Police welcome students as they return to the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, in Parkland, Fl.
Pearl Jam released a song in 1993 called “Glorified G,” in which singer Eddie Vedder describes a firearm as a “glorified version of a pellet gun.” While one is obviously far more lethal than the other, the lyrics suggest a person who uses either weapon may be overcompensating for misplaced self-empowerment.
It’s now 25 years later and “Glorified G” might not sound out of place as the background music for a video that was posted on Snapchat in late April. It shows a young man loading what appears to be a pink pellet gun before picking the weapon up and looking out the window of a home facing Canarelli Middle School in Las Vegas. A second person can be heard saying, “He’s going to shoot the school.” Without hesitation, the man holding the gun replies, “yeah.”
Word of the video spread quickly and as can be expected, didn’t sit well with students, faculty, and especially parents. Even though a pellet gun might be easily dismissed as a relatively harmless toy, it can be hard to gauge the true intention behind the threat — and why someone would make a point to post it on social media.
“I saw the video. It just seemed like somebody being stupid,” says a 14-year-old eighth-grader at Canarelli. “But a lot of my friends were freaked out about it.”
She mentions that teachers didn’t specifically address the video with students during class. But parents received an email from Principal Monica Lang saying she would “not stop until we see an arrest” in what she called a “serious threat” under investigation.
“No arrests were made,” says Clark County School District Police Capt. Ken Young. “It was investigated by school police and Las Vegas Metropolitan Police. The activities did not rise to a level of criminality.”
The incident, which was covered heavily in the local news for one day before quickly disappearing from the headlines, raises legitimate concerns about what constitutes a valid terror threat. At this point, it’s not a matter of if but when the next school shooting will take place in America. Police and school officials can’t afford to not take any threat seriously, regardless of how small or “stupid” it may seem.
“Kids shouldn’t be afraid to go to school and parents shouldn’t be afraid to send their kids to school,” says Jon Castagnino. “That’s where we’re at right now. It’s really awful.”
As a former reporter for KVVU FOX5, Castagnino has covered more than his share of gunfire and tragedy in Las Vegas. He is currently Manager of Sports Content and Social Media at the Greenspun School of Journalism and Media Studies at UNLV, but in recent months, he’s taken on another project. Castagnino is now also an analyst for the Academy of Threat Assessments, Countermeasures & Technology, an independent group founded by UNLV Professor Dr. Ashok Sudhakar and includes former police and FBI professionals.
“Our number one priority with this group is making schools safer,” says Castagnino. “It’s a proactive approach — not reactive. Thoughts and prayers are reactive.”
In pursuing his Masters degree in Public Administration, Castagnino took a class with Sudhaker and was invited to join the Academy last year as it was getting off the ground. He’s now one of five graduate students in an “alpha team” that pores over reports by the Department of Homeland Security, Department of Justice, and FEMA.
Using that information to build a methodology, Academy members visit schools and perform what is called an assessment of campus grounds. They train teachers to develop situational awareness in identifying threats and recommend improvements — or “countermeasures” — based on different expense tiers.
“Not everything costs money,” Castagnino points out. “Awareness doesn’t cost money. Training doesn’t cost that much money versus infrastructure.”
Yes. infrastructure. The big problem is that most schools in Clark County were built decades ago, when student shootings weren’t an everyday topic on the news. That’s why Castagnino and his team will look at open courtyards, for example, and determine if there are barriers or places to hide if an attacker suddenly opens fire.
Eventually, the Academy wants to develop a system of safety rankings for schools. “There’s going to be hundreds of factors,” says Castagnino. “How far is a police station from the school? How far is a fire station from the school? How far away is a hospital?”
It’s all about retaining and expanding levels of deterrents. Not just doing everything possible to prevent school violence, but to minimize casualties if an attack does take place.
“We’re not here to replace law enforcement by any means,” Castagnino is quick to point out. “We want to work with law enforcement and use our research to build a program that makes schools a lot safer than they are right now.”
Las Vegas is one of just 127 cities that has a dedicated police force for schools. Capt. Young says the initial concept of the Clark County School District Police Department had been around since the late 60s, with activities and training in place, before full police powers were granted in 1989. Officers take part in active shooter drills at least once a year and are frequently assigned to patrol school grounds. There’s no private security on a school campus. It’s either a police officer or campus security monitors who operate under the school district umbrella.
“They handle traditional hall monitor duties,” says Capt. Young. “They act as eyes and ears. They assist in various duties that are not law enforcement-related.”
And they aren’t armed. Neither are teachers. It’s one of the few hot-button political topics the academy takes a stand on.
“It’s not a good idea to give teachers weapons,” says Castagnino. “We’d rather have them in the hands of law enforcement professionals who know how to make quick decisions.”
The neverending debate on the issue seems to intensify whenever yet another school shooting makes national headlines. However, the May 18 attack on a high school in Santa Fe, Texas, reflects a new level of danger that should have parents terrified. Police say the 17-year-old suspect behind the deadly shooting also left undetonated explosive devices on school grounds and in a nearby building.
“Explosives need to be talked about,” says Castagnino, who notes their use is alarmingly common on a global scale. “We think it’s going to happen sooner rather than later and schools need to be prepared for an attack like that.”
While a gun requires an attacker to be physically present in order to pull the trigger, a bomb can be detonated remotely. “Not only do you have the human element where a lot of students can be killed, but there’s also the physical damage to the structure,” adds Castagnino. “A school might be shut down for six months because there’s an explosion that went off inside the building.”
That’s not all. The Academy says drones have the potential to pose a threat and as the lines between “school shooter” and “terrorist” continue to blur, electrical grids and cybersecurity are also at risk.
These are heavy topics — and something young students shouldn’t have to spend time worrying about. The same 14-year-old student who thought the Snapchat video suspect was just being stupid, says she feels safe at school, but believes more can be done — and has at least one suggestion.
“Lock the doors,” she says. “Nothing’s ever locked except for the classrooms.”
It may seem like a small thing, but Jon Castagnino says doors make a difference.
“If they’re locked properly, it’s the number-one deterrent,” he says. “If they’re left open, it’s the number-one opportunity for somebody to execute an attack.”
Unfortunately, the small things are just the beginning. It’s time to look at a bigger picture.