Sheriff, chief reflect on events following Dixon High School shooting

Sheriff, chief reflect on events following Dixon High School shooting

Yellow tape marks off the scene just west of Dixon High School where a school resource officer shot and wounded an armed ex-student on campus.
Yellow tape marks off the scene just west of Dixon High School where a school resource officer shot and wounded an armed ex-student on campus.

A small village made up of law enforcement, officials and other personnel worked in sync Wednesday with a singular goal: to make sure things didn't get worse.

The incident happened in minutes as Matthew A. Milby Jr. opened fire into the Dixon High School gym full of about 180 seniors rehearsing for graduation, and school resource officer Mark Dallas confronted him, pursued him outside as Milby shot back at him, and returned fire, striking Milby in the shoulder.

“What really stopped this from getting worse initially was the actions of the school resource officer," Lee County Sheriff John Simonton said today. "He put himself between the students and the shooter and stopped the threat."

What happened next was a rippled response throughout the day that included upward of 50 law enforcement officers collaborating with "no arrogance or attitudes" or huffs about jurisdiction, he said.

“It was really remarkable how everyone reacted and worked together."

Dixon Police Chief Steve Howell said it was an impressive force that responded and offered help.

"Overall, we believe the response from everyone involved went extremely well," he said.

A sheriff's deputy was one of the first on the scene and helped to clear and secure the area. At first, they weren't 100 percent sure that Milby was acting alone, and more law enforcement arrived to give the building a second clear and start to evacuate students and faculty.

That also included having a rescue task force of firefighters and paramedics on hand to treat anyone who might be injured.

Other steps were establishing a central command post – Simonton brought out the county's emergency response trailer with the help of the fire department – creating a staging area, traffic posts, and securing the crime scene for the investigating agencies.

The Peoria Avenue Bridge and nearby roads were blocked by officers and city public works employees, news releases were sent to media outlets, and the Ogle and Whiteside County Sheriff's departments were standing by to handle other calls coming in to Dixon and Lee County.

Other agencies responding were the Amboy, Rock Falls and Sterling police departments, the Illinois State Police, which is heading the investigation, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, the Secretary of State Police, and the FBI.

A tactical dispatcher was set up in the trailer within 45 minutes of the incident, allowing for immediate action to communications coming in, and all of the pieces were coming together to keep the situation under control, Simonton said.

Students accompanied by officers were directed to the baseball fields in Page Park where they waited for their parents to pick them up.

There will be an after-action review next week for the departments to go over what happened, how they responded and what they could do differently, but looking back on the day, Simonton said they were "on the right track" following training policies and procedures.

"The training and preparation was demonstrated time and time again that day," he said.

A review also will be done for the school and likely for city officials.

Simonton said they try to do training with schools at least twice a year and evaluate response plans, and they also pick a school in the county each year to conduct critical incident training integrating different departments to practice as well as become familiar with the layout of area schools.

Training for this type of event was years in the making, Howell said.

"While we hoped to never have this happen in our community, the coordination and execution during the event by all involved was extraordinary. Communication was excellent, and everyone stepped up where they were needed."

Looking toward the future, there will likely be talks about needing to find funds to have more school resource officers in schools and having more training exercises, Simonton said.

One of the biggest challenges of the day, as with any big incident, is the location because of the busy thoroughfare and the DHS-specific problem of having construction crews needing to safely come down from scaffolding, but the location was also a positive for its proximity to responding deputies, officers and city workers, Simonton said.

Howell said the early stages of a critical incident are always the most challenging.

"You never have enough officers in this early stage, so you have to prioritize and use your resources wisely," he said. "The tough balance is accomplishing this and getting the appropriate information out to our community in a timely manner."

There's also the difficulty of putting emotion aside for officers who had children in the gym or the school.

"We have a job to do at that time to make sure everyone goes home safely," Simonton said. "I’m very proud of the way they reacted."

There was a bit of luck involved too, he said. Dallas normally would place himself at a heavily populated area of the school, but he and the students were fortunate they weren't shot.

"They were not as fortunate in Texas," he said.

Ten people were killed and several others injured this morning at Santa Fe High School after a 17-year-old armed student walked into an art class at the school and began firing, according to Texas authorities.

Legislators like U.S. Rep. Adam Kinzinger and state Rep. Tom Demmer both weighed in on Dallas' heroism, and he also received a call from Gov. Bruce Rauner Wednesday.

Many in the community stepped up to help and assist students and faculty, including two Illinois Army National Guard soldiers, McDonald's and Snyders Pharmacy.

"It is times like these when you can truly see how strong and caring the people of a community are, and we at the Dixon Police Department are very honored to work for the citizens of this community," Howell said.

Simonton said the community's response to how the incident was handled has been incredible – anything from saying simple thank yous, bringing in food or giving a pat on the back – and it's a testament to the trust law enforcement has built in the community.

"We're on the right track, but we can’t rest on that. We need to keep getting ourselves better, and we will."

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