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Joe Supervielle:

Welcome to Voices In Local Government, an ICMA Podcast, my name is Joe Supervielle. Today's returning guest is Sarah Peck, director of UnitedOnGuns. Sarah joined us in late 2021 to give an overview of the Mass Shooting Playbook, a free resource for city managers, mayors, and local government leaders to better prepare, respond, and recover from mass shootings, which again is in the news. So Sarah, thanks for coming back.

Sarah Peck:

I'm sorry you had to have me back on such a difficult topic, but I'm glad to be here.

Joe Supervielle:

Frankly we were planning on a second episode anyways to discuss school shootings and here we are, it happened again. It's going to happen after this episode comes out, but not here to talk about prevention or legislation once again, but what government can do to cover those three points that the playbook does, which is prepare, respond, recover. Floor is yours for an opening statement. I know it's tough, what can you really say, but where do you want to start?

Sarah Peck:

Well I'd like to say that one thing we've learned in our research is that most city leaders don't think about how they would respond to a mass shooting until one happens, and so that is the most important part that anyone listening to this should take on board is the idea that there are things that you can be doing in advance to prepare your city and your community for this tragedy should one happen.

Joe Supervielle:

Yeah, and today we will focus on school shootings, which has a dedicated chapter in the playbook. Audience, you can go back and listen to Sarah's previously recorded episode for details and an overview on the entire playbook, we'll include the link for the playbook itself. It's episode six if it's easier for you to just scroll down on Apple or whatever app you might be using to listen to this one.

Joe Supervielle:

We have some questions Sarah is going to try to address, again no clean answers necessarily but there's a sense of frustration among city, county managers that are kind of put in that impossible situation similar to mayors that the public is expecting more from their government, maybe especially local government, but the local level might be or feel limited on having many or really any tools on prevention. So that's again where we kind of go back into plan, respond, recover.

Joe Supervielle:

Question one, forget national politics or Second Amendment arguments. On the local level is it time to admit to the public there's no way to stop school shootings without turning the schools into airport style security lockdowns? Is the best an unelected manager or school board can do when asked what are you doing about this is to communicate the policy on prepare, respond and recover?

Sarah Peck:

Well first let's set the context. As unbelievable as this may sound school shootings are in fact exceedingly rare. And the trauma that we impose on our children through realistic drills and all of the scary hardware around them and the things that we say to them are more traumatic and have more of a negative impact on our children than the risk they face going to school. So we do as professionals need to understand that that is the case.

Sarah Peck:

And so when you talk about preparedness, yes of course we'll get to that, but you are asking about prevention. And so let me talk about prevention of gun violence. Youth are at risk of gun violence right now, it is the leading cause of death of American children. But they're not dying at school, they're dying at home and in their communities, and we can prevent that. Youth suicide is on the rise. We could do a whole lot more in providing mental health resources for them. Safe storage is an important way to prevent youth suicide because most children who commit suicide with a gun do so because it was in the home. So that's really one of the things I would urge is first of all, thinking about what can we do to prevent other kinds of gun violence?

Sarah Peck:

Let me just say another word about community gun violence. It's not enough to say well those are kids who are affiliated with gangs or they're involved in illegal behavior and therefore we don't need to think about them. These are at risk children in our inner cities, and there are research based programs that city managers and mayors can implement that can reduce gun violence, save their lives, give them a future and make those parts of our cities safer for all the people who live there. So I just want to say that it's a holistic approach that a city needs to take and we'd love to be part of that solution.

Joe Supervielle:

Yeah, the school examples are perhaps the most horrific and maybe make the... Whether you're a parent or not just make people feel helpless because you have some control over maybe some of those other circumstances, some, but at the school it's hey, they're supposed to be safe so it's just a whole nother level.

Sarah Peck:

Well let me just say one thing about what parents can do specific to schools, and that is the majority of school shooters use a weapon that they weren't old enough to buy but they got at home or from a family member or a neighbor. This is an advertisement for the importance of safe gun storage. It really is important. If parents are concerned about this then they can talk about this, they can do this at home. And also schools, some school districts do send out notices to families of parents of students urging them to safely store their weapons at home. And this would address all of those other things I just mentioned. Not only reduce youth suicide, and by the way a lot of these mass shooters are suicidal, and also prevent guns from being stolen which then find their way into inner cities, and these are crime guns, but it would be one of the few things we know we can do to help prevent school shootings.

