Denial: The First Enemy
Editor's note: Originally published in Summer 2015, the following article offers insight into how Kentucky State Police help schools handle critical incidents. The article is being republished on KLEmagazine.com given the recent school-shooting tragedies in Kentucky and Florida.
Every year, thousands of Kentucky school children, teachers and staff practice several fire drills — they line up calmly, file out systematically, head to the back of the school yard and wait to be counted, verifying everyone made it out ‘safely.’
But in the past 50 years, how many kids have been killed in a school fire in a North American school? Zero — not a single one.
Unfortunately, a greater threat has killed dozens of students in America, and yet in most places, never once have teachers and staff been trained; never once have drills been run to prevent the tragedy of school violence.
Yet, so many instances of school violence and active shooters — even in work places — have rocked the nation.
And the commonwealth is not immune. Jan. 18, 1993, Gary Scott Pennington pulled a revolver from his jacket and shot and killed his teacher and a janitor at East Carter High School, before holding his classmates hostage. Dec. 1, 1997, Michael Carneal opened fire on a prayer group at Heath High School, in Paducah killing three. June 25, 2008 at Atlantis Plastics in Henderson, Wesley Neal Higdon shot and killed five of his coworkers and critically injured a sixth person before taking his own life.
The Kentucky State Police have taken an active role in preparing for future incidents like these in schools across the commonwealth. Beginning in 2012, Capt. James Stephens, Post 14 and Trooper Brent White, Post 1 proposed a plan to the former KSP commissioner to train every school in Kentucky on how to handle active-shooter situations. They put together a four-hour block of instruction that could be taught to teachers and staff at high schools, middle schools and elementary schools in every county.
“Two of the most well-known school shootings have been in Kentucky,” said Trooper Toby Coyle, the critical-incident training coordinator for Post 7 in Richmond. “We want to make the kids, teachers, staff and everyone involved feel safe so they can teach the kids and have confidence. And if, God forbid, something happens, we want them to be more prepared than if they had no training.”
There Are Options
“At most every school across the state and in America, the only defense they have against active shooters is lock down, lock down, lock down,” Coyle said. “Many school systems have it as policy that [lock down] is all the faculty is supposed to do. But after our training, schools get with their board of education and refine their policies. We teach them that they have different options. They don’t just have to be a victim.”
The Department of Homeland Security created a video called “Run, Hide, Fight,” which KSP uses during its Level 4 training, immediately before the active-shooter scenario training begins.
As its name suggests, the DHS training video demonstrates the three main options someone has when they find themselves in an active-shooter incident. Instead of allowing themselves to simply be victims, they can run from the situation, finding a way out of the building and escaping danger. If their location or situation doesn’t allow them to run from the building, they can hide, taking measures to secure themselves into a room, blocked by bulky furniture or equipment that can act as a barrier. Individuals also can choose to fight back against the assailant.
“We’ve learned when an active shooter plans his attack, if something throws a monkey wrench in his plan, it throws him off,” Coyle said. “They choose to go into schools because it’s a target-rich environment. They expect them to go into lockdown and lay down and cry.”
Coyle said he wants teachers and staff members to understand that if they do something — if they choose to fight in some way — just doing something different than what the assailant expects may change the direction of the entire situation. In Marysville, Wash., last October, first-year teacher, Megan Silberberger, tried to apprehend Jaylen Fryberg as he attempted to reload his weapon, after having shot multiple students in the cafeteria.
“He wasn’t prepared for a petite social studies teacher to fight back,” Coyle said.
Fear and Opposition
Though this training teaches school staff important life-saving tactics and information, the Level 4 training also can be extremely scary, stressful and difficult for them to undergo, Coyle said. Many teachers are extremely nervous and show signs of distress because the training is intended to be stressful and as realistic as possible. The use of smoke, fire alarms, live rounds with an AR 15 rifle and engagement of an assailant in a red-man outfit add to the realism and stress, Coyle said.
Though teachers and staff may be terrified before and during the training, about 95 percent of the after-training critiques are extremely positive.
“The military and us, as law enforcement, are trained in stressful environments because you react as you are trained,” Coyle said. “We know [teachers] are not trained military or police and are very nervous, have a lot of anxiety and sometimes mess up the first few scenarios.
“But it is a confidence-building program,” Coyle continued. “Everyone survives, no matter how bad they do, because we want them to get in the mindset that they can survive an incident.”
Though teachers and staff may be terrified before and during the training, about 95 percent of the after-training critiques are extremely positive, Coyle said.
