Rachel Hufferd quickly ties a slipknot with a piece of rope over the shiny door handle of her fourth-grade classroom at Laurel Hills Elementary in Raytown.
By KIMBERLY WINTER STERN
Special to The Star
The tiny 5-foot, 4-inch, 115-pound teacher drops to the floor, pulling on the rope, straining to prevent the intruder pounding and shouting on the other side of the door from forcing his way into the room.
Anxiously watching the scenario unfold are not Hufferd’s students, but fellow teachers, administrators and other Laurel Hills staff members.
Each person clutches a piece of rope.
Some visibly bite their lips.
The mood is intense and serious.
Audible murmurs of relief ripple throughout the room when Hufferd successfully thwarts the attack and the intruder can be heard moving down the hall.
It’s all part of a staged exercise in intruder-response tactics provided by Grandview-based Strategos International, a company hired by the Raytown School District to train 1,200 employees in 25 buildings, including 19 elementary, middle and high schools, on what to do in the case of a threat.
Today’s hands-on session is conducted by one of Strategos’ trainers, Mike Harrison, a retired police officer from Arkansas. He demonstrates how to use tables and chairs to barricade a door in the event of a threat. He shows staffers how common objects found in a classroom can be used as weapons against a violent, armed intruder.
“There are three responses to a threat,” Harrison tells the teachers. “Lock Out, Get Out, Take Out.”
Harrison explains the concept as some teachers lip-sync the mantra, while others scribble notes.
“Lock. Secure or reinforce the door or doors of the room you’re in,” he said, “or get out of the room or space you’re in if you can.”
The third option is to take an intruder out.
“If the intruder enters your room or space, assume the intentions are lethal and use anything as a weapon,” said Harrison, pointing to a stapler and large paper punch on a desk and a fire extinguisher hanging on a wall.
One of the observers at Laurel Hills is Travis Hux, assistant superintendent of support services for the Raytown School District.
“This training is being done not because a violent intruder situation will happen. We’re doing it because it can happen,” said Hux, who was instrumental in bringing the resource to the school district.
After a safety assessment in 2009-2010, the Raytown district implemented recommendations such as developing security and crisis management plans and adopting other safety strategies, including cameras and security guards.
Hux began researching opportunities for intruder response training before last year’s Sandy Hook Elementary tragedy in Newtown, Conn.
“Columbine was a wake-up call for law enforcement, and what they needed to do to help prevent another situation like that,” said Hux. “Sandy Hook was the 911 for educators.”
Hux cites statistics about the likelihood of being in an elementary school shooting.
“It’s one in 120,000,” he said. “Your chances of being in a car accident are one in 7,000. We want to balance reality with perception, and give our teachers and staff the tools and have plans in place to protect themselves and students.”
In April, Fleetridge Elementary School in Raytown was the pilot school for a two-day training session with Strategos. School board members and district administrators attended and learned firsthand how to react to a threat and apply the Lock Out, Get Out, Take Out approach.
“The response was positive and the school board approved the intruder response training in July,” said Hux. “We moved forward with implementing the training in all of the Raytown schools beginning in August, and we anticipate the final group of staff and teachers will receive training in February.”
New Raytown district employees will take an online course to cover what staff members normally learn on the first day of training. The online portion will then be supplemented by the interactive training.
Strategos, which in Greek means strategy, conducts intruder response training across the country for schools, churches and corporations.
In addition to the Raytown School District, Strategos has led various levels of trainings at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, Lee’s Summit West High School and the Pleasant Hill and North Kansas City districts.
The first segment of the two-day, all-encompassing course for the Raytown School District combines a lecture and overview of active shooter incidents, such as Columbine and Sandy Hook.
The lessons learned by the school staff, law enforcement and first responders from those high-profile mass shootings give participants an emotional connection, helping to frame the importance of the simulated attacks they will experience on the second day.
“It can be very moving and evoke different feelings from teachers and staffers,” said Hux. “But overwhelmingly what people come away with after the second day of training, where they are put in what-if scenarios, is a firm sense of empowerment.”
Cheryl Bland, principal at Laurel Hills Elementary, participated in the mock events along with her staff.
As Harrison ran throughout the school’s halls with an air gun and shots echoed throughout the building in another simulated drill, Bland scattered with teachers, finding refuge in the nearest classroom, slamming doors and creating makeshift barricades.
“At Laurel Hills we had executed several security strategies prior to Sandy Hook, such as locking doors, escorting adult visitors in the building and having guests sign in at the front office,” Bland said. “Today’s training evokes fears and confusion, but we are learning practical tools to use in real-life circumstances.”
Bland noted that teachers felt insecure after last December’s mass shooting.
“We all looked at each other and wondered what we do,” said Bland. “I feel very lucky that I work in a school district that is proactive in getting us training so we have the skills and knowledge to protect our students.”
When Harrison gave the green light that the drill was over, teachers filed out of classrooms littered with chairs, papers and overturned tables.
Teacher Hufferd, after securing the door and huddling in her brightly decorated classroom during the exercise with colleagues, emerged breathless and determined.
“This is powerful, and really helps me strategize what I would do in a crisis if we were confronted with an armed intruder,” Hufferd said. “We are learning techniques and things to do and not to do, which in a chaotic situation will serve us well in protecting students.”
Mark Warren, a co-founder of Strategos and former law enforcement professional, joined the Laurel Hills training session.
“OK, many of you would have died in that instance,” said Warren. “It’s not a great feeling, but you had to go through this to understand what you could be up against — a determined, irrational individual.”
Nervous laughter erupted as the teachers caught their breath. Some gave each other hugs.
“But I guarantee you, what you do in the very first seconds of an armed intruder attack makes the difference,” said Warren.
“Even if you don’t stop the intruder, but defend your students and slow the intruder down until the police arrive, the odds are stacked in your favor.”
With scenarios concluded, the Laurel Hills teachers returned to their their classrooms, creating order after the chaos of the drills.
Warren stood in the school’s empty cafeteria where moments before he demonstrated what to do in the case of being in a room with four doors when an intruder is on the loose.
“The true first responders in a school attack are the people there — the teachers, administrators, staff,” he said. “We teach them not to be a victim, how to injure an intruder, how to make themselves and their students safer.”
Bland walked back to the front office, reflecting on the teamwork and collaboration she saw when her staff faced an imaginary emergency.
“I am very proud of my staff and how earnest they were in learning and embracing these invaluable solutions,” she said. “I think it’s safe to say we feel empowered.”