Louis County police departments.

At the STLCC campuses, faculty and staff on the response team practiced to get students under cover or in a locked room during the drill. Banahan said that college employees may be the only contact students have during an actual incident, as campus police may be responding directly to the call.

Russo said the drills help students understand to evacuate or take cover if a shooter is on campus.

At Washington University and Fontbonne University, the Run, Hide or Fight protocol is introduced at meetings during new student orientation.

Washington University Police Chief Don Strom said the protocol is part of a “multiple approach.”

“Part of it is educating our community about the concept of Run, Hide or Fight and to get that message to the campus in every way we can,” Strom said.

Both colleges use their campus websites to describe the protocol. At Washington University, Strom’s department posts notices at the entrances to every building describing what to do if there is an act of violence on campus.

In the event of a violent incident, or a threat, students and staff are instructed to exit the building immediately, if possible, and run. If it is not possible to exit,  they are to lock or barricade in an office or room.

Fontbonne Director of Public Safety Larry Vertrees took his post July 1.

Vertrees said that his department, in conjunction with Student Life and the Clayton Police Department, are overhauling the emergency response section of the student handbook to include Run, Hide or Fight.

If a confrontation with an armed intruder is unavoidable, Fontbonne’s website suggests – as a last resort – to improvise weapons and attempt to incapacitate the shooter, or fight. The site goes further to describe potential scenarios at point-blank range and how to use surrounding objects as cover against the shooter.

Clayton police recommended Vertrees switch the Fontbonne procedures to Run, Hide or Fight over lockdown drills. Vertrees said he will combine lockdown drills with the protocol as early as next month.

“We’re planning a lockdown scenario for one of our three dorms. If we had an active shooter in one dorm, what would the other two do?” Vertrees said.

Nationwide, all college campuses are required to summarize security policies and procedures by Oct. 1 to be in compliance with the Clery Act, a 1990 federal statute that requires the reports be published and distributed to current and prospective students, faculty and staff.

Banahan said he would like to see the drills completed faster at his campuses this year.

“If there’s a shooter, these things end under seven minutes. We have to be locked down before that,” Banahan said.

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