Joe Supervielle:

Yeah. And communication from the local government to the public, parent or not, it's not about legislation or some of the federal level debates, it's not about whether the gun is there or not, but it's there already, so make it safer.

Sarah Peck:

That's right, and that's using that communications role of the city government to engage in dialogue. This is not about politics, this is about responsible gun ownership. And if you look at the webpages of the NRA and the National Shooting Sports Foundation that's what they're about, safe gun storage.

Joe Supervielle:

Yeah. You mentioned earlier, scary hardware I think is how you put it, in the school itself, I'll jump to that question which reads security vendors try to sell to city hall and the school board all the time ranging from innovative to opportunistic access. Who is the right person, position or group to give an unemotional assessment?

Sarah Peck:

I'll start with research which has shown that properly trained social workers and mental health resources in a school do a whole lot more to create a safe learning environment than any of this technology. So if you have limited funds the first place you should start is with these mental health resources.

Sarah Peck:

However, I did take a look at... There is a publication on the COPS DOJ website called 10 Essential Actions To Improve School Safety, and I can provide that resource to you. Their recommendations include doing a comprehensive risk assessment then developing a safety plan. DOJ recommends that this action be taken by an inter-agency multidisciplinary team with one person serving as a team leader. And I think the big takeaway here is this is something that a distributor of a product isn't the right person to be asking, they obviously have an interest in selling you that hard endure or that technology. Our contacts, our advisors, including a criminologist at Northeastern University have told us there is very little in the way of technology that has been demonstrated to work across the board in all schools. It really is a case by case basis and there is no easy answer to who can help you do that other than an experienced multidisciplinary team.

Joe Supervielle:

Okay, next question. Our town contracts police and EMS services from the county. Efforts to build the relationships with the police chief and other staff as The Mass Shooting Playbook your document suggests, have been mixed. Interaction is respectful and professional but limited. Emergency response plans are on paper but perhaps not so in practice. We don't have any authority or leverage to force the issue on updates or training. We being I think meaning the local government there. Budget and time are legitimate roadblocks. What should we do next? So essentially they're saying the police and other things are kind of out of our hands, we're trying to do better with this but it's not going anywhere. We're certainly not fast enough. So what kind of specific strategies can you elaborate on that the playbook says hey build these relationships with the police chief, et cetera, but actually how can they do that when they've tried and maybe it doesn't go so smoothly?

Sarah Peck:

Well the police is not the only partner you need in this. I still go back to the tabletop. Our research showed that the cities who had done more in the way of preparedness had a more comprehensive response, and so there's really nothing stopping the city manager from hosting a tabletop exercise. In fact, we have worked with the City of Orlando to create a template for that, I'd be happy to send you, it's a draft pilot project let's say, but we are working through all the details of what you would want to be focusing on when you do that. And you invite the right stakeholders, and it's up to them to show up.

Sarah Peck:

So first if you're talking about a school shooting and you're preparing for it you want to have your mayor there because you want the right people to come, to understand that they need to be there and they need to take it seriously. You invite your local chief of police or your sheriff, your local law enforcement agent, but you also can invite the FBI. The regional special agent in charge will probably show up and be grateful for that opportunity. And then you have the American Red Cross, you have county health officials, you can invite a child mental health expert. You can invite the principal of the local school. You can invite someone from the school district. Bring together these people and put them in the room and have a very simple scenario and think through where will the reunification center be? Where would it be here? And remember, it needs to be secured so that you limit access of the press to the grieving family members. Think through things like how are you going to do your press conferences? Our communications chapter is very comprehensive on this.

Sarah Peck:

The city manager or the mayor need to be upfront. These are the people that are trusted by the community. They have an important role to play, and they are often pushed off the stage because the school district wants to take over, or the county, or sometimes the governor wants to take over. So if you plan together with law enforcement who speaks in what order, what is their messaging? That unified message, if you get nothing else out of this process then agreement on what the communication strategy is. We just saw in a recent school shooting that it was very difficult and troubled in part because of the lack of unified messaging that came from the city. So this is your goal is to come together and think through some of these really basic things. And if you can spend a couple of hours and you can get that then you have succeeded in doing something very important.

