I knew it was a drill. It was an exercise. It wasn’t real.
But yet, as I stood outside Ray Miller Elementary in Kirksville, Missouri, on Tuesday, I had to stop and take a few breaths.
Law enforcement, emergency responders and other agencies were on the scene to engage in a full-scale exercise, training on an active-shooter scenario. I’d been there since 7:30 a.m. I’d watched as makeup was applied to the people who were going to play the victims. I’d sat in a room where people were given a set of rules to “play” by during the exercise to keep everyone safe.
I knew exactly when it was supposed to start — 10 a.m. — so when Principal Kristin VanRie’s voice filled the air through the public address system, I wasn’t surprised. “We have an active shooter,” she said. “Lock the doors. Get ready to fight.”
A few moments later, police officer Rich Harden, the school resource officer, pulled up in his squad car. He raced to the front door where he was met by VanRie, who pleaded with him to hurry and help. Someone inside was shooting and people were wounded. Seconds later, sounds of gunfire rang out inside.
I stood a few feet away, taking photos and dictating notes on what was transpiring. It wasn’t real. That was obvious. But I still had to stop. I felt the tears well for a moment in my eyes. My voice cracked with emotion. I took a deep breath, regained composure and went on with my work.
Later, I learned I wasn’t the only one who had this kind of experience. Volunteers inside — many of them teachers who were playing the wounded in the scenario — spoke about the intensity of it all. Some shook with adrenaline as they waited to be rescued. Some cried. Some prayed.
The overall effort was impressive. Law enforcement, emergency responders and everyone else conducted themselves well. They knew what they were supposed to do and they went about their business. If this nightmare were to occur, their roles are something we don’t need to worry about.
But my overall feelings were depressed, sad and angry. Not at them. At us. I spoke to Jim Hughes, Kirksville fire and police chief, the next day about his reactions to the drill, the training value for his staff and what their next steps would be.
He spoke about the Columbine shooting in 1999 and how over the course of 20 years, and the many, many, many school shootings and mass shootings, response methods have changed. With each new tragedy, things are learned, and that information fuels improvements to the response. Overall, he said, the goal is to lessen the time it takes to get medical personnel to those who need medical attention. The shorter the time, the more lives that could possibly be saved. This is why we do these drills. This is how we get better.
Think about that.
We have measures in place to stop this kind of violence before it starts, but those measures only go so far. We’ve become a place where the unthinkable is closer to inevitable. Someone shoots up a school, or a movie theater, or a nightclub, or a concert. People die. We mourn. Some vow to never let it happen again. Some make a lot of noise in their efforts, only to be beaten down by a well-funded political structure that won’t allow changes we all know are necessary if the goal is to eliminate the shootings instead of reducing response time.
Some call for gun control. Some call for mental health reform. And then a few weeks go by and nothing happens. We move on. We do it all over again.
It was a drill on Tuesday. It was a necessary drill. It was a necessary drill to prepare for someone trying to kill people in a place we send our children to learn.
And that in itself should cause us all to pause, take a deep breath, and consider just what it is we’re doing and how we expect it to end.