Preparing for the worst: Active shooter drill tests response to events we hope will never happen

by Andrea Hartzell,

  • 9:37 a.m. a person walked into the front office of Washburn Rural Middle School. Suddenly shots ring out. The shooter had incapacitated the office staff and moved out into the commons area. A blond woman in a gray hoodie – she shouted out a name – looking for someone. She started shooting again; running through the hallways as smoke filled the air and the smell of gunpowder permeated our noses. In one hallway two students were shot, injured and screaming for help. In another, four. Down another hall two, one fatally. Shots continued to ring out.
  • A call went out to 911.
  • A Washburn Rural Police Department Officer responded from the high school. Less than 10 minutes later, he had found and eliminated the shooter.
  • Local law enforcement continue to arrive.
  • In a very short amount of time the outside parking lot was filled with police cars, fire trucks, ambulances and more! A command post area was designated and set-up started.
  • Law enforcement teams began to rush in the doors and down the hallways, past the screaming, crying victims who just wanted help, reaching out for the team’s legs as they pushed by. The sole purpose of the law enforcement teams was to ensure the shooter was no longer a threat and there were no other immediate threats in the building.
  • Once the scene was secure, many more law enforcement teams, with fire and EMT’s attached, were escorted into the building. They began to render aid to the wounded and remove them from the building to a designated triage area. Other teams of law enforcement started their classroom to classroom search and began to escort any students and staff they found to safety.

This was an exercise – an exercise coordinated by the Shawnee County Emergency Management (SNCOEM) Department that took place over spring break.

It was a coordinated effort between SNCOEM, the Auburn-Washburn USD 437 School District, Auburn-Washburn USD 437 Police Department, Shawnee County Sheriff’s Office, Kansas Highway Patrol, Topeka Police Department, Topeka Fire Department, Mission Township Fire Department, Topeka Airport Authority, American Medical Response, Shawnee Heights Fire Department, Shawnee County Health Department and Stormont Vail Health.

It was an exercise in planning almost a year. “It all began with a grant SNCOEM received from the Northeast Kansas Homeland Security Council for equipment, training and practice,” said Director of SNCOEM Dusty Nichols.

After the grant was received, Nichols reached out to USD 437 to see if they would participate. They received a quick yes.

The purpose of exercises such as this “is to test plans to make them better,” said Nichols. “It is evident 437 puts students first.”

Auburn Washburn USD 437 staff, parents and students were all given the opportunity to volunteer or observe the exercise. Other agencies were also invited to observe.

Staff were assigned classrooms in certain parts of the middle school. They each had a student or students in the classroom with them. Some students were actors in the active shooter scenario. They had simulated bullet wounds and blood, as well as rips and tears in their clothing.

Three of the staff I talked to said they heard the first shot ring out but could not tell where it was coming from. The sounds bounced and echoed around the hallways. They heard more shots and screaming. The number of shots heard varied from three to 15. One teacher was so far away he didn’t hear any of the shots or the screaming.

In one pod, a series of four interconnected classrooms, there was a student, Aiden, another student and a teacher. They ran after the first shot and escaped out the back door of the school.

A teacher, Amber, and her two students, hunkered down in place in the corner of the classroom out of the door’s sight-line. One of her students wanted to leave, but she kept them there because there wasn’t any way to know for sure what was going on and where it was happening.

Amber said, “after what seemed like 20 minutes and things quieted, we left the classroom, moving slowly, peaking around corners and went out the most direct outside door.”

The first “text alert” from the district went out to parents within eight minutes of the start of the incident. A second “text alert” was sent once the site was secure and contained reunification location information. The reunification location is a secure location where parents should go to pick up their kids.

If there is an incident at one school, all the other district schools go into secure campus mode. They were testing this system district-wide during the drill as well.

Two Auburn Washburn computer technicians were volunteer participants. Darin and Stacy were staged in the library with one other staff person and three students.

Stacy said “We first heard gun shots … and saw her [the shooter] come in and start shooting. We went into a small office and hid in there. When the last shot was far away…we went to the front entrance of the library and straight out the front entrance of the school. “

Stacy said before everything began Superintendent of Schools Dr. Scott McWilliams stopped by each staging location. Participants were able to ask questions about the meaning of certain things and what to do.

After the exercise was over, Dr. McWilliams and SNCOEM took staff/students around to see the areas where the actors playing injured students were staged and explained how the exercise worked.

A student, Thomas, was in the art room (B1) in the far corner of the school. He said they heard a gunshot followed by a scream, more shots, more screams…two screams in total. The teacher ushered them into the back closet. They spent the whole duration in the room’s closet – until evacuated by police.

Thomas said, “I felt it was very realistic – they probably did the best job they could have – especially with being escorted out of the scene with blood on the floor. We were told to put our hands on our heads and escorted out the front entrance. It felt very real.”

Thomas went on to say “When someone first came in and said ‘police department’ we all thought it might be the shooter(s). When someone came back we heard radios and thought it was actually the police.“

Rachel, who portrayed a victim, said “as a victim….being one of the first people the shooter shot at … was scary – this is a real thing that actually happens and I knew that in my head to tell myself this is fake – but when you are in the moment – you tell yourself the wounds hurt to keep yourself in the moment.”

During the open forum after the exercise one student asked, “What is the thing you want students to do when this situation occurs?” Auburn Washburn USD 437 Director of Operations Rich Jones said “Follow directions of the adults in the room – do exactly what the teachers say. We have been doing training with the teachers this entire year. Your teacher will make the run, hide, fight decision. Your job is to help them once they’ve decided. Follow the directions of your teacher.”

In response to a question from an audience member about how an operation works, Rescue Task Force member Sergeant Kiley Rice of the Shawnee County Sheriff’s Office said “I don’t know anything until the bad guy runs his play. I have to make sure no one else continues to be harmed and killed. That is the number one priority – nothing else – when first on scene – I HAVE to make that happen – I have been trained for this from baby cop 101.”

As someone in attendance and who was able to shadow the director of SNCOEM, it was an eye-opening experience. The planning and preparation that went into this was extraordinary and overwhelming. It was well thought out, well planned and well executed. The sheer number of law enforcement, fire and others on site was just incredible.

The volunteers and observers all did exactly what they were asked to do. The student actors were amazing. I wanted to stop taking photos and help them. It looked, sounded and smelled real. Several times I found myself against a wall watching the action unfolding around me and forgot to keep snapping pictures.

All of the participants of this exercise took away a great deal of knowledge and helpful information to use going forward. Much of the process can be used whether it is an active shooter or recovery from a natural disaster.

It is something I know I and those there will never forgot and hope to never have to do in real life. I have a new-found respect and appreciation for the training and work our law enforcement officers, first responders and school personnel do every day. Saying thank you doesn’t seem like nearly enough.

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