DIXON – Newly retired Dixon police Sgt. Mike Wolfley devoted his career to the issue of school and workplace safety, and how police and firefighters should respond to shooting incidents.
He was instrumental in the training and response plan that played a part in the resolution of a May 16, 2018, shooting, when then-school resource officer Mark Dallas intercepted a senior with a firearm outside the gym during a graduation rehearsal.
At a Wednesday ceremony honoring Wolfley, former chief of police and now City Manager Danny Langloss called the response plan “visionary leadership and training.”
While Wolfley’s focus was always in developing response plans locally, he is concerned about what lies ahead nationally. In 2020, a trust gap developed between law enforcement agencies and the communities and institutions they serve.
With schools opening up once the coronavirus pandemic becomes manageable, Wolfley anticipates that the trend since 1999′s Columbine school massacre for increasing school violence will resume.
“I think right now the challenge is going to be what’s going on with law enforcement, you’re going to see schools step away a little bit,” said Wolfley, who retired Wednesday after 25 years with Dixon PD. “Unfortunately, when we get in the next school year, we’re going to start seeing these incidents again. And that’s going to change the flow of things again. Law enforcement and the schools need to work better together.”
Between 1999 and 2019, 304 people were killed and 485 injured in school-related shootings, 122 of which took place at high schools.
Wolfley reiterated that the relationship between the Dixon Police Department, the Fire Department and Dixon High School remains rock solid.
“We have the luxury that our schools work great with us,” Wolfley said. “Any time we want to use the school for training, we get to.”
Cooperation between police, fire-rescue and the schools, and the constant refinement of response plans, is the result of years of hard work. When Wolfley started the process about 2006, there had been about 41 fatalities and 66 injuries from school-related shootings since Columbine.
“I started integrating into school safety around the early 2000s,” he said. “I started training with the teachers at the time. It was time to step up what we did in town, not just for our officers, but for the schools themselves.”
Initially, buy-in was tough.
“Early hurdles? ‘It will never happen here.’ That was the biggest thing,” Wolfley said. “Some staff would be leery of what we would be doing in the schools with training, stuff like that.”
Formulating training scenarios and developing response strategies with the affected institutions was aided by mounds of research into the subject of school shootings and tactical response. He was selective: recommendations for cities didn’t always match the requirements of a small town, and vice-versa, he said.
“A learning process,” Wolfley said. “I would always explain what we were doing and why we were doing it, before we did anything. We aren’t doing anything to scare them. We are trying to teach them that this is what you need to do in the event that something would happen. This is how it’s going to go.
“Things are always evolving,” he said. “School safety is always evolving. Talk about entry points. There were always multiple entry points. Slowly, we scaled that down to minimize entry points to control entry and egress in a school day and lunchtime hours. It’s an evolving process you have to assess each year. What is working, what is not working, what’s new coming up, and moderate your training from there.”
Engagement on behalf of fire departments was key, Wolfley said, and that element has been steadfast since the beginning of the process.
“Our fire departments were: ‘Hey, if you can get us a secure area, we’ll come in and work on anyone who is injured.’ … We were ahead of the curve on that.”
The rescue task force concept that Dixon employs is the heart of the Alert Lockdown Information Counter and Evaluate procedures, or ALICE, as it’s commonly called.
“As soon as it is reasonably secure, you are pairing up firefighters and police officers and starting to flood the school with resources, triage for patients,” Wolfley said.
The plan was tested in the 2018 incident, but it also got a second look after the incident, when things got bottled up with arriving parents.
“One little hiccup we had, because things were flowing so well for us that day, the reunification process got bogged down,” he said. “It’s something we’ve addressed in our structure so that would work out better.”
Anticipating shooting incidents is difficult. There is no reading the tea leaves, although schools and workplace human resource departments have started adding personnel assessment teams.
“Officers. Counselors. Staff. Try and look for red flags,” Wolfley said. “But sometimes those red flags are there, sometimes they aren’t. In a workplace, you work with HR and supervisors. You learn procedures. Maybe there is a problem with mental health, maybe something else that could be a triggering moment. You just don’t know.”
Broader acceptance of ALICE in educational and law enforcement circles has been gratifying, Wolfley said. He, Dallas, and Dixon High School Principal Michael Grady recently gave a presentation to a principals conference.
One development that deviates from the Dixon approach that is gaining broader acceptance, however, concerns Wolfley.
“Through the last couple of years, I just cringe when departments do the surprise drills or unannounced drills,” he said. “The big word is trauma. They are traumatizing the students. They have fair intentions of trying to prepare students, but they are going about it the wrong way. That’s my biggest thing.
“Let’s do the training, but everyone needs to come to the table first and say this is what our expectations are. This is what we’ll like to do. Are you OK with this? Are not OK with that? Step by step, to get things through.”