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Schools use new safety training and technology to prepare for mass shootings

Ximena Sanchez wraps a Combat Application Tourniquet around her arm. “Mine’s on here super tight, but I guess that’s how it’s supposed to be,” she said. Sanchez secures the Velcro band and twists the windlass as tight as she can to stop life-threatening bleeding. She’s a 5th-grade teacher, only weeks into her first year at the Kankakee School District.

But she’s not in an emergency. She and a group of other teachers are taking a “Stop the Bleed” course. It’s a program that started back in 2015 to be, essentially, CPR training for bleeding. And as the rate of mass shootings and school shootings continue to rise, more and more schools like Kankakee are training their teachers how to “Stop the Bleed.”

New federal data shows that in the 2021-22 school year, there were nearly 200 school shootings with fatalities. That’s the largest number ever. In the new school year, many districts are investing in new school safety training and technology.

Dana Arseneau is trauma coordinator at Riverside Medical Center in Kankakee. She’s one of the nurses leading the training.

“We teach tourniquet care," said Arseneau. "We teach how to put pressure and how to find bleeding, what life-threatening bleeding is, what non-life-threatening bleeding is and, basically, we teach them how to stop it."

She says the No. 1 cause of preventable death in trauma is bleeding, because it only takes two minutes. Arseneau says two ways to identify life-threatening bleeding are if it has a pulse or if it’s pooling.

“You want whatever pressure you're putting on here to be about the size of [the wound],” said the nurse. “It may be a little bit bigger, but you don't want it to be [too] big, because you want all of that pressure and energy that you're pushing down to go directly onto the site.”

Teachers take turns applying the military-grade tourniquets on each other and themselves. Anseneau coaches them through school shooting scenarios and uses a fake leg to show how to properly stuff gauze into a wound. If you are not safe, you can’t help others. No gauze in your classroom? Grab a shirt or a flag off the wall if you need to apply pressure to a wound. School lanyards make great makeshift tourniquets too. The educators see the combat tourniquets only cost about $20 on Amazon if they want to get some for their go-bags.

And, since they’re teachers, the trauma nurse talks about how to use these techniques when you’re saving small children from bullet or knife wounds.

“A lot of times you don't even have to put a tourniquet on them, you can just put pressure. But I'm going to need to be in that kid's face anyway, because they are not going to be sitting there nice and calm, right? So, we have to distract the bejeezus out of them,” she said. “This is another good job for all of those little helpers in the room. ‘Who wants to help out?' Get somebody in their face, and if you need to hide? Hide whatever's going on. So, if you place a tourniquet on you're going to cover it up so that they can't see it.”

Sanchez knows it’s necessary and thought the training was helpful.

“I just also think it's just really sad," she said, "but it is something we have to think about every single day."

She’s just a few weeks into her teaching career and it’s already something her 10-year-old 5th grade students bring up to her.

“Literally, like when my kids first came into my classroom, they're like, ‘Oh, there's a closet in there, so if someone came and shot the school, well, I'll go inside the closet.’ It was just really sad,” said Sanchez. “I'm glad that they're thinking about their safety, but I wish they didn't have to.”

Evolv Weapons Detection System
Rockford Public Schools
Evolv Weapons Detection System

At Rockford Public Schools, they’re investing heavily into school safety technology. The district is spending $2.5 million on new Evolv Weapons Detection Systems. They’re not metal detectors, it uses “AI and sensors” to identify if a person likely has a weapon.

Jason Barthel is the Chief Information Officer for Rockford Public Schools. He says they’ve installed the systems at every high school starting this fall. And that students walk through the doors as usual with a few staff members monitoring the system in case of an alert.

“I have a tablet in front of me," said Barthel, "and it’ll put like a red box around where that alert was. I can pull that student aside and continue letting everybody else walk through."

He says the weapons system was developed for arenas, stadiums and amusement parks. But over the past few years, hundreds of school districts like Rockford have installed them.

“We put a little over 8,000 kids through this thing on a daily basis in about 25 minutes, which is really fast for us," he said. "We started off at about an 8-11% alert rate."

That means around 10% of students are pulled off to the side to be searched after setting off the alarm. But it’s not weapons that are setting it off. It’s eyeglass cases and Chromebooks, among other everyday objects. Barthel says they’ve yet to have a real weapon identified with the system. He says he expects the false alarm rate to go down.

A 2022 report from the BBC questioned if Evolv’s system’s are as effective as they claim. But Barthel says that’s not a concern.

“Nothing's 100% foolproof,” he said. “We want to reduce risk, we know we're never going to be able to eliminate risk.”

The district also recently added weapons detection software to cameras outside of some schools. Barthel says the district paid for the Evolv system with funds already allocated to their technology budget.

“We've heard from parents and the community through surveys that people are concerned about safety and security in the building,” he said. “So, let's add this to our toolset. And we can do it, essentially, without costing the taxpayer another dollar.”

Mass shooting fears aren't going away. And since schools can't pass legislation, all they can do is apply a tourniquet or build up defenses to make students, staff and families feel more protected when they walk into class or drop off their kids.

Peter joins WNIJ as a graduate of North Central College. He is a native of Sandwich, Illinois.