Joe Supervielle:

So if the city or county manager, if the police chief or the mayor or whoever else doesn't report to them it sounds like they can kind of still gain that leverage by saying hey, we're doing this, we're scheduling it, get involved with the calendar if you want but this is happening and it does put the pressure on them to show up because I don't think the implication was that these people don't care it's just kind of the bureaucracy or whatever else slows it down and makes it hard, but just push forward and they'll kind of be forced to show up.

Sarah Peck:

That's right. You build it they will come.

Joe Supervielle:

Yeah.

Sarah Peck:

I don't think there's any mayor who wants to have it leak out to the press that the city manager had all of these people there and the one person who wasn't there was the mayor.

Joe Supervielle:

If when that meeting does happen the city manager doesn't necessarily have to be in charge even if they led the effort to make it happen, they're not necessarily the point person in that room. I guess that's case by case, or what do you think?

Sarah Peck:

I would say, and this is again going into pilot project territory. But I would say that probably the best practices, the senior most elected official should be present and should stay for the length of the exercise ideally, because that sends the message this is important, I'm in charge, and then they understand at the end of the day what their role is. And as I said in the beginning they often don't understand the magnitude of their role until it happens and then they're unprepared.

Joe Supervielle:

Yeah. Following up on the whole tabletop, and you partially answered this already I think, and maybe with this pilot program, but the question is our city in this case they did, our city had a tabletop exercise on school shooting response a few years back. Intentions were good and we did establish some important pre-decisions like family centers and grief counseling, which is what you mentioned. But it didn't leave much confidence in terms of clear and agreed upon process for information sharing or public communication once real chaos hits. On top of that there has been much turnover in many key positions or assigned responsibilities.

Joe Supervielle:

So the specific question is then how often should these full day or even multiple day sessions happen, and if it can or won't how can we best update the plan segment? So it sounds like make it happen is part of the answer. They're essentially saying we did this and we got some good out of it, the family centers in grief counseling, but maybe because of the positions or the ego or the power struggle in the room it's easy to say hey get everyone there, but once they're there and it's not going so well then what?

Sarah Peck:

Well first of all this city gets a gold star for having done it in the first place. Second of all, they did it before there were resources available to them. So just taking a look at the protocol gives you a lot of understanding of what you need to be thinking about and planning. I mean the protocol is a five minute read. If you read the protocol you suddenly get an idea of wow, we don't have any plans for how to handle the victim's fund. We don't have any idea of whether or not to declare a state of emergency or what the benefits are. Special news flash, go ahead and do it there's no downside. We didn't create a corner protocol for extreme emergencies, which you definitely need one of those.

Sarah Peck:

So I think now that these resources exist and you have this playbook that has all of this deep dive in areas where you can hand the communications chapter to a PIO, and you can hand the working with law enforcement chapter to your chief of police, and you can hand these things out and people can take a look. None of these things are very long. And then you can come together and work through some of the things you didn't get to the first time around. And by the way, law enforcement, they do drills all the time. They don't do it one time and consider themselves done, they don't. The city of Orlando does a mass... I'm sorry, they do a tabletop exercise every year headed by the mayor. It isn't a mass shooting incident every time, they have a different kind of scenario every year, but there's no reason not to have one of these every year until you feel like you really have your protocols in place and you're ready should it happen?

Joe Supervielle:

Next question. Thankfully we have not had much of an issue with the gun debate or politics within the council administrator or among staff. The problem is more a mix of denial that it won't happen here or depression that we can't do anything about it anyways. Fear can only go so far as a motivator, how can we address morale before any new planning or training takes place? I think the morale within the local government staff. The notion that we can't do anything about it anyways, we've kind of already said that's not true, nothing's a hundred percent, but everything you've mentioned so far is what you can do. But just that bigger problem of before we even get to any of this how can we communicate with staff or, I don't know if motivate is the right word, but kind of get beyond that paralyzing reaction and move forward.

Sarah Peck:

Well I would like to hope that after the recent shootings there's a renewed energy to recognize what former Dayton mayor Nan Whaley has said, which is, "It's not if but when." It really could happen in your community, that is our unfortunate reality right here. And it's especially important to pay attention to this reality if you are a small city because more than likely what you're going to have happen is a school shooting or a workplace shooting, and you will probably know some of the people who are involved. This will be deeply personal and it will affect, it will traumatize, you and your staff. That is a fact.

