Dog trained to attack is Oak Hills High School's newest line of defense

Schools across Ohio, nation watching approach

CINCINNATI – A man dressed in black carries a pistol in his left hand, shouting as he briskly storms through the aisle of Cincinnati’s Oak Hills High School auditorium.

“Everybody get on the ground now! Get on the ground! Get on the ground!” 

And then, out of nowhere:

BANG!

BANG!

BANG!

The sickening sounds of gunshots fill the school.

A 60-pound Dutch Shepherd charges at the man, clinches onto his arm and tackles the gunman to the ground.

“Help! It hurts!” he shouts.

Within seconds, the dog’s handler races towards the action, and tells the dog to release his stronghold. 

The dog let's go, licks his trainer on the face and jumps in the air for his reward: a tennis ball. 

The gunman was a trained professional. The bullets were blanks.  The high school auditorium was empty. But the scenario was all too real.

The Newtown, Conn. shooting rampage that killed 26 children and staff members at Sandy Hook Elementary School in December 2012 horrified the nation and ignited emotional calls for action to protect the nation's school children.

Congress has passed no gun legislation since Newtown despite President Barack Obama’s failed push last year for expanded background checks and bans on some semi-automatic rifles and high-capacity ammunition magazines.

Many schools across the country have tightened security. They've installed surveillance cameras, metal detectors, bulletproof glass and strengthened their lockdown procedures. Some have asked teachers to carry guns, installed ballistic white boards and encouraged children to carry bulletproof backpacks.

Amid the national and seemingly elusive search for the school security “answer,” a Cincinnati dog trainer is convinced that it will take man’s best friend to stop his worst enemy.

“That [Newtown] situation could have been extremely different [with a dog],” said Mark Gomer, who now has a mission to place full-time protection dogs in primary schools across the nation.

School Shooting Sprees Continue Since Newtown

Less than a year ago, school security concerns hit close to home in Green Township when a 17-year-old La Salle High School student brought a 45-caliber semi-automatic handgun to class in April and fired a single shot into his head. 

In the 14 months since the mass shooting in Newtown, there have been at least 44 school shootings, according to a report released by gun control advocates last week.

Moms Demand Gun Sense in America, which issued the report, said those 44 shootings killed 28 people and left another 37 injured.

At least 16 cases—more than a third of the reported shootings—occurred after a confrontation between students escalated and shots were fired, according to the report.

That's an average to more than three each month. And the numbers don't appear to be diminishing: There were at least 13 school shootings in the first six weeks of 2014 alone.

Meet Aticus: Four-Legged School Security Officer 

Gomer has trained and placed what he believes to be the country’s first full-time safety dog at Oak Hills High School in Green Township.

“If the an intruder came into the school with a shotgun or an AR-15 or a high powered rifle, the dog is going to be able to take him out within seconds,” said Gomer, co-owner of American Success Dog Training in Cincinnati.

The 14-month old Dutch Shepherd is named Aticus, and joined the Oak Hills staff in August. The dog is used as a tool to find weapons in schools before an incident occurs, and it would deter an active shooter on the move, Gomer said. 

"It is going to be a very stressful surprise for that attacker," said Gomer, "These dogs are very stealthy. We purposefully condition these guys not to make a lot of noise right before that bite."

That’s why Aticus silently charged Gomer when he pretended to be an armed man in the high school auditorium in the mock scenario.

"He's about 60 pounds, but he'll hit you like he's 120 pounds," said Gomer before he took the hit. "There's no way somebody is going to get away from him if they were coming in to shoot a gun." 

The dog attacked him again on command when his trainer pretended to hold up a classroom with a plastic shotgun that same day. His razor sharp teeth ripped holes through Gomer's shirt-- even with a heavily padded bite sleeve worn underneath. 

Gomer believes the dog, which completed the attack within seconds, could buy students extra time to get away, even if the dog dies in a shootout.

“You can train a dog to be mentally unstoppable,” said Gomer. “They don’t know what a gun is for, what it can do or what a bullet is or what it is to get shot.”
 
Aticus cost the Oak Hills School District $10,000. And he has not been put to the test in a real active shooting scenario. He patrols the school halls every day to search for weapons and illegal drugs kept in lockers.
 
He goes home at night with Oak Hills High School principal John Stoddard, who said the arrangement is working well.  
 
"It was an adjustment at first," said Stoddard. "But it's been overwhelmingly positive. There's really not a whole lot I could say that we could do differently or better."
 
Oak Hills: A model for the nation?
 
As the Oak Hills School District continues to refine Aticus' new role in its long-term safety plan, school officials across the country and national security consultants are closely following how the four-legged safety "officer" will work out. 
 
"We're contacted a lot by people," said Stoddard. "I've had principals from other states call me and ask about Aticus and how things are going. What things are working well and what things aren't?"
 
Rick Amweg, executive director at the Center for P-20 Safety and Security at the Ohio Department of Education, said his office is watching, too. That office was formed in 2013 between the Ohio Board of Regents and state's department of education to address issues of school safety and respond to violence in schools.
 
