5/31/2013 11:22:00 AM Scenario helps schools, police answer 'What if?'
ILEAS SWAT teams arrive on specially equipped SUVs during the active shooter drill held last Friday at Robinson High School. The ILEAS team is composed of officers from several different departments and is equipped and trained for a variety of situations. (Tom Compton photo)
Robinson Unit 2 teachers acting as students during the drill are escorted from the building by SWAT team members. In a real emergency, bags would have been left behind and hands would remain on heads until is was verified they were victims and not perpetrators. (Tom Compton photo)
Training for the unthinkable has given local police and school officials some valuable experience - and some issues to work on in coming months.
The Robinson Unit 2 school district worked with local law-enforcement and emergency personnel last week to play out an "active shooter" scenario at Robinson High School and Nuttall Middle School.
"You never want this to happen," said Robinson Police Chief Bill Ackman. But he knows it can happen, as it did in Newtown, Conn., and that is why they are preparing and training.
The training was created and administered by RPD School Resource Officer Chad Weaver, with contributions by other key personnel.
The scenario focused on a lone 17 year-old male, described as an honor student and a loner, who had given no previous indication of problems. The student enters the school during normal arrival times with an AR-15 type weapon and several magazines. About 8:40 a.m. he starts shooting and 911 is called.
Police quickly arrive, confront the student and are forced to shoot him. In the scenario, before he is stopped five people - four students and one teacher - are dead, four are critically wounded and nine others are injured.
The reason for the shooting? A note found with the student said he wanted to rid the school of bullies. The note even identifies eight by name, and says he is willing to die in the effort.
While it may sound like something from a made-for-TV movie, the details were garnered from real shootings and incidents.
Since the Newtown shooting, schools and law enforcement have ramped up security measures, plans and responses. Friday's drill brought together everyone who would be called to respond to a local incident. All of Unit 2's 150 teachers and faculty played the part of students and teachers. No students were involved in the drill.
Robinson police are the first to respond in the simulation, assisted by Crawford County Sheriff's deputies. Their mission is to find and "eliminate" the suspect as quickly as possible. As more officers arrive on the scene, an off-site command center is established. An "all-call" is made to area police departments, including a SWAT team, through the Illinois Law Enforcement Alarm System. In this scenario it would have included a call for 40 vehicles, with personnel and equipment, Weaver said.
The local Emergency Management Agency is called to set up its communication trailer, and Robinson Fire Department and United Life Care Ambulance personnel are also notified. While only two ambulances and a handful of firefighters were used during the drill, all area fire departments and EMS personnel would respond or stand by for use as needed.
Auxiliary police would be called upon for security at the scene, staffing the evacuation center and transportation. Other key personnel such as the city mayor, school superintendent, bus drivers, coroner, doctors or others could all be called upon depending on how the situation develops.
After officers eliminate the suspect and secure the scene, they work in teams to search rooms for other possible threats and evacuate students and teachers. As time elapses and the ILEAS SWAT team arrives, it takes over the search. Students and teachers are transported to a secure location like the Robinson Community Center.
The wounded are collected by firefighters and carried to waiting ambulances and EMS personnel for transport to area hospitals. The school then becomes a crime scene, and the investigation begins.
The entire drill only lasted for about three hours. Weaver said they time-compressed what in reality could take 12 hours or more.
Robinson teachers Jessica Sisil, Mindy Evans and Michelle Pinkston had participated in training and drills before, but not this realistic.
"The first shot sounded like a book falling," Sisil said. The second and following shots were more obvious. Sisil said she was in the art room. Within seconds of hearing the shots, they barricaded the door and hid as quietly as they could.
Evans and Pinkston were in the computer classroom. After making sure their door was locked, they hid under the desks that had closed fronts.
"In training we learned to keep the kids away from the window (door window)," said Evans.
Sisil said though they knew it was just a drill, emotions were high, and in the adrenaline rush they took time to cover the windows with paper. At Nuttall Middle School, where she teaches, they trained on being silent and unseen in the open-concept building.
One group of students was instructed to escape the building. While there is always the danger of more shooters, Weaver tells teachers to get out and away if they can.
"Get out. Then we can find you," Weaver said, explaining that one of his biggest concerns during the drill and in a real scenario is that they may not be able to find a student or teacher who is hiding or maybe injured.
After the drill, teachers, administrators, law enforcement and other key personnel sat down to evaluate what they learned.
Communication was the first problem encountered. While communication outside the school building worked fine, portable radios inside the building had trouble being heard outside. "We knew that would be a problem," Weaver said.
Crawford County Communications Director Tyler Lowrance said that would be a problem in any of the large buildings in the area. He noted that the transition to digital communication would help, and they may also look at booster equipment in some buildings.
Cell phones and texting were very helpful when it came to communication. Principal Kevin McConnell said he was able to communicate with all of his teachers during the drill. One glitch that was discovered was in forwarding texts. The original sender was not listed, just the forwarder, causing some confusion.
Another big obstacle that did not have to be overcome in the simulation, but that was discussed, was noise and chaos.
During Friday's drill the 150 participants representing students and teachers were quiet and orderly. In the event of an emergency at the high school, that number would more than triple to more than 500, and if Nuttall Middle School was included, would jump to 700 or more. And that's not including screaming children or panicked parents.
"In the event of an emergency, parents should not go to the school," Superintendent Josh Quick said. "They need to go to the evacuation location."
Even though plans are in place, as the drill unfolded small details became evident. Identifying exit doors, having maps of the buildings and having up-to-date hard copies of rosters, were all little things that could be improved. A "grab-and-go" bag with hard-copy information was suggested. While administrators can access information on the computer system from any building or by knowing logins, if there is no power that information is not available.
Ackman said he was pleased by how well everything came together and how the drill was taken seriously.
As part of the drill, Ackman was called upon to give two press conferences. Knowing that such an event would have extensive media coverage, knowing what, how much and when to release information can be crucial to public safety and as part of the investigation.
Weaver said they will continue to review what they learned from the drill over the next few weeks.
"We have a lot to think about, and a lot of information to sort through," Quick said. While it was only a drill, he said it is important to ask, "'What if?' 'How would I react?' It is important to know how to react."
Another strong positive result from the drill is that the plan and infrastructure could all be used in the event of a natural disaster as well as a shooting incident. Recent tornadoes in Oklahoma that hit a grade school drove home the point that being prepared and good communication are essential.