Editor’s note: This story focuses on a mock drill of a school shooting, not an actual shooting.
Shots rang out in the hallways of Woodlawn Beach Middle School on Monday afternoon, sending teachers, administrators and sports coaches scrambling to secure their classrooms.
People were running down the halls screaming that there was a person with a gun on campus. An emergency alert went out on handheld radios updating teachers with the shooter’s location: “The shooter is now in hallway A. The shooter has moved to hallway B. Police have apprehended the suspect, remain sheltering in place.” Gunshots rang out and reverberated through the white hallway, one after the other.
Luckily, the shots were fired from a prop gun, used to simulate the sounds of active gunfire while firing blanks. The screamers were actors. The emergency radio updates were read from a script.
It was all part of a scarily realistic active shooter training exercise that took place at both Woodlawn Beach Middle School and Pace High School on Monday, the latest effort by the Santa Rosa County School District to prepare educators and administrators for an active shooter situation. No students were at the schools on Monday due to the Columbus Day holiday.
“We want (the teachers) to be aware of what gunfire actually sounds like,” said Mark Holley, an instructor for Louisiana State University’s National Center for Biomedical Research and Training program, which designed and orchestrates the active shooter exercise. “We try to make it as realistic as possible. We use a very realistic blank gun, and we pull out teachers as role players to let them be screamers, because we need to make this as realistic as possible.”
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The exercise is meant to help prepare teachers and administrators for the potential real-world scenario of an active school shooter, in the seconds and minutes after an attack first starts before law enforcement arrives. But the hyper-realistic nature of the exercise, from the gunfire to the screaming, puts some teachers on edge.
“It’s upsetting because it’s so realistic,” said Rhonda Chavers, a former educator and current president of the Santa Rosa Professional Educators teacher’s union. “But how else can you prepare for something that could happen? I think that it’s just the times we’re in, and it’s just what teachers are going to have to endure as far as the safety component of their jobs, to make sure we’re all safe in school.”
The program’s instructors say the realistic nature of the training is part of what makes it effective. Since the “Run, Hide, Fight” program was developed by LSU’s NCBRT Academy of Counter-Terrorist Education in June, it’s been taught 40 times across eight states in schools, hospitals, private businesses, churches and other places where active shooter situations might occur.
“It puts a little bit of stress on (the teachers), but they get a lot out of it,” Holley said. “We’re here to save lives. We want to put tools in their toolbox so that if one of these events happen, it increases their chances to survive it.”
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The shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School on Feb. 14, 2018, that left 17 people dead prompted a wave of new security measures and legislation meant to keep students safe in the event that it happens again.
In Santa Rosa County, the Sheriff’s Office put an armed school resource officer in every school in the district. Administrators enacted new protocols, including locking classroom doors more often and heavily vetting visitors to school campuses.
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Dan Hahn, the safety director for the Santa Rosa County School District, said he reached out to LSU about bringing the “Run, Hide, Fight” program to the county after hearing about it this summer. Since then, the district has put on 17 active shooter training exercises across the county. The training is optional for teachers and administrators and takes place on days when children are not in school.
The program is funded with federal dollars through the Department of Homeland Security.
“Plans don’t stop school shootings,” Hahn said. “But it prepares teachers for low-frequency, high-impact incidents. It gives them the ability to make decisions independently of administrators.
Heightened attention has surrounded school safety plans across the country in the wake of the Parkland shooting. In Indiana earlier this year, a realistic active-shooter training exercise drew widespread criticism when elementary school teachers were made to kneel against a classroom wall and were sprayed with plastic pellets from a pellet gun, leaving welts and bruises on their backs and legs.
The situation prompted state lawmakers and school safety experts in Indiana and elsewhere to question the necessity of so-called “mock shooting drills,” and lockdown drills in general. The National Association of School Psychologists says that while planning is critical, “depending on circumstances, some lockdowns may produce anxiety, stress, and traumatic symptoms in some students or staff, as well as loss of instructional time.”
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LSU’s “Run, Hide, Fight” program does not involve pelting teachers with plastic bullets, and the gun is shot when pointed down toward the ground and never pointed at people. But the sound of gunfire visibly shook several teachers during the drill, who were given seconds to react to keep their (mock) students safe.
“I feel it’s imperative that they make it as real as possible,” said Penny Duffey, a sixth-grade teacher who attended the Woodlawn Beach Middle School training on Monday. “If we can experience it now, with it being so real, that’s going to prepare us better. You can’t have too much when it comes to safety.”
David Godwin, a high school math teacher, took the class at Pace High School on Monday as well. He said he felt the training prepared him to recognize the sound of an active shooter and have an action plan in place.
“I’ve heard gunshots before. I’ve hunted and handled guns my whole life,” Godwin said. “But I’ve never actually heard one in a building. Just being able to recognize that sound was beneficial, and the course teaches you what to do — instead of just deliberating what to do, you just go straight to the action phase.”
‘Moral dilemmas’ and split-second decisions
The day-long training starts with about four hours of instructional time in the morning, followed by lunch and then real-world training in the afternoon.
During the real-world portion, an instructor with a prop 8 mm-caliber gun “opens fire” inside the school in several different scenarios — while the teachers are in classrooms, in hallways, in the cafeteria or elsewhere.
When shots ring out, the teachers have to react quickly, and several factors come into play: how close does the shooter sound? What’s the best option, run outside away from where you think the shooter is, or gather the students and hide in a closet or bathroom? After you’ve gotten the students to safety, what materials are available to you if you need to fight? What if a student bangs on the locked classroom door and begs to be let in? Do you let the student in, or do you leave them out on the off chance they’re a shooter? What if someone bangs on the door and says they’re police?
“There are moral dilemmas, for sure,” Duffey said. “That’s just where our best judgement has to come into play.”
Instructor Daniel Redmond said he’s given the training to private businesses, but training teachers is different because, normally, he tells people to only worry about getting themselves to safety, not other people.
“I know you guys aren’t going to leave your kids behind,” Redmond told the teachers gathered in the cafeteria after one of the shooting exercises. “You have different worries than a lot of the people I train.”
LSU’s NCBRT/Academy of Counter-Terrorist Education program has been around for decades, and up until recently has almost exclusively trained law enforcement and first responders to handle active shooter scenarios. But the wave of mass shootings in the U.S. in the past few years prompted the program to expand its training to civilians.
Holley, one of the instructors, said it’s sobering that the training is needed for people like teachers, church staff or Walmart employees.
“We have some teachers in there that have been there for 30-plus years, and in just having casual conversation with them, when they signed up to be a teacher 30 years ago, this was unheard of,” he said. “And now, there’s a good chance that it could happen. We hate to say it’s commonplace, but nobody really thinks it can happen to them. Everyone I’ve talked to who has actually been in these situations says they never thought it could happen to them.”
Annie Blanks can be reached at email@example.com or 850-435-8632.