Crisis plan minimised deaths

1st April 2005 at 01:00
UNITED STATES

Without staff emergency drills and training, there might have been more bloodshed at Red Lake. Stephen Phillips reports

Emergency planning and the quick thinking of staff and students averted further bloodshed in last week's Minnesota school shootings, which left 10 people dead and seven injured, according to officials.

Five students, a teacher and a school security guard were among the victims last Monday afternoon when student Jeff Weise, 16, opened fire at Red Lake high school on a remote Indian reservation near the Canadian border.

Officials said casualties could have been much higher if staff and students had not activated a well-practised crisis-response plan.

The death toll was the highest in a school shooting since 12 pupils and two teachers were murdered at Columbine high, in Littleton, Colorado, in 1999.

Red Lake high - like most schools since Columbine - had a security system in place in case of violence.

"Students in the gym were taken quickly and locked in the weights room," said Judy Roy, secretary of the Red Lake tribal council, the reservation's governing body.

She praised teachers' presence of mind and courage under fire.

Many teachers locked their students in classrooms, barricading doors with chairs, as they had been trained, she said.

Staff and students alerted police using mobile phones.

The adjoining Red Lake middle school was locked immediately, said a Minnesota education department spokesman.

Ms Roy said staff had previously conducted drills to rehearse responses to emergencies, including attacks by armed intruders.

Kevin Smith, of Minnesota's public safety department, said the school had executed the drill "by the book". He added: "The last thing you want is kids in the hallways. When you have an intruder in the school, the best thing is to isolate them."

But Mr Smith conceded that schools could only do so much to prepare for such emergencies.

Armed with a shotgun as well as a pistol that belonged to his grandfather, whom he had murdered shortly beforehand, Jeff Weise gunned down a security guard at the school entrance and shot through a metal detector used to screen for weapons. He killed teacher Neva Rogers, 52, and five students after cornering them in a corridor and forcing them into a classroom.

A brief shoot-out with police followed before the attacker took refuge in a classroom, where he shot himself.

Emergency response plans have been compulsory in Minnesota schools since 1996, the state education department said.

Mr Smith said renewed attention had been paid to them since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, and the most recent school shooting incident, in September 2003, which also took place in Minnesota when 15-year-old John Jason McLaughlin killed two classmates at Cold Spring's Rocori high school.

A government official said on Tuesday that prosecutors are considering a charge of conspiracy to murder, in relation to last week's shootings, against the son of a Red Lake Indian tribal leader.

Louis Jourdain, 16, appeared in federal court in Duluth on Tuesday. The hearing was closed to reporters and court officials would not comment.

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