Lessons from Tragedy
Law enforcement agencies pray it never happens, that moment when a place they call home and have protected for years is struck by tragedy. Such a senseless moment occurred in Marshall County when, on Jan. 23, a student gunman entered Marshall County High School and opened fire.
After the assailant was apprehended, the wounded cared for, and the lost laid to rest, involved agencies mourned with their community. But as days, weeks and months passed, Marshall County Sheriff’s Office harkened once again to what law enforcement is called to do—protect. In doing so, the agency reflected on what they did right, what they did wrong and what they learned, in hopes that law enforcement across the state and the nation can limit or eliminate loss of life when tragedy comes knocking at their community’s door.
Marshall County Sheriff Kevin Byars and MCSO chief deputy David Maddox presented their findings to a captivated audience of fellow law enforcement professionals during the 2018 Kentucky Sheriff’s Association Conference at the Galt House in Louisville on Dec. 4.
What We Know
That Tuesday morning began as most do at MCHS. Students gathered before class in the commons area, a happy place, where they often discuss events from the night before or plans for weekend fun. But within seconds, happiness was shattered as the first shot pierced the air.
Six minutes passed from the school resource officer’s call to dispatch and police arrival. Only 11 minutes elapsed between the first unit reaching the scene and the shooter’s apprehension. However, those minutes changed the lives of Marshall County residents and responding law enforcement forever. During that time, 18 people were injured, 16 people were shot and two died.
The shooter had little knowledge of weaponry. He simply knew to point and pull the automatic pistol’s trigger. It appears there was no specific target, Byars said. Though bullets hit 16 people, the assailant only fired 12 shots before taking the clip out and fumbling to reload, allowing students to flee.
“Some bullets traveled from one body into another,” explained Byars, adding the shooter used full metal jacket bullets. A different bullet choice could have made the death toll higher.
As a student, the shooter blended with the crowd. Based on Byars’ narrative, after the shooting, the gunman left the weapon in an alley, between the main building and the performing arts center. Then, he disappeared into the throng of clamoring students. One student dared to identify the gunman to an administrator, allowing police to locate him in a room where faculty were attempting to keep students safe. A 12-inch blade was in his shoulder bag.
“He still had it on his mind to do harm,” Byars said.
What Went Right
Though they never anticipated the day would come, Marshall County first responders had been preparing for disaster for more than 20 years. On numerous occasions, MCSO had conducted emergency and active-shooter training with other sheriff’s offices, police departments, state police, emergency medical services and fire departments. Specifics were nailed down, including what fire truck would respond to which intersection, where EMS would arrive and who could go into tactical areas. The schools were included in those plans.
While no incident can be predicted, prior training increased Marshall County first responders’ preparedness and allowed them to know where they fit in the puzzle to minimize damage and maximize efficiency.
“(Active-shooter training) works,” said Byars. “It worked that day.”
Because the high school was prepared for an emergency event, worried parents did not flood the scene and hinder response. They knew to wait for specific instructions and go to a designated area. School staff were able to help law enforcement and EMS by telling them where students needed assistance and providing vital information.
Due to relationships previously built and solidarity within the first responder family, approximately 25 agencies from local to federal level responded as word of the shooting spread. All egos were left at the door, Maddox said. No one had a “turf,” not even the Marshall agency, who after interviewing the shooter turned to KSP for investigation. Together, the agencies conducted a joint media plan.
What Went Wrong
There has never been a training exercise when communication wasn't acknowledged as an issue, said Maddox. Unfortunately, the day of the shooting, communication wasn't good. Only two dispatchers were on duty, leaving them responsible to communicate with responding agencies, take calls from citizens reporting the shooting and other 911 emergencies.
Additionally, many responding law enforcement officers from other locations were operating on different radio frequencies. Now, Maddox said, the county has a system that can transmit via computer-aided dispatch and provide every first responder in Marshall County essential details.
Neither were things as neat as they had being during training. As the shooting occurred during morning hours before class, there was no accounting for the 1,400 students. They were coming out the doors and windows. Some students who fled were found up to two miles away.
"It was late evening before we even knew who all was injured," Maddox said.
Another issue was that the school was constructed in 1974, long before school safety was an issue. Maddox described the 176,000 square-foot main building that has 36 entry points and 86 doors. The doors were locked that day, except for three drop-off points for buses. However, the rest could be used as exits. Renovations are now underway to bring the school up to modern safety standards. The plans were scheduled two years ago. Unfortunately, Maddox said, changes are coming a little late. MCHS also increased from one to three school resource officers.
Despite their training, MCSO never considered the resources needed in the aftermath of an event. Examples Maddox gave included needing units to surround the gunman’s home as national media and angry citizens tried to reach them, assist with the investigation, and to return items dropped in the chaos to their owners.
"The aftermath is just as resource intensive as the incident, if not more so," Maddox conveyed.
What We Learned
"If there is one takeaway, it would be that you’ve got to build relationships with other agencies and stakeholders,” said Byars, noting the first responders who showed up to help and the comfort they provided.
Maddox agreed, adding that while he wasn’t in Marshall County when the incident occurred, he received phone calls and messages from fellow law enforcement stating they had units on the way.
"That's the great thing about Kentucky. There isn't another state where first responders, especially law enforcement, are so much like family," he said to a room filled with peers.
Secondly, Byars said all law enforcement agencies need to undergo active-shooter training. Training, Maddox said, puts first responders on the same sheet of music. The men said it is paramount to have an area’s school board undergo training, so they know what to do and what not to do in an emergency scenario.
If a sheriff’s office or police department has not preplanned actions for such an event, Maddox said now is the time to start.
"I was always the one who said it wouldn't happen (in Marshall County). I was wrong, it did. It could happen in any of your jurisdictions, whether you live in a small town or a large city. You need to start thinking now what you would do."
For agencies seeking active-shooter training, the Department of Criminal Justice Training will offer a 40-hour in-service course that blends realistic and interactive drills and scenario-based training for a comprehensive learning experience in the 2019 schedule.
While active-shooter training has been taught by police academies and private entities for years, soon there will be a push for standardization, according to DOCJT Commissioner Alex Payne.
Standardization of tactics and techniques, he explained, can help officers, during incidents like the Marshall County shooting, when multiple agencies respond to the same event. An essential standardization, Payne said, is what is being taught to schools, so they know what to do to keep those inside safe while law enforcement responds.
While an active-shooter scenario is not one officers will face every day, Payne emphasized that doesn’t lessen the need to be prepared or to train.
“The criticality of us responding very well and doing appropriate things is very, very high. It’s one of those diminishable things, if you don’t stay on top of it, you lose it,” he said. “We are responsible, as a training organization, to stay on top of it. We’re the ones people come to in keeping the blade sharp…That’s what we are going to do in all critical skills areas, but especially this one.”
The 2019 DOCJT training schedule is available via Acadis.