VALPARAISO — Indiana State Police Superintendent Doug Carter said while he was still working as a suburban Indianapolis sheriff, he helped put together a safe school plan a year before the Columbine High School shooting in 1999.
Once the Columbine shooting occurred leaving 13 dead and touching off what has become a growing number of school shootings, Carter said he paid his own way out to Colorado to walk the halls of the school in search of answers.
"It changed my life forever," he told members of the Porter County Safe Schools Commission Tuesday morning.
Yet when a teacher and student at Noblesville West Middle School in Indiana were shot May 25, by what police say was a male student, Carter said he was caught off guard.
"I, like you, thought I was prepared for that," he said.
Carter said many of the details of the Noblesville school shooting remain under wraps as the investigation continues. But he said there are lessons to learn from the shootings that have occurred so far, including the fact that there were signs of what was coming.
"Somebody knew," he said. "That's hard to wrap your head around in my opinion."
That list of somebody includes family, friends or associates, in addition to warnings posted for everyone to see right on social media, Carter said.
Improved communication needed by police
Carter touched on the challenges of monitoring social media for clues, but also questioned whether it would help if police attempted to restore their lines of communication with the public.
"We own part of this," he said.
As criticism of police grew in the wake of such high profile incidents as the Rodney King beating and O.J. Simpson murder case, police responded to the growing lack of trust by closing themselves off to the public, Carter said.
"We built this wall around us," he said. "We stopped communicating at some point, in some way with our citizens."
It is also important for police, fire, schools, the media and other officials to have strong communication and cooperation among themselves before a shooting occurs, Carter said.
That was one of the strengths he noticed among the many police and fire agencies that responded to the Noblesville shooting.
"We were all connected and communicating," he said.
Any turf wars between agencies, or police and fire need to go, he said.
"Get rid of it or don't respond," Carter said.
Carter lauded the relationships already developed in Porter County and the strong turnout for his talk.
"Porter County sets the pace," he said. "I am so crazy proud of you."
The strong level of communication and cooperation in Noblesville allowed first responders to slow everything down a bit once some of the basic facts were know, which helped head off potential problems with so many different agencies on site.
Shootings likely over by the time police arrive
The Noblesville incident also made clear a school shooting will likely be over by the time police even arrive, which demands that school officials, who will be unarmed, are prepared, Carter said.
"He or she will be the one who stops this," he said.
Carter said the science teacher credited with stopping the shooter in Noblesville and being shot three times in the process — Jason Seaman — told him and the governor "there were two options and one of them wasn't good."
The unfavorable option was to do nothing, Carter said.
"What he did saved countless, countless lives," he said.
The public also has to begin acting more responsibly on social media, Carter said.
"In times of crisis, people need to knock it off," he said, of all the speculation and frenzy that goes on.
This warning also applies in the wake of a crisis, Carter said, as ideas are tossed about for quick remedies. One such proposal is the call for metal detectors at schools, which a shooter could easily bypass by leaving a backpack full of weapons outside a window.
"I just caution against emotional responses," he said.
Carter stressed the importance of preparedness, saying it occurred to him as he was walking down the halls of Columbine following the shooting that, "It's just like us."
"Every kid in America has grown up in an active shooter world," he said. "It's been part of where we are as a culture."