Authorities take down a shooting suspect in the mock crisis at Unicoi County High School. (Ron Campbell/Johnson City Press)
ERWIN — Shots rang out in the parking lot of Unicoi County High School on Wednesday morning.
As several of their classmates in the parking lot fell wounded, two students ran screaming toward the school. Trailing not far behind was a pair of armed men, intent on entering the occupied high school.
But this nightmare scenario was not real. Instead, it was the culmination of active shooter response training that local law enforcement officials have been taking part in all week.
• See a full gallery of photos from the event at the end of this article.
With the start of the 2013-14 Unicoi County school year a little more than a week away, officials with the Unicoi County Sheriff’s Department, Erwin Police Department, Tennessee Bureau of Investigation, Tennessee Highway Patrol, the local Emergency Management Agency, Unicoi County Schools system and local fire and emergency medical services took to the grounds of the high school to put several days of active shooter training into action. The students were portrayed by students in the Unicoi County High School Drama Club.
The training was conducted by the Piney Flats-based Shooters Edge. Shooters Edge General Manager Don Reimer said Wednesday’s “mass casualty exercise” was conducted to simulate two active shooters attempting the infiltrate the high school. Two run-throughs of the exercise were conducted Wednesday morning.
Reimer said the first run-through went “too well,” as the student resource officer stationed at the high school was able to take out both of the armed individuals as they approached the building.
“The first one, the SRO did such a fantastic job that he actually took out both of the bad guys,” Reimer said. “But the exercise would have been over in 10 seconds, and that’s not really how it’s probably going to happen.”
During the second run-through, the SRO was able to wound one of the gunmen before being wounded himself. The second assailant was able to enter the school. As officers quickly responded to take control of the situation, a group of around 15 screaming students fled from the building.
Reimer said Wednesday’s exercise, which was organized to simulate an actual active shooter situation as closely as possible, will serve as a “measuring stick” to determine what areas, such as response time and planning, local officials may or may not need to improve upon.
“What you had is, basically, us trying to enact a real-world situation,” Reimer said. “These guys came in, they did their thing, then they breached the door and they went in. If you remember Sandy Hook, he breached the door and he went in and, by the time law enforcement arrived, all the damage was done.”
Reimer said he was impressed by not only the responses of the SRO and other officers, but also by the cooperation among the agencies that took part in the training and exercise.
Unicoi County Director of Schools Denise Brown said this was the first time local officials had conducted such an exercise, adding that the training was necessary to prepare for disaster.
“I’m very proud of how the sheriff’s department, Erwin Police and our SROs did today,” Brown said. “I don’t think you’re ever 100 percent prepared, but I think the more that you can practice, the more that you make sure your plans and the people you work closely with — the sheriff’s department, the town of Erwin and MedicOne — you’ve got to make sure everybody knows your plans and you’re on the same page.”
Unicoi County Sheriff Mike Hensley, who described the scenario as “frightening,” said the active shooter training was necessary to ensure the safety of county students and educators, as a school shooting could happen anywhere.
“I’m the sheriff, and I’m responsible for the safety of every citizen in this county,” Hensley said. “I’d rather be proactive as reactive. Of course, this training we’re doing is a proactive approach but, actually, we’re reactive because of what happened in Connecticut.”
Like Brown, Hensley said Wednesday’s exercise was needed to make certain that area officials are on the same page in case an active shooter situation was to play out for real, adding that steps learned during the training can be applied to each of Unicoi County’s schools. He also said he would like to see such training added to each officer’s required annual in-service training.
“There’s no way you simulate every scenario that could happen, but that’s just like police training itself,” Hensley said. “It gives us an idea of which direction to go. The more you practice, the better you get.”
UCSD Chief Deputy Frank Rogers said the training should not only give members of the community “peace of mind,” but he said officials hope it will act as a deterrent to those who may look to carry out such acts since officers are prepared to respond.
A trained, full-time officer was placed in each Unicoi County school after students returned from the 2012 Christmas Break. Hensley spearheaded this effort and worked with local school and police officials to ensure a countywide SRO program came to fruition in response to the December 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Newtown, Conn. Although the county and town of Erwin are still going through their respective budgetary processes for the 2013-14 fiscal year, Hensley said he expects the SRO program to continue in the 2013-14 school year.
“As long as I’m sheriff, there will be an SRO in these schools,” Hensley said. “I’ll see to that.”