Watching heavily-armed officers swarm school hallways Monday in Amherst was exciting, we can assure you.
But the exercise will only prove valuable if it reveals important lessons about how well we are prepared to handle violence.
“If you can learn to run if you have to, hide if you have to, fight if you have to… You’ll have a place to go back in your mind,” said Amherst police Lt. Dan Makruski, prepping school staff before the day began.
“I wish we didn’t have to do this, but we have to,” he told teachers.
The drill was designed to stress test school emergency protocols, which have been beefed up since the Sandy Hook Elementary shootings in 2012. They’ve also been flipped around to give teachers more leeway in deciding when it’s appropriate to barricade doors or evacuate children.
“If we have to tweak those plans, we’ll tweak those plans,” school resource officer Eric Layfield told educators in a post-drill debriefing.
With that in mind, there were a few key points discovered as the shooting scenario played out:
• It takes time for police to respond to an emergency. Chief Joseph Kucirek told teachers to remember they are on their own for the first few minutes until help arrives.
• Kucirek also noted a lack of communication back to the police dispatch center with updated information during the drill. That will be fixed, he said.
• Police said they will be more vigilant when it comes to suspicious objects. One “explosive device” on the sidewalk in front of Steele High’s main entrance was ignored nearly an hour, which could have been disastrous in a real life scenario.
• Teachers noted that though the simulated gunfire was loud, it was extremely difficult to know where it was coming from — inside, outside, upstairs, or downstairs.
• Even in a drill, the sound of gunfire prompts an involuntary fight-or-flight response. “When a bullet (fires), your heart is going to shut down. Your brain is going to shut down. It’s disorienting,” Layfield said.
Teachers came up with their own suggestions for mending emergency policies:
• If a new school is built, the building needs to be more secured against shooters.
• The wounded need to be taken farther away from the school for treatment. Staff felt they were kept too closely to the main entrance while being treated.
• Police officers need to be dispatched to stand guard over other nearby schools during an emergency. In this case, teachers said police should have been sent to Nord Middle School and Powers Elementary until the all-clear was given.
“You guys did fantastic. I couldn’t be happier,” Layfield said, calming school staff after the drill was over. “You’ve practiced so when your brain shuts down then it’s all muscle memory… We do this to find where the hiccups are.”
Kucirek had praise for his officers, especially Makruski and fellow lieutenant Mark Cawthon, who created and oversaw the practice scenario.
“It’s always good to review your procedures and processes,” he said. “As much as we like to think we have everything under control, we need to be ready to respond to the unexpected.”
“If we don’t train or keep this in the back of our minds then we fail.”
Jason Hawk can be reached at 440-988-2801 or @EditorHawk on Twitter. Valerie Urbanik can be reached at 440-775-1611 or @ValUrbanik on Twitter.
Photos by Jason Hawk and Valerie Urbanik | Amherst News-Times Lt. Dan Makruski prepares teachers for Monday’s active shooter drill, warning them that they’ll hear simulated gunfire.