Columbine. Virginia Tech. Sandy Hook.
Just the words are enough to strike fear in the heart of parents, school officials and police departments around the nation. And those are among the most recent examples of the violence being thrust into our children’s school days, the phenomenon has been around for over 200 years. The earliest reported school shooting was in 1764, when four Lenape American Indians shot and killed a schoolmaster and nine children in their Pennsylvania school room.
Since that time, school shootings have multiplied and, in this age of around the clock news, garner larger audiences, imparting more fear. All this, despite the fact that of the 50 million kids going to class each day, only 17 died due to gun violence last year. It’s that ‘only’ that parents take that ‘only’ that parents take issue with.
It doesn’t matter to them how many, as long as their children arrive home safely. To do that, police and school officials, parents and children need to understand there is a plan in place: What can happen, how it will be handled, what students and teachers need to do, and how parents need to respond. However, more than just teaching how to get through this “active shooter scenario,” authorities have to train for what to do after the threat is neutralized, and that doesn’t necessarily mean when the ‘shooter’ is down. Officials need to practice getting out, as well as getting children to their parents in as safe and organized a manner as possible, because the confusion of a mass release can give rise to other forms of predator.
To the uninformed observer, it appeared that a swarm of armed men in green descended on Booth Middle School Friday morning, moving with organized swiftness, barking commands to black mouthpieces, sweeping the halls with sharp gazes, empty hands raised to simulate weaponry. (ed note: no weapons were allowed for safety purposes during the drill).
In one corridor, a student lies face down, ‘blood’ pouring from an arm wound; in another, one lies unconscious, guarded by a police officer; a young woman lies face down in another hallway, in front of a classroom, answering questions tossed her way in a feeble and wavering voice.
In one classroom, a perpetrator has been downed, but could still possess an explosive device. In a boy’s bathroom, a pipe bomb with a timer is ‘discovered’ and disarmed. Huddled in dark classrooms, students and teachers keep quiet, heads down. In front of the locked doors of classrooms, varied colors of paper can be seen- red, yellow and green- some with writing.
“These tell us, as much as possible, what’s going on in the classroom,” explains Sgt. Odilia Bergh.
Green - everything’s okay and everyone is accounted for; yellow- there’s an issue, whether a missing student or someone injured- could be anything; red- well authorities know there’s a problem, though they may not know what the problem is but they know they have to check out those classrooms. Hopefully, authorities say, the teacher was able to scribble a helpful note on the paper to tell them what’s going on.
In the simulation practiced Friday, the scenario was that a pipe bomb had gone off in the school and officials worked to clear classrooms, check for other devices and move the wounded as they also protected students who were surrounded and escorted out of the building and onto waiting buses to take them to a nearby secure location - in this instance it was the Frederick Brown Jr. Amphitheater. In reality, the secure locations that have been selected are not revealed to the public.
The SWAT team invaded the school with brisk, practiced movements, reassuring teachers and students as they hustled them along in the cold breeze in surprisingly gentle voices for men who looked like warriors. A bomb removal robot was even called in to deal with the explosive devices and students who participated as the ‘victims’ were carried out on stretchers.
The Department of Homeland Security
recommendations for these reunification drills include establishing a parent check-in location’ delivering students to the staging area, beyond the field of vision of parents/guardians and then ‘greeters’ direct parents/guardians to the Parent check-In
location, and help them understand the process. On Friday, volunteer parents practiced how to fill out the reunification cards and what forms of identification would be needed to retrieve their child from the site. Runners are dispatched to the staging area for each child when they are called, escorting them to another runner, who escorts them the rest of the way to be signed out by their parents.
The most important and successful reunification scenarios are based on pre-planning and the work of first responder personnel.
Though active shooter drills and emergency response drills have been practiced throughout Fayette County’s schools, Booth Middle is the first to practice this reunification process and SWAT leader Lt. Mark Brown gives high praise to Booth’s principal Ted Lombard for always being on top of things and willing to go the extra mile to prepare students with safety drills.
“We’re the first school to try to practice this thing. It’s all about planning and getting comfortable with the plan. How do you do this, how do you control that situation?,” said Lombard. “This is staged using about 130 kids. We go through this procedure and see how it goes. Can you imagine what it would be like with 1200 kids? That will be a bit different.”
Lombard said that since other drills had stopped before the reunification process, he felt the school needed to practice this too.
“We got a lot of cooperation from the police and transportation folks and emergency personnel.”
Towards the end of the exercise, lombard said he’d already seen where changes and improvements could be made.
“Accountability for 1204 kids is really going to be a challenge and you don’t want to report that and not know what to do about it.
“We have the plan, but that no plan is anything unless you execute it. We might have a lot of lessons earned. Think if we had more than one school do this.
“It could be a natural disaster, it could be a gas leak. What about those schools who are located closely together in the same complex.”
Electronics plays a large part in the notification process, as teachers can notify the school office about who is in school or out; school officials can notify parents by phone, text, email and news media outlets about what’s going on and where to go for more information.
Officers from the Peachtree City Police Department, Fayetteville Police Department, the Fayette County Sheriff's Office and crews from Fayetteville and county fire departments joined educators for the exercise.