After a gunman at Sandy Hook Elementary School murdered 20 children and six school employees, people at Cal Poly began asking University Police Department Chief George Hughes if the school was prepared for such a shooting.
He answered them with a definite “yes.”
Hughes said university police and Cal Poly administrators have long been preparing for an active-shooter situation, but national attention to gun control and school safety has placed more attention on the university’s policies.
“Our officers are prepared for this and we train for this,” he said. “We have been training for it for several years. It’s one of those things where we hope we never have to use this training but, if we do, at least we’re prepared for it.”
Each year, officers from the San Luis Obispo and university police departments participate in shooting simulations on Cal Poly’s campus. Typically held during the summer when buildings are empty, police practice different tactics on how to enter and search rooms and how to approach shooters.
Actors portray victims, onlookers and what Hughes calls the “bad guys.”
“We try to make the training as realistic as possible,” he said. “Imagine if there was any critical, large incident. There would be a lot of chaotic stuff going on. Hopefully there wouldn’t be a lot of people injured, but there could be people laying on the ground injured asking for help.”
During the training, police use handguns, rifles and shotguns (the larger two weapons are kept in all patrol cars). University police also wear personal bulletproof vests, since there might not be time to retrieve tactical gear from university police headquarters in an emergency, Hughes said.
San Luis Obispo Police Department (SLOPD) Chief Steve Gesell brings his officers to Cal Poly to work with university police during these trainings. He said it helps them feel comfortable working in campus buildings, especially larger ones such as the Robert E. Kennedy Library.
Gesell expects SLOPD to be one of the first agencies to mobilize if a shooting began at Cal Poly.
“People come running when you call in this county, and the relationships are something to be proud of,” he said of interagency teamwork in San Luis Obispo.
Part of the officers’ training involves a police tactic which Hughes said agencies around the country adopted after the Columbine High School killings, where 12 students and one teacher died. Then, police waited outside the school for backup that took 45 minutes to arrive, USA TODAY reported.
During those 45 minutes, 10 people were killed.
Officers are now instructed to immediately form teams and engage a shooter, Hughes said. If only one officer responds, they go in alone.
“If you have a person actually hurting people you go to that target and stop them,” he said. “Period.”
State policy bars anyone but police officers or those with permits from carrying a weapon in school zones, but discussion that’s come in the months since Sandy Hook challenges this policy. Some states have considered legislation that would allow more faculty and students to carry guns on campus, and California legislators introduced a bill Wednesday that would let schools spend funding on gun training for teachers.
Tim Donnelly (R-Twin Peaks) said at a news conference that training educators to defend their classrooms could help stop or slow down a potential shooter, Los Angeles Times reported.
Donnelly told Mustang Daily in an email Wednesday that though the proposed law only applies to K-12 schools, he would be in favor of colleges and universities adopting a similar plan at the campus level.
On Cal Poly’s campus it is legal for anyone, including faculty and students, with a concealed-weapon permit to carry a handgun, Hughes said.
But the police chief said he doesn’t see evidence to back the idea that armed faculty or students would help in a shooting situation. The dangers of arming civilians on campus, he said, outweigh any possible benefits.
“Let’s say there’s an active shooter situation going on in one of our classrooms, and a faculty member who has a gun starts shooting at the shooter,” he said. “When police officers get there, how are they going to know which one is the person who started the active shooting incident? That’s what scares me.”
When asked if he believes students and faculty should be able to carry weapons at Cal Poly, University President Jeffrey Armstrong replied via email Wednesday saying he is primarily concerned with the campus’ safety and is “duty bound to make sure Cal Poly adheres to the law.”
One place on-campus weapons are not allowed, Hughes said, is in the residence halls. University Housing Associate Director Carole Schaffer said she works closely with Hughes on developing safety procedures, and that University Housing’s first move if a shooting occurred would be to look to university police for direction.
University Housing staff — including resident advisers and in-hall professionals — are not armed, Schaffer said. Even after Sandy Hook, it is unlikely that policy will change.
“That would be a discussion that we would have very collaboratively from the professionals in law enforcement,” Schaffer said. “They are the law enforcement professionals and they have significant training.”
But any shooting situation — with or without armed faculty and staff — would bring what Hughes calls “mass chaos” to Cal Poly: “People are going to be running around, hiding, screaming, crying, asking for help,” he said.
Part of the university’s job in this situation is to break through the chaos and effectively send instructions to the campus on what to do next, director of risk management Dave Ragsdale said.
While many students know about emergency-alert text messages — a service that can be activated on the “Personal Info” tab of the My Cal Poly Portal — there are other steps in place that will only become apparent in an actual crisis.
One of those is a visual broadcasting system, Ragsdale said. University police can control at least 40 digital screens on campus to send a message, including six in the University Union Plaza outside the University Store.
New displays around campus are required to install software that allows police to take control during an emergency, Ragsdale said.
Police can also transform every telephone on campus into a mini-speaker system, Ragsdale said. If police choose to activate it, every telephone would turn on its speaker and begin playing a live message, dropping any on-campus calls.
But Ragsdale says the text-message alert is most effective, since students are nearly always with their cell phone or around someone who has theirs.
“If 30 students are sitting in a classroom and only 12 get the messages, all of them will still get the message from their classmates,” he said. “It’s not that you want panic, but you do want to get them information and to get them to act immediately.”
Police dispatchers and Hughes can both trigger the emergency messaging system and can choose which systems to activate, Hughes said. The chief said he would err on the side of caution if someone reports a shooter and send out alerts immediately, rather than wait for visual confirmation.
“If I got a phone call right now that said there’s an active shooter in building whatever, I wouldn’t wait,” he said. “If I had to come back later and say it was a false report, I would say I’m sorry if we created a problem to ask you to leave work. But I would hate to waste time that could possibly get more people injured.”
The chief said expediency is what’s expected from police agencies if an active-shooter situation develops. Time, he said, can save lives.
But Hughes and Gesell both said they understand another reality of those kinds of situations — at Columbine, Virginia Tech and Sandy Hook Elementary School — the shooter wasn’t stopped by police. Each of them ended with suicide.
“People need to take responsibility for their own safety,” Hughes said. “Historically, these things are over before police get there.”
Jessica Burger contributed to this article.