Controversial workplace lessons demonstrate how to thwart an armed intruder

At Pioneer Ridge Middle School on Tuesday, Independence Police Sgt. Chris Summers was swarmed by teacher Cody Carlson (from left), principal Michael Estes and teacher Dave Nowak. Red balls represented objects thrown at the intruder.
At Pioneer Ridge Middle School on Tuesday, Independence Police Sgt. Chris Summers was swarmed by teacher Cody Carlson (from left), principal Michael Estes and teacher Dave Nowak. Red balls represented objects thrown at the intruder. The Kansas City Star

The woman’s voice on the intercom was anguished.

“There’s a shooter in the building. Lockdown! Lockdown!”

Inside the library last week at Independence’s Pioneer Ridge Middle School, about 65 teachers and staff members — who knew this was all pretend but were warned it may be unnerving — assumed their positions under desks and crouched between rows of children’s books.

Someone switched off the lights as instructed. Maybe the shooter won’t see them hiding. The rest of the school stood empty.

It was part of training increasingly occurring in the nation’s schools, hospitals and other workplaces to drive home lessons, some of them controversial, on how not to become an armed intruder’s sitting duck.

“Lockdown! Lockdown! He’s getting close to the library.”

Independence Police Sgt. Chris Summers entered with a steely expression and brisk gait. He carried an Airsoft pistol filled with plastic pellets. The lights came on and he weaved around the shelves, firing.

An officer following him sounded an air horn representing each shot.

“You’re shot,” Summers said, tapping the gun barrel against the thighs of three teachers huddled behind a table. No point pulling the trigger on them, close as they were.

Eliminating that huddle took three seconds.

The killer played by Summers had dozens of others to finish off, quickly as he could, to show the teachers what’s likely if they do nothing but try to hide.

Not all “active shooter” drills simulate someone firing and people supposedly dying. But lessons are more apt to stick, say many police officials and security consultants, when the real thing can be replicated without anyone getting hurt.

The ultimate point is to present human targets with options beyond the traditional response of locking doors, switching off lights and hoping the shooter doesn’t spot them.

How about dashing to exits, tossing objects, even overcoming the gunman?

“Things are moving in that direction,” said Paul Fennewald, director of the Center for Education Safety, a partnership of law enforcement agencies and the Missouri School Boards Association.

The thought of encountering an armed intruder and, as a last resort, fighting back “isn’t in the mindset of the education culture,” Fennewald said.

“But you look at where we are as a society now, you’ve got to get your mind around it. … You need options. You can’t just lay down in a fetal position and die.”

Some critics shudder at the basic tenets behind a fast-growing protocol called Run, Hide, Fight, especially as it applies to schools.

They contend that in some situations the lessons could result in more deaths than might occur in a basic lockdown.

That criticism is apart from the questions surrounding how some workplaces get the lessons across to their employees. In other areas of the country that have initiated high-tension drills, injuries have resulted and employees have complained that the role-playing is too much.

The Independence drill employed the principles of one of the more common training programs, known as ALICE.

Summers shot 90 percent of those library occupants. All fake deaths and injuries happened in less time than the five to six minutes it would take for police to arrive in a real emergency.

After the demonstration, the teachers and office workers rose to their feet in nervous laughter, though some soon were dabbing at tears with tissue. That was while they listened to a 911 call from a terrified Columbine High School librarian during the 1999 assault that left more than a dozen dead.

In the next exercise, Pioneer Ridge educators learned to run down empty hallways to nearby exits. Next, they used desks and chairs to barricade their classrooms.

They were told that in a real-life event it’s OK to crawl out windows.

Next, they threw plastic balls and learned to physically swarm a shooter, separating gun from intruder and pinning that person to the floor. Nobody should be holding the gun when police arrive, they were told, because officers will be targeting the shooter.

The group applauded at the end of two hours of instruction and exercises.

One employee shouted, “Empowered!”

Eventually, such lessons will be made age-appropriate and passed on to pupils, school officials said.

Here and across the nation, the strategies for survival are pitched under different names: Escape, evade, engage. Get out, hide out, take out. Flee, fade, fight.

But the idea is the same: Provide options, and the safest one may not be crouching in the dark.

