The following blog first appeared in the Pioneer Press (twincities.com), and is reposted here as a public service, with permission from the author/interviewer, Ruben Rosario.
Michael Tabman was several weeks into his role as the chief FBI supervisory agent in Minneapolis on March 21, 2005, when he was informed of a mass shooting at the high school on the Red Lake Band of Chippewa reservation in northern Minnesota.
"Boss, it's bad," an FBI agent at the scene informed him. Jeffrey Weise, a troubled 16-year-old former student, shot and killed an unarmed security guard, a teacher and five students and wounded five others before he took his own life after an exchange of gunfire with tribal police. Investigators later discovered Weise had killed his grandfather, a tribal police officer, and a companion at the family home before he headed to the high school armed with the slain relative's weapons.
"I did not fully understand until later the impact something like that could have on an entire community," Tabman, now retired and a corporate and private security consultant based in Kansas City, Kan., said of what was then the worst such shooting at a school since the 1999 Columbine High School massacre in Littleton, Colo. "It was overwhelming."
Last week, it was not Red Lake High School but the horrific carnage Dec. 14 at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., that brought the 27-year law enforcement veteran back to Minnesota.
The slaughter of 27 people -- 20 of them children -- by another heavily armed and deranged young man, has become a seminal event that has fueled much handwringing and debate about how best to prevent or reduce such mass murders in a school setting.
"It's on everyone's minds," said Tabman, whose clients are predominantly corporations and businesses concerned about workplace violence, internal breaches or sabotage.
He was contracted by an unnamed private elementary school in the Twin Cities to assess its security measures and help it better prepare for an "active shooter" scenario. He found adequate camera surveillance and controlled access at entry points. He advised an escape plan in addition to a lockdown plan because "a lockdown alone could lead to a lockdown to death -- not many people think about getting out if possible."
He pointed out rooms with locks, strong doors and phones in the school that could serve as good refuges in an emergency. He strongly suggested a "panic" button, distinctive alarm, or quick verbal command over the PA system to inform the staff of the kind of threat taking place.
Tabman, like other security experts I know, wants to come up with an effective plan to better respond to an unexpected assault without turning schools into armed fortresses.
The need to do something post-Sandy Hook, from the presidential panel's recent recommendations to legislative action, has become a steady hum across the country in recent weeks.
In Texas, legislators want to let local taxpayers vote for more taxes to enhance safety at public elementary and secondary schools. Their counterparts in Virginia will be mulling a bill to require armed police officers at every public school. The state's budget and planning staff estimates a first-year cost of $133.9 million, with yearly expenses of $72.2 million.
Here at home, state Rep. Tony Cornish, R-Good Thunder, an NRA member and former police chief, wants a law to give teachers the right to carry weapons without approval from the principal or school administrator. He also supports students packing at public college campuses, though he acknowledges such bills have little chance to pass in a DFL-controlled Legislature.
Meanwhile, groups like the Justice Policy Institute and the Dignity in School Campaign adamantly oppose more armed police presence in schools. They say that schools remain safer for kids than their own homes and that more kids are arrested and steered into the criminal justice system for delinquent behavior or infractions better dealt with at the school level.
'ACCIDENTS WILL HAPPEN'
Tabman fielded questions from parents at the Twin Cities school he reviewed that most of us are asking: Should teachers and school personnel be armed? Should the school have armed security guards or police? He's not keen on teachers packing heat.
"Look, I'm not inherently against it, but the reality is that people are people and accidents will happen," he said, noting that at least five participants accidentally shot themselves or others at gun shows Jan. 19, which, coincidentally, was Gun Appreciation Day -- as well as an incident in which a firearms instructor hired as a security guard left his weapon in a school bathroom.
Throw in liability and logistics concerns -- Where will the gun be? Is it locked somewhere? Loaded or unloaded? -- "and there is just more things to go wrong than right," he said.
He favors, on a case-by-case basis, armed school resource officers rather than guards because they are better trained and have the right mindset if things go south quickly in a school setting.
There are 16 SROS, including a supervisory sergeant, covering 70 schools in Minneapolis. There are 10 covering 64 schools in St. Paul.
Tabman, who spent three years as a cop in Fairfax County, Va., before he joined the FBI, stressed that there should be realistic expectations with an armed police presence in school.
"The SROS are mostly there right now to interact with kids, not to just protect," he said. "At some point, they are going to go to lunch or go to the bathroom, and someone could easily be scoping their movements."
He said the armed presence will be a deterrent to most people, including the "crazy or abusive" husband or boyfriend bent on violently confronting a spouse or intimate partner at her job.
"You have to remember that schools are a workplace environment also, and that scenario is far more likely to take place," he said.
But Tabman believes armed personnel will have little effect on shooters like Weise or Adam Lanza or the teenage gunmen at Columbine. "We are talking about people who have some sort of break with reality, and they want to one-up what happened before," Tabman said. "Most of these people go in with the intention of not coming out. They go in or out in a blaze of glory either at their own hands, or the hands of cops."
Tabman noted that times have changed and no structure -- not even a church -- is off limits. He pointed out that, according to a friend who recently went back, his old high school in Bayside, Queens, now has metal detectors.
"We just have to accept that inherent risk," Tabman said. "But you can't just clamp down to the point where you cannot move about. You have to have a balance, but not make our kids paranoid to the point that they don't enjoy their environment."
Follow Ruben Rosario on Twitter @nycrican.