WESTCHESTER COUNTY, N.Y. -- In the wake of Sandy Hook and at least 44 school or college shootings that have occurred nationally since, Westchester County officials have developed comprehensive crisis plans.
County Executive Rob Astorino created a Safer Communities initiative to explore more fully how such incidents might be mitigated and prevented.
The initiative is a "combination of practical, ready-to-go programs that combat violence by drawing on the expertise of the county departments."
But local law enforcement has been preparing for such a scenario since well before Sandy Hook. County police spokesman Kieran O'Leary said while he's only been with the county police for seven years, law enforcement in Westchester has had school shootings on its radar since the tragedy at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo., in 1999.
"A tremendous amount of work has been done and continues to be done by law enforcement in Westchester to be prepared to respond to an active shooter incident that we all hope will never occur in our county," he said. "Forty years ago, this wasn't anything anyone had to think about."
According to O'Leary, county law enforcement now trains regularly to be prepared to respond to an “active shooter,” incident that might occur in any environment -- from a school to a mall to a place of business.
The training includes field exercises where they utilize school buildings and campuses, along with “tabletop exercises” where a scenario is created in the classroom and first responders plan for how they would respond to the scenario as it unfolds.
In addition, the county has a full-scale exercise each year in which officers from multiple departments around the county go to a staging area, and are assigned tasks to handle the emergency as it unfolds.
Additionally, active shooter training and simulations are provided to all police recruits being trained at the Westchester County Police Academy.
O'Leary said all school districts in Westchester remain in close contact with county and municipal police. Many schools have armed police officers specifically assigned to their school, known as School Resource Officers (SROs).
When they aren't monitoring the school, SRO's perform classroom instruction on drug abuse and participate in administrative teams to help discuss plans for handling physical and mental health issues, O'Leary said.
Some of the school districts that benefit from SROs include Cortlandt Manor, North Salem, Somers and Yorktown.
Eastchester's school district reviewed its safety protocols after Sandy Hook, as they hadn't been updated since they were created in 2001. Since then, emergency response teams have developed plans and have made dry runs through the school while it was out of session.
The Elmsford school district has a direct partnership with their municipal police department.
"(The partnership) has provided us with a remarkable amount of security and professional training," said Elmsford Superintendent Joseph Ricca. "Elmsford police visits all of our buildings daily and remain a constant presence within our educational community."
O'Leary said many schools have also made physical improvements to their security as well, including adding doors, sign-in sheets and ID scanning procedures.
Overall, O'Leary said while incidents vary individually, he believes Westchester County is well-prepared with adequate resources to respond to a shooting should it ever happen.
"It's lot of work for something we hope we never see," he said.
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