"I think this is kind of a unique application for canines and it will be interesting to see. Give them a school a year with the dog and I'd be interested to talk to the school," he said. 
 
Amweg said school safety measures are a matter of local control, which means each school has the power to create their own. However, his office may recommend the option to districts seeking advice if the model is successful for Oak Hills.
Several local school districts have recently bought full-time dogs in just the last month, including the Norwood City School District and the Fairfield City Schools, which began training its dog Naddi last week to detect gun powder and drugs. 
 
But unlike Aticus, Naddi will not be trained to attack. 
 
"We've had multiple conversations with different trainers and conversations with our local police department," said Paul Otten, superintendent of the Fairfield City School District.  "Our concern was would the dog be able to deter them and detect who the armed intruder is?" 
 
Naddi is expected to join the staff of the Fairfield School District full-time in late March, and Norwood City Schools will bring their dog on board next school year. 
 
"I think this is something that is probably a trend," said Otten. "Multiple superintendents have asked a lot of questions. I think there are other school districts that are very interested in looking at this model," said Otten.
 
Gomer is working to introduce the four-legged security "officer" to schools in other states as well.  He said he's now talking to school districts in Colorado, Minnesota and schools in other parts of Ohio, which are interested in purchasing one of three dogs who are next in line for the job. 
 
Tyler Sense, a safety specialist at Winona Senior High School in southeast Minnesota, reached out to Gomer and the superintendent at Oak Hills after a Winona student put a gun to another student's head.
 
"I've been researching for the last three months on how to get the dog," said Sense. "We're trying to get a head of the game."
 
Sense is now preparing to propose the option to his local school board, which will ultimately have to decide if it's the right step.
 
David Rice, a school board member for the Vermillion School District in northeast Ohio said he is planning to hold community meetings next week to discuss the option with district parents. 
 
If the option is well received, Rice said the district will ask taxpayers to support the canine on a safety-only November levy. 
 
Using dogs in schools is also catching on in the south as well. Kristi Schiller, based out of Houston, Texas, just founded K9s4Kids. It's a non-profit initiative to place trained security dogs in schools at no cost.
 
She says dogs can do what a human can't.
 
"You're not prepared at 8:15 a.m. when that school bell rings to go into defense mode because your reflexes are out," Schiller said. "That dog never takes Ambien to sleep. It never asks for over time, and it never says: 'I had too much red wine last night.'" 
 
Schiller said her organization is now working to place dogs in schools in California, New Jersey, Virginia and Alabama. She's already provided trained dogs to three Houston primary schools and the Houston Community College. 
 
The dogs at the primary schools are only now trained to detect weapons and narcotics, but the dog at the college will eventually be taught to attack an armed gunman, too. 
 
Critics: Not The Answer For All 

All eyes are on Oak Hills as the district completes its first school year with Aticus, but some schools watching want nothing to do with idea. 

School officials at Sandy Hook and at Chardon High School near Cleveland, where a shooting rampage left three dead in February 2012, say they have no plans to bring a security dog into schools there. 

Fears of student allergies overwhelm some school districts and others are concerned that the dog will bite the wrong person -- the reason some local superintendents chose not to hire that kind of dog. 

"We know that chaos ensues during that active shooter event and if you've got a thousand or two thousand kids running through the school and you set that dog loose, how will they determine who the bad guy is?" said John McDonald, the executive director of security and emergency management for JeffCo Schools in Colorado. 

That's the school district where 15 people were killed at Columbine High School in 1999, and four other shootings have occurred since.  

Gomer and Schiller, who both advocate for the use of security dogs, say the dogs are always with their handler and socialized with kids in schools from day one. They insist there's no chance the dog would improperly use its aggression.

"You're going on that offensive aggression. It's the same kind of aggression they use when they're chasing a ball or playing tug of war," said Gomer. "It's nothing personal. It's just a job that they're conditioned to do and it's a lot of fun for the dogs."  

Ken Trump, a national school security consultant based in Cleveland, said a dog should not be used as a replacement for a school's other security measures, but it could help enhance relationships between security officials and students to identify problems before they arise. 

"It's a far stretch to say that if we put a canine on every campus that it would dramatically reduce the risk of school shootings because we're dealing with human behavior, mental health issues and complex dynamics that go far beyond any single strategy," said Trump." Is having a canine on campus with a well-trained handler an extra tool? Absolutely. Is it a quick fix that is going to give a 100 percent guarantee that you'll never have a school shooting or an act of violence in schools? Certainly not."

Trump said he thinks the option is a more rational approach than some ideas proposed across the country like using bullet proof backpacks, training children to throw objects at an armed gunman and using ballistic whiteboards. 

"Our first step is going to be focusing on the people, the relationship, the human aspect of safety and having best practices in place -- from physical security to emergency threat and planning assessment," he said. 

But what is the "right" way to protect the nation's school children? 

"Schools around the country are trying new things and everybody is looking for the right answer because the book on this has not been completed,'' McDonald said. "We are still writing chapters on active shooter response and learning lessons as we move forward.

"I applaud school districts that are looking at unique, out-of-the-box ways to keep our students safe."

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