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WCSO learns, teaches new techniques on handling school intruders

Jennifer Sprouse • Apr 6, 2013 at 9:52 PM

In light of the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., local law enforcement agencies across the country began looking into new and different solutions when dealing with armed intruders.

The Washington Country Sheriff’s Office was no different, as Sheriff Ed Graybeal wanted his department to seek out a program in which the officers would be trained to instruct teachers and school administrators on how to deal with a school intruder situation internally, according to WCSO Capt. Bryan Horton.

With the assistance of Safariland Training Group from Jacksonville, Fla., local law enforcement personnel, a Washington County school administrator and volunteers participated in a two-day intruder training course that the company developed. The training in Washington County was the first in the nation using the group’s pilot program, which focuses less on school lockdowns and more on strategies, such as exiting schools safely and fighting off intruders to save lives.

On Friday, sheriff’s office personnel, as well as Dr. Susan Kiernan, assistant director of Washington County Schools, participated in an eight-hour armed intruder training session.

Following Friday’s course, 12 officers returned to David Crockett High School Saturday at 8 a.m., with the assistance of four Safariland instructors, to instruct around 23 volunteers in another eight-hour session.

Terry Nichols, a Safariland instructor, said early morning sessions included a presentation on the program and at mid-morning participants broke into groups to learn specific skills, such as how to escape a building safely, how to deny access to a room by barricading the door, as well as how to fight for your life.

“What history is showing us on these active-shooter events in schools ... (is) sometimes lockdown is not enough,” he said. “We’re doing everything right, but we’re still having these extreme tragedies like we saw at Sandy Hook in Connecticut. We’re trying to give the law enforcement skills to go back and teach the teachers and school administrators ... some of the other strategies we can employ, beyond lockdown.”

Around 2 p.m., participants consisting of mostly Washington County reserve officers and their families, took part in various role-playing scenarios to learn how to survive under stressful conditions.

WCSO personnel, with Safariland’s assistance, set up realistic scenarios of intruders entering classrooms, auditoriums and school hallways, aided with the sounds of gunshots and recorded screams to help reaction timing to each situation.

While running through the different armed-intruder scenarios, every participant –– youth or adult –– was asked to act as a second-grader would during each instance.

As the adults and children ran outside from a back door in a classroom in one scenario, they played their parts as pretend second-graders by holding hands and staying close to the building’s perimeter, while trying to get away from the mock situation.

Katie Huffine, wife of one of the reserve officers at the session, said Saturday morning that she was already learning a lot, which included not having a victim mentality in a dangerous situation and to instead be a survivor.

“I think it’s very comforting to have a plan, to think what you might do if this happened,” Huffine said. “I think I’m going to learn some new things that I can apply in my office setting. You’re not limited to schools, it’s wherever people are gathered. I would hope that everybody, every school system in the area is interested and that they would take advantage of it, of the training that these officers are getting, because this is our community. We live here, we need to protect it.”

Nichols wanted to clarify that the training is specifically targeted for adult participants and the children who were present at Saturday’s exercise came with the adults, many of whom were their parents.

He said Safariland instructors were around Saturday for help or assistance, but said they wanted the local law enforcement officers to take the lead role.

“They’re doing a great job. They were great students yesterday,” Nichols said. “This is the pilot program. The sheriff here and the school administrators wanted to be the first and we’re very thankful that they did. I travel around the country teaching and you don’t often see this level of cooperation where you have the local law enforcement and school districts actually coming together on a Saturday ... and doing these kind of things. It’s very very good to see that this is going on in this area.”

Horton said Safariland instructors are a mix of retired officers –– city, county, state and federal –– conducting the training sessions.

“It’s been a privilege for us to have these guys in here,” Horton said. “They are so knowledgeable. We’ve had them here two years ago to do a different type of class and that’s why we wanted them to come back because they are very good at what they do. They have the experience to teach it.”

He said those trained in this weekend’s course would be part of a bigger training session in May, where they plan on training 60 teachers and administrators the same tactics learned this weekend, with the goal being that by the start of the next school year that every employee in the school system would have attended and completed the class.

“I’m already starting (to get) calls from some day cares and some churches wanting us to come in and teach it, so we’re going to be busy for awhile,” he said.

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