Different drills

A new Missouri law requires all school workers to “participate in a simulated active shooter and intruder response drill … led by law enforcement professionals.” Kansas lawmakers are discussing similar legislation.

But educators ask: What’s the best drill?

In many districts, lockdown exercises already are routine. But these drills often are no more complex than classrooms locking up, window shades coming down and kids inside quietly staying out of view.

Schools commonly unite staff and police in “tabletop drills.”

That could mean poring over building maps, perfecting an alert system and acting out scenarios that include locking down or evacuating, depending on an intruder’s location.

“I don’t think a full-blown drill of dramatic proportions is all that necessary,” said John Douglass, the Shawnee Mission district’s director of safety.

Others think it is.

For several years, public schools in Columbia have drilled teachers using mock shooters marching through a building with pellet-filled air pistols or starter guns that make a smoke-emitting blast.

“It was nerve-wracking and kind of scary at first,” said Susie Adams, head of the Columbia teachers association. “But it forced me to think about the threat in ways I really hadn’t before. …

“After you hear the weapon over and over and you’re familiar with the smell of (gun) smoke, it’s not so startling and your brain can react. You become more active than passive.”

Columbia officials are hoping to drill volunteer high school students in the same manner this year. Adams said: “I think it’s a great idea.”

Around the Kansas City area, police partner with school districts and other workplaces to develop lockdown plans and controlled evacuation drills, usually lacking flair. But you can have drama if you want, as the Kansas City Ballet learned earlier this year.

Police asked the ballet if it would be interested in instructions and a drill to gird for armed intruder episodes, said ballet officials.

Jeffrey J. Bentley, executive director of the Kansas City Ballet, thought it worthy if the training would help employees feel better prepared.

And it did, he said.

After a PowerPoint lesson, police staged a nightmare.

On a day when only workers were in the building, an officer posing as an enraged intruder, out to get his girlfriend, stepped into the Todd Bolender Center for Dance and Creativity. He yelled, “Where is she?”

He shouted vulgarities, fired loud blanks at two employees in the atrium and stepped toward the office corridors.

One worker, electronic media coordinator Jessica Kelly, said she screamed on impulse even though she knew the drill was coming.

“I was amazed at how real it seemed,” Bentley said. “It gave you a sense of how discombobulated you can get.

“You learn you have options. … I got up from my desk and stood flat against that wall,” away from the shooter’s view through Bentley’s locked glass door.

The shooter jiggled the door handle. “I know you’re in there,” he howled.

Bentley stayed in place and passed the test, a validation that lockdowns still work when a shooter is nearby.

Other ballet employees took off through available exits, validating the escape option.

Marketing manager Andrea Wilson was among the escapees.

She said the drill made her more conditioned to react if a true shooter entered the building.

It made her sad, too.

“I cried three times that night,” Wilson said.

“What bothered me most was thinking that this is the world my young son is growing up in.”

Bloody drama

The Lincoln County R-III district northwest of St. Louis has taken true-to-life even further.

Dozens of high school drama students since 2013 have acted out shooter drills, including one shown in a YouTube video with teens in bloody makeup, strewn across a cafeteria floor in lifeless poses.

The adult shooter grabs a girl and demands her to pound on a locked classroom door so he can get inside. The door stays closed, as teachers are advised.

In December, a national report on drills simulating school shootings called the rising practice “uncharted territory” and urged districts to proceed cautiously, especially when youngsters are involved.

“We really don’t know the effect of these drills. We need to know that,” said Stephen Brock, president of the National Association of School Psychologists, which co-sponsored the report with the National Association of School Resource Officers.

Brock cited the rarity of kids being killed by shooters at schools — “the odds are similar to being struck by lightning three times” — and said some districts may be reacting to intense media attention to the threat.

So far, though, official grievances have been few:

▪ In Colorado, a nursing home worker filed suit after she stepped unaware into an active-shooter drill.

Police conducting it allegedly ordered her into an empty room as a “hostage.” Realizing the worker was startled, an officer tried to explain that it was just a drill.

▪ In Farmington, Mo., four teachers complained to the county prosecutor that shooter drills made them uncomfortable. No legal action was taken and the teachers reportedly resolved their issues with the district.