Sarah Peck:

So like any other serious issue this is a time to be a leader. You have to lead here, and I think that if somebody is confronted with leadership that fail to appreciate that they have a role, that's part of the problem. I think there's a failure to understand what that role is.

Sarah Peck:

And as I looked at those federal resources from FEMA and DOJ where it talks about what the school has to do, it doesn't even mention the role of the city, I thought that that's part of the problem. There isn't enough information out there to help mayors understand that your role starts the minute the shooting starts. And when I say mayor that includes the city manager because the city manager, especially in a small city, is really responsible for the oversight of the police, a lot of these services and a lot of these agencies.

Sarah Peck:

So if one of those leaders, whether it's the city manager, the mayor, the deputy mayor, the city attorney, somebody, if somebody can get on board with the idea that we have to talk about this, you might start really small, just an internal meeting at the city conference table saying talk about your fears, talk about your concerns, talk about some starter things that you can do.

Sarah Peck:

The materials that we've created have a list of other types of things that you can do in addition to the tabletop exercise that are good preparedness things. You can meet with school officials and understand what their safety protocols are. Simple, easy. You can appoint your chief of staff or somebody on the team to go do that. You can ask for a report that assesses the mental health system and how it applies to the school system. Just kind of get on board with that. And then you can ask school officials what do you need that the city can advocate for you to get. Again, I really want to keep emphasizing that I hear it again and again, there just isn't enough in the way of resources for students who are in crisis in schools. So think about some of these things that you can pull in that are going to help strengthen and make your schools and make them a safer, better place to learn.

Sarah Peck:

And then finally just a word about drills. I think every state mandates that schools have these active shooter drills, but they don't say how you do them or how often you do them. And it isn't up to the mayor or the city manager either, I get it. But in these engagements with the schools, the schools will understand you're looking out for their best interests and you can share some of the best practices that we're aware of. And one of them is don't do realistic drills, don't do that. Don't do them unannounced, these are traumatizing to children. Do things that are age appropriate like a fire drill. Help them understand that they just need to listen to what their teacher or the nearest adult tells them. And working slowly easing their way in, familiarizing themselves with what resources are out there will help get their head wrapped around this. They've got this, they can do this. That's what I would suggest.

Joe Supervielle:

Thanks for the insight today. All the resources mentioned including the protocol and the playbook itself will be linked again on the ICMA website and the podcast webpage. So Sarah, thanks for your insight and your research and your expertise as local government leaders do the best they can with this topic.

Sarah Peck:

Thank you very much. And please encourage listeners to reach out to me directly. If they have specific questions or any other thing that I can help with I can send our draft tabletop template to them. They can reach me by going to our website unitedonguns.org and click on contact and send me an email and you can reach me that way.

Joe Supervielle:

Okay, thank you.

Sarah Peck:

Thank you. For anyone who's listening you're already ahead of the game. Thank you.

 

Guest Information

Sarah Peck, J.D., Director, UnitedOnGuns

Episode Notes

Sarah Peck, director of UnitedonGuns answers questions on what city and county managers must do to lead through tragedy.

Key takeaways:

  1. Schedule a tabletop exercise annually, inviting the highest elected official, the police chief or sheriff, the local FBI, child mental health experts, school board leadership, a Public Information Officer, and other key staff. Managers can lead the effort to get this scheduled and completed even if many stakeholders do not report to you.

    Download the free tabletop exercise pilot template from Orlando, Fl.

     
  2. Security solutions should be analyzed thoroughly and emotion must be removed from purchasing decisions. Research shows resources are better spent on social workers, counseling, and mental health for students, family, and staff.
     
  3. Don’t do overly realistic drills, especially for young children.
     
  4. Despite demoralizing frustration, there are steps local government leaders can and must take now to plan, respond, and recover.

As Ms. Peck closed the interview,

For anyone listening, you're already ahead of the game, thank you.

 

Resources:

Get the Mass Shooting Protocol - First 24 Hours | FREE Download

Get the Mass Shooting Playbook | FREE Download

Ten Essential Actions to Improve School Safety

Read Sarah Peck's detailed PM Magazine article on how to prepare

Read Sarah Peck and Emily Nink's post 'Is Your City Prepared to Respond to a Mass Shooting' on the ICMA Blog

 

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