Schools & Education

Active-shooter drills at schools are about saving lives

Local law enforcement trains school administrators and teachers how to survive an active-shooter by emphasizing escaping, barricading and hiding, and if all else fails, fighting.

There have been 17 school shootings in the first 11 weeks of 2018, according to CNN, the most recent being on March 20 at a Maryland school where a 17-year-old male student shot two fellow students, a male and female, before the school's resource officer (SRO) engaged the shooter. They both fired at the same time and the SRO shot the assailant, who later died in the hospital. The female victim was ultimately taken off life support and the male survived his injuries. The SRO was uninjured and is being credited with saving many other students. In February, a 19 year-old came on to a large campus of 3,200 in Florida and killed 17 students. These widely publicized cases have local students, parents and school staff thinking about what they would do in a similar circumstance. Local law enforcement is being asked to help schools prepare for these dangerous scenarios.

CNN story: Great Mills High School Shooting

Police officer Carlos Rodriguez knows full well that Hollister and San Benito County schools need to be ever vigilant in case of an active-shooter situation. Officer Rodriguez, along with another officer, is the SRO for eight elementary and middle schools in Hollister, as well as an active-shooter and firearms instructor. A third officer works as the SRO at San Benito County High School.

In recent years when active-shooters have attacked schools, shopping centers, businesses and military bases in the U.S., law enforcement agencies feel that they can't be complacent about dealing with individuals intent on killing as many people as possible, particularly if they are using semi-automatic weapons. This is why Rodriguez and nearly every other Hollister police officer and San Benito County sheriff’s deputy undergoes regular training in tactics.

Rodriguez attended active-shooter training in Southern California at a facility operated by former law enforcement personnel, focusing specifically on active-shooter scenarios and lock-downs. He, in turn, trains other officers locally.

“The training is constant, whether it’s for our officers or the schools, based on a lot of information from these incidents,” Rodriguez said. “The ideal is to get all the schools’ staffs trained on new protocols based on incidents and things that didn’t work there. We try to keep the training fresh and evolved because the threat is always evolving.”

Part of that evolution is to leave behind color codes, such as a "code red" or "code blue," in order to help people react better under stress through unambiguous messages to assure teachers react quickly and decisively.

“We want to know what works and what might work better,” he said. “The drills work all the bugs out. It’s all about drilling and getting everybody on the same page because there are scenarios where more than one school can be locked down at the same time because something is developing in the area between schools.”

The goal, he said, is to get the entire school district together on a common protocol.

“When it comes time to secure or lock down a campus, we don’t have to go through different protocols and we can use just one system that flows more smoothly and helps everyone react more quickly,” he said.

Working with the schools, Rodriguez said he typically works with principals, supervisors, and administrators first. He said the schools he's worked with have received the training enthusiastically. He said the administrators requested the training be offered to teachers through drills and conducting after-action reports.

“The relationship has been outstanding,” he said. “It’s never been a situation where we felt like we had to push this on the schools. Since we’ve had this going on with the schools and our officers, there have been a handful of situations where we’ve had to lock down and secure some campuses. In every one of those instances everyone responded perfectly. The training was validated.”

 He said the students become involved during drills at the schools.

“A big part of my training the teachers is making sure the students are taking it seriously during the actual drill,” he said. “When training fellow officers, they use role-players and simulated blood. In that case, we don’t involve the students because we don’t want to traumatize them. So we involve our police explorers, who are trained volunteers around the same age as these high school students.”

Rodriguez said when it comes to training the teachers in a “worse-case” scenario it comes down to their presence of mind and where they are located when an active-shooter is present.

“We definitely encourage them to get off the campus, if they can,” he said. “If they’re in their room, we instruct them to hide, barricade their room and be as quiet as possible, and wait for law enforcement to arrive. There is a controversial part where the Department of Homeland Security is advertising that you should run, hide and fight. We want to make sure that everybody understands that if you’re able to barricade and hide, we’re not expecting you to leave the safety of that room and go and look for the perpetrator.”

He said if running and hiding aren’t options, then fight. But he wanted to make it clear to parents that the police are not training their children to go out and fight the suspect.

“Anything anybody can do to defend themselves is obviously a good idea,” he said. “But they need to listen to their teachers, react immediately and understand when the school is locked down and they’re barricaded inside their classrooms they need to be quiet and not make any noise. That’s what’s important.”

He said, though, when there is no choice but to fight back, when they’re instructing teachers how to barricade their room, the instructors tell them they should also have a game plan if it fails and they must defend themselves or their students.

“We point out different things inside the rooms they can use as a last resort,” he said. “We tell them there are a ton of ‘what-ifs’ when it comes to this type of thing, but we want to address the most likely ones. We’re not telling them exactly what to do, but we’re giving them ideas on how to come up with their own game plan because when something like this happens law enforcement is headed to the scene as fast as possible with lights and sirens on. But until we get there, we’re helping the teachers, the staff and the students get to a point where they can buy us time by being in a secure place until we can stop the threat.”

Rodriguez couldn’t give specifics about which schools were or were not prepared for an active-shooter situation. But as a Hollister police officer for 11 years, he commented, “Not to say we weren’t prepared then [when he first started], but we’ve brought it up to a much higher level on how we’re all networking better and things are much more streamlined, which will help us respond better. I feel really good about where we’re at.”

Even so, he said training must be continuous.

“I understand people are afraid, but in some ways, understanding that this can happen is important,” he said. “We just need to channel some of that fear into preparedness and we all need to work together in order to save the most number of people. Our goal should be to save everybody.”

Rodriguez said all the schools, no matter whether in the city limits or the county, are being protected by dedicated and highly trained police officers and sheriff's deputies.

"It’s important for anybody who reads this to know that the [police] officers and [sheriff’s] deputies are training to keep their kids safe,” he said. “The sheriff’s office has the jurisdiction in the county, but we’ve actually provided some of the training in the county.  I can tell you if there is a serious threat at any school every officer or deputy in the area would be going to it. There would be numerous officers there very quickly.”


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John Chadwell

John Chadwell is a freelance photojournalist with additional experience as a copywriter, ghostwriter, scriptwriter, and novelist. He is a former U.S. Navy Combat Photojournalist and is an award-winning writer, having worked for magazine, newspapers, radio and television. He has a BA in Journalism and Mass Communications from Chapman University and graduate studies at USC Cinema School. John worked as a scriptwriting consultant, and his own script, "God's Club," was produced and released in 2016. He has also written eight novels, ranging from science fiction to true crime, which are sold on Amazon. To contact John Chadwell, send an email to: [email protected]