As they looked around the biology classroom at Parkway West High, the teachers began to see its typical components much differently than before.
A power cord could hold the door tightly closed. So could a desk chair leg jammed into the lever knob. A fire extinguisher, if needed, was a weapon of self-defense.
For years, teachers and students have been practicing to prepare for a day they hope never comes — someone walks into their school and begins shooting. That practice has focused on a hide-and-stay-quiet technique to keep the killer away, locking classroom doors, turning out the lights and huddling in a corner or underneath desks.
But what if teachers went further to protect themselves and students, should the attacker make it into the classroom?
“Today is the start of thinking differently. You will look at what stops bullets,” said Justin Sparks, a St. Louis County police officer who spoke to Parkway teachers at districtwide training in August. “Today you’re going to learn how to defend yourself and defend the kids.”
Several school districts in St. Louis County are taking active shooter trainings for teachers, administrators and staff to a new level. They say the so-called options-based approach empowers teachers and staff to take steps that may be necessary to save themselves and their students. That could range from blocking off classroom doors, running or even throwing objects at the attacker.
And in Hazelwood, the first district in St. Louis County to adopt this type of intruder training, students are starting to learn the same options.
After 26 children died in a 2012 shooting rampage at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Conn., schools across the country have been ramping up efforts for safety and security. They’ve installed better classroom locks, buzzer systems at front entrances and helped police better navigate buildings should they need to do so in an emergency.
In Missouri, a new law in 2013 required that districts conduct drills. But the language in the legislation has been criticized for not going far enough with requirements on training for teachers and other school staff.
The Missouri Legislature approved a bill this year that would have allowed school districts to designate teachers to carry guns in school. That legislation was vetoed by Gov. Jay Nixon.
Shortly after Sandy Hook, the U.S. Department of Education recommended schools use an option-based training program for intruder or active shooter drills. The International Association of Police Chiefs and the Department of Homeland Security have done the same.
“The worst thing you can do is nothing,” Hazelwood Superintendent Grayling Tobias said. “(In school shootings) you hear of people who were sitting ducks. They did not have options.”
There are a number of options-based programs, but all have the same premise — that the person closest to the threat needs to be empowered to make an informed decision based on their awareness of the situation, said Paul Fennewald, adviser to the Missouri Center for Education Safety.
But if staff doesn’t have a lot of other information about a threat, going into a “barricade/lock down” situation may be the obvious choice of action, he said.
Fennewald said training focused on school staff reactions like this is needed, because too often, most incidents are over before authorities arrive. Too much of the training for schools is about practicing mostly the law enforcement response, he said. But he urges everyone to put the risk of a school shooting in perspective with the greatest causes of death for children, such as vehicle crashes and fires.
Hazelwood and Parkway did their training through a company called Tier One Tactical Solutions, and officers have trained or have plans to train staff in Fox, Mehlville, Pattonville and Rockwood school districts. Depending on whether a district chooses to certify its staff as trainers, the cost varies, with some training available for free.
Student training in Hazelwood will have protocols based on age-appropriateness, Tobias said. For example, middle school pupils could learn what could work to barricade a door.
Before the new school year, Parkway used about four hours of a staff workday to conduct the training. Each building has two to three people certified as a trainer.
During Parkway’s training, teachers and administrators ran through scenarios that St. Louis County police tried to make as real as possible. They took the practice seriously. At an earlier session in July, an administrator got a black eye in the scuffle after a takedown with the pretend shooter.
“It is unfortunate that it is something we have to do, but we hope to make everyone feel comfortable and help you think and know how to respond to different situations to keep everyone safe,” said Desi Kirchhofer, deputy superintendent said in a note to staff previewing the training.
In the biology classroom at Parkway West, the teachers and an assistant principal waited for the scenario to begin. Suddenly, a voice came over a walkie-talkie.
“We have an intruder in the building.”
The staff sprang into action. One person tied a cord over the self-closing door hinge. Another group began to push desks, tables and boxes against it as a barricade. Others turned off the lights and pulled down the blinds. After just 30 seconds, one teacher directed everyone to what seemed like a safe spot in between the lab tables.
And then the room was quiet. Soon, footsteps were outside the door. The “shooter” began to pull on it, getting it open a crack, but no further — the cord over the hinge, an idea officers had shown them just minutes earlier, kept the person from getting in.
Had it been a real emergency during a regular school day, that small move may have just saved everyone in the classroom.
“Is anything foolproof? No,” said Sparks, the police officer. “But what we can do is have options and not be caught like a deer in the headlights.”
Louis Jobst, a Parkway teacher, said he never would have imagined when he began teaching 38 years ago that he would be practicing to be ready should such a scene ever play out.
“Now, it’s a whole other mindset,” he said. But every time a school shooting happens somewhere in the country, “it makes you feel a little more apprehensive,” he said. “Your outlook has changed.”