Silver Creek Elementary School Principal Angie Barnes agreed, saying that all her teachers expressed it was the best training they’ve ever completed.
“It wasn’t something they had fun doing,” she said, “but it was by far the best. It should be mandatory that every school does it.”
Barnes first went through the training as an assistant principal at Madison Central High School, where she was in charge of campus safety issues. Once she came to the elementary school, she facilitated the training a second time.
“That was a real eye opener for me watching the training at an elementary level,” Barnes said. “At the high-school level I think of [the threat] coming from within the building — a student or staff member. At this level you think of someone trying to harm you from the outside. There are so many things I think of all the time that the teachers at this level never think of.”
At Madison Central High School, Barnes was told about the available training by the school’s resource officer, Whitney Maupin, with the Richmond Police Department. Because the school is large with 175 faculty and staff members, facilitating the training for one day was a little complicated, Barnes recalled.
But getting to see how the staff reacted to each situation was worth the effort, she said.
“Teachers were surprised at their own reactions,” Barnes said. “Their hearts were beating so hard they lost fine motor skills. It became hard to think and react quickly
in situations. Some were quick to react while others said, ‘I just sat there, I couldn’t do anything. I saw it happening and knew what was going on, but I couldn’t do anything.’
“The people I thought would be on it and really good actually shut down,” Barnes continued. “And the ones I thought would fall apart and be unable to do anything were the ones taking people down. It was good for me to see and for the others to get a sense of what they should think about if something ever did happen, so they wouldn’t be shocked.”
Owsley County High School Principal Charlie Davidson said his school staff had a similar experience.
“When we went into the action part, we didn’t know what to expect, but they did a good job telling us what we should do and explained why,” Davidson said.
Barnes said she also learned a lot about the building and the challenges that might arise in a real-time response situation. For example, both at the high school and the elementary school, because of the setup of the campuses, it was surprising that people in one part of the building could not hear a gunshot in another part of the building, she said.
Our main focus is to get through to the teachers that we are not the first responders in these situations — they are.
“People think if there’s a gunshot, they’d hear it and know what was going on, but the fact is that it could be going on in one hallway and no one would have any idea in another hallway,” Barnes said. “A gunshot is really loud, but when we had teachers staged in different parts of the building, they could never hear it.”
Also, thinking about the experience of substitute teachers in the school who have not been trained and aren’t as familiar with their surroundings, and taking note of the disorientation of some of the staff during the scenarios, Barnes created 911 scripts for every classroom at Madison Central High School. Beside each classroom phone is a very detailed script about where in the building they are located and which entrance to come into the school to reach them. In addition, all classroom numbers were posted inside the classroom as well, so those in the classroom didn’t have to guess at the room number to tell 911 over the phone or open a door to see the number and risk the safety of the teacher and students, Barnes said.
At Owsley County High School, Davidson said the school began enforcing the locked door policy throughout the school, so that during the school day, all classroom doors are locked, preventing someone from simply walking into a group of innocent students and firing shots or taking hostages.
Since the creation of this critical-incident training, KSP troopers have trained more than 12,000 school staff members in the counties and schools across the state, and there still are many schools left to train, Coyle said.
“Our main focus is to get through to the teachers that we are not the first responders in these situations — they are,” Coyle stressed. “Because most incidents are over in 10 minutes, even if the school is in the city limits, response time is still going to be six to eight minutes, and because most active shooters are cowards, when law enforcement shows up, they usually take their own life. The teachers are actually the first responders inside the school.”
Preparing school teachers and staff for the reality of the situation will allow them to keep the children and themselves safe and alive — and that’s the whole goal, Coyle said.
“Troopers have kids in these schools too,” he said. “We take what we do to heart because we want the teachers to protect our kids. We take this very seriously, and I think it’s one of the best things KSP has done.”
KSP’s Preparation is Offered at Four Levels, Depending with what Each School is Most Comfortable
LEVEL 1 training allows troopers to come into the school and do a walk through, pointing out safety issues and concerns and making suggestions on how to make the school safer against an active shooter attack.
LEVEL 2 training goes one step further, walking the school administration and staff through a lock down drill.
LEVEL 3 training is similar to Level 2, but the lock down drill is unplanned and the teachers are not told in advance that it is going to take place.
LEVEL 4 training incorporates a full-blown active shooter scenario, where the faculty and staff are confronted with an active-shooter assailant dressed in red-man gear.
Each level of training includes the inspection and school walk through of Level 1.