By Madelynn Coldiron
As far as school disaster drills go, the one in Clinton County used a worst-worst-worst case scenario.
Not one, but two angry, revenge-seeking shooters loose in the building, with several victims shot dead or wounded. A busload of student hostages and a handcuffed bus driver. The superintendent and principal held hostage – one of them strapped with a bomb on a remote timer held by a shooter. The school’s communications and video links in the main office blown up. Smoke of undetermined origin filling a hallway. And a couple of parents bursting into the building demanding to know whether their children were safe.
PHOTO: McCreary County Sheriff Gus Skinner, playing the role of one of the shooters, holds Principal Sheldon Harlan and Superintendent Charlotte Bernard hostage in the school office.
Was the active shooter drill held at Clinton County High School Aug. 2 realistic?
“If you study some of these scenarios that actually happened, it’s not that far removed,” said the event’s planner, Kevin Groce, a retired teacher and the district’s part-time school safety coordinator.
The idea is to prepare all stakeholders for what to expect and how to respond, said Cyril Wantland, a consultant for the Kentucky Center for School Safety who was at Clinton County High to observe and report.
“You respond the way you’ve been drilled and the way you’ve practiced,” he said. The number of variables introduced in the Clinton County exercise will help responders be prepared for the unexpected, he said.
The drill involved the school system, all law enforcement and other first -response agencies in Clinton County, and local governments. It was held in concert with some teacher training in five classrooms at the high school, supplying adults who could act as the “students” in the exercise. Participants were aware a drill was to take place, but they didn’t know any details.
Apart from new state laws beefing up drilling and emergency planning requirements, there have been more active shooter drills at Kentucky schools since the mass shootings at Newtown, Conn., last year, Wantland said.
“Newtown was a splash of cold water in the face, saying, ‘Hey, it could happen anywhere,’” he explained. Though the other types of drills also are more frequent, the shooter exercises get more public attention because of the multi-agency involvement, he said.
The district set up video cameras in the occupied classrooms and staff members roamed the scene, taking still pictures and additional video. These will be used for training purposes by school personnel and other agencies.
The realistic scenario had law officers moving with quick, deliberate steps in special formation down the hallways, using simulated bullets that made pop-pop noises as they were fired. The angry tones of the shouting shooters would not have been unfamiliar to school administrators who have dealt with upset employees and students, with the weapons and the involvement of hostages raising the fictitious stakes.
Transportation Director Larry Koger, who played the role of a school bus driver who was handcuffed and shot by one of those on a rampage, said the experience was “real scary.”
Fifth-grade teacher Kim Stonecipher said, “It made me put myself in my students’ position and know how they’re feeling in this situation.”
Superintendent Charlotte Bernard, who was taken “hostage” and wired with a fake bomb, said, “It seemed very real – it was frightening,” but added, “The more we practice, the better we’ll be prepared.”
She said the school personnel appeared to have followed protocol, locking inside doors, turning off lights and moving to areas where they couldn’t be seen. The central office, which was notified of the “shooting” by school employees, went into action, practicing the “One Call” system to provide bare-bones information initially, alerting other schools to go on lockdown and calling emergency services, Bernard said.
Past school shootings have taught law enforcement agencies some lessons that were used in the drill, said Burkesville Assistant Police Chief Lawrence Nettles. Local police used to be trained to wait for special response teams before heading into a school with an active shooter. Now, he said just after the drill, “We’re teaching patrol officers to respond the way these guys did today.”
The main aspect of the drill that was not realistic involved the outside of the building. Normally, the highway in front would have been shut down. On the Friday of the U.S. 127 yard sale, that was not going to happen. The traffic control and parent control issues can throw a real curve in a situation like this, Wantland noted. “In an actual incident, this building would have been surrounded by parents,” he said.
Following the drill, stakeholders assembled in the school auditorium to review their response with an eye toward identifying strengths and pinpointing and addressing weaknesses. “We hope the stress of this does improve our plans and procedures,” Groce, the district safety coordinator, said.