▪ In Iowa, more than 25 school workers have filed for workers’ compensation for injuries that they claimed occurred in drills that taught how to wrestle down shooters as a last resort, said Jerry Loghry of EMC Insurance Companies in Des Moines.

“We have injuries related to running, to tackling, being tackled, running into door jambs, jumping off furniture,” said Loghry, whose company insures most Iowa schools and 1,500 districts nationwide.

Todd Fuller, spokesman for the Missouri State Teachers Association, has heard that some teachers feel uneasy about their jobs after a shooter drill.

“You have teachers whose sole purpose is helping people,” he said, yet they’re being trained to confront a violent, unlikely threat the way police would.

“The way they (law enforcement) train people is vastly different from the way teachers do training,” said Fuller. “It’s two divergent populations colliding.”

For such reasons, the Olathe School District decided against aggressive active-shooter simulations in favor of “cognitive training drills” that prepare teachers through tabletop instruction, said assistant superintendent Erin Dugan.

Olathe schools, like those in Independence, initiated ALICE at the start of this school year. Every teacher and staffer has been trained to alert, run, fight or, given the situation, go into a traditional lockdown. Dugan said the effort has “overwhelming community support.”

District officials explained the protocol to parents in nine meetings over the fall. Students in all grade levels received video and classroom instruction.

C is for counter

ALICE stands for Alert, Lockdown, Inform, Counter or Evacuate. The program is based on concepts developed by police in Houston, Texas, after the Columbine slayings. It’s now administered by a private company, the Ohio-based ALICE Training Institute.

“The last count I got, there are 1,700 police departments and 1,600 school districts on board,” said the institute’s founder, Greg Crane, a former Texas police officer.

ALICE instructors travel the country to host two-day seminars that train school officials, law enforcement, security consultants and private companies. The trainees become ALICE-certified and relay what they’ve learned to the places they work.

The lesson plan is compatible with the “run, hide, fight” concept endorsed by the U.S. departments of justice, education and homeland security.

According to a 2013 FBI report on active-shooter incidents, about one in eight ended when unarmed citizens successfully restrained the shooter. “These actions likely saved the lives of students and others present,” the report concluded.

Options beyond the basic lockdown and keeping still gained traction after the 2007 massacre on the university campus of Virginia Tech, where an armed student methodically broke into classroom after classroom, killing 31 people mostly trying to hide.

The killer had less success in rooms where students jumped out the window. That’s the E in ALICE — evacuate.

The C in ALICE — counter — raises concerns among some security experts: Should civilians be taking on a crazed intruder with a weapon?

Without knowing an armed person’s intentions, should he be swarmed and tackled, risking lives?

“Trying to teach all that in a two-hour, four-hour or even 16-hour program doesn’t do it,” said Michael Dorn, a former police officer who now directs Safe Havens International, a school safety organization.

Dorn said he received 80 hours of close-quarters combat training to join a police tactical squad, adding: “I found 80 hours to be inadequate to learn the skills needed when applied under stress.”

But it doesn’t take training to know how to throw a backpack, book or laptop at someone bent on murder, ALICE advocates say.

Heaving papers. Running in zigzags. Anything but freezing in fear might throw a shooter off script, said Alisa Pacer, emergency preparedness manager at Johnson County Community College, where ALICE training has been mandatory for all workers since 2012.

Instead of locking down all classrooms when an armed intruder comes on campus, JCCC’s protocol is to track the whereabouts of the intruder, through video cameras and text alerts, and keep classroom instructors updated. They’ll do what they deem necessary.

Barricade the door. Direct students to a safe exit. Swarm the killer if death is the only other possible outcome.

“I believe it’s all about options,” Pacer said. “Doing nothing gets people killed.”

That was the takeaway for Pioneer Ridge staffers who drilled in Independence.

Courtney Wall, a health care worker at the school, said the most disturbing exercise was the first one, when Summers showed how quickly a shooter could attack a library full of people trying to hide.

“The hardest part,” she said, “was being a sitting duck.”

To reach Rick Montgomery, call 816-234-4410 or send email to rmontgomery@kcstar.com.

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