Active shooter seminar presented to principals
It’s every parent and teacher’s worst nightmare — a gunman opening fire in school.
While such a tragedy has never happened in Haywood County schools, local school leaders are taking steps to make sure teachers know how to react in the event of a shooting.
During a presentation by Clyde Police Chief Gerard Ball Wednesday, principals, school resource officers and school leaders discussed scenarios of what could happen.
Although police departments have policies in place to handle active shooters in public places such as schools, sometimes the majority of damage is done before law enforcement can even make it to the scene, Ball said.
That’s what happened Dec. 14, when it only took the shooter one minute and 23 seconds to kill 27 people at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newton, Connecticut.
Although the Clyde Police Department is only a short distance from both Central Haywood High School and Clyde Elementary School, Ball said, “I physically cannot get here in one minute.”
That’s why it’s important for teachers and staff to have an idea of how they should handle an active shooter until police arrive.
While it’s impossible to prepare for such tragic events entirely, taking a look at past school shootings is a starting point.
Ball began the presentation with a 9-1-1 recording from the shooting at Columbine High School in 1999.
Screams, gun shots and pleads for help were heard on the tape as a teacher explained the gunman was shooting at everyone in the library.
“That’s about as real as it can get without being there,” Ball said.
When it comes to an active shooter in the building, Ball referred to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s advice to “run, hide or fight.”
More than anything, he stressed that whatever decision teachers make in a situation, they must commit fully to their actions.
“Once it happens, you have to commit to your actions 110 percent,” he said. “The shooter is committed to their actions and you have to be committed to yours.”
Turning off the lights, locking the door and blocking off the entrance and hiding was one recommendation. When possible, the Department of Homeland Security recommends running away from the situation. And when there is no other option, fight back.
The concept of fighting back against intruders in schools is new, said Dr. Bill Nolte, Associate Superintendent of Haywood County Schools.
In the past, teachers were trained to cooperate with criminals to minimize injury.
“The whole training approach from law enforcement was to negotiate and limit damage,” Nolte said.
But after school massacres, questions have arisen about how teachers can fight back.
“The next big question is, are we going to do with schools what we’ve done with airlines? We know there are air marshals on each flight and no one knows who they are, but we know that they’re armed. The big societal question is, will that happen in schools? And I think that’s a huge unknown," Nolte said.
While there are school system policies in place to deal with emergencies, each situation is different, Ball said, and the goal is for teachers to always remember student safety comes first.
Sometimes, that could mean teachers and staff going with their gut to keep everyone safe.
“We want them to use the best judgement that they have. If we tell them to lock down, we certainly want them to lock down. But I don’t think anything should preclude them from using good sound judgment," Nolte said.
An eye opening experience
While several in the room raised their hand when asked how many had ever fired or even held a gun, some, including Haywood County Schools Superintendent Anne Garrett, had not.
As a way to demonstrate what a gun sounds like when shot inside a room or hallway, Ball fired blank shots from an AR-15, similar to the weapon used in the Connecticut shooting.
The terrifying pop from the gun followed by the distinctive smell of gun powder was an eye opening experience for some in the room.
“When he was out in the hallway with the door closed it was just a, ‘pop, pop, pop,’ sound and you would not, perhaps, think that it was a gun. It was really helpful to know what to expect,” Garrett said.
Ball hoped the demonstration was a valuable part of the lesson.
“Now you’ve seen it, you’ve heard it – you’re not going to forget it,” Ball said to the audience.
Part of the training discussed what teachers should do long before any tragedy occurs.
School staff were urged to always go by the motto, “if you see something, say something” when it comes to strange student behavior or suspicious activity.
Scott Sluder, Canton police officer and school resource officer at Pisgah High School, said now, more than ever, is the time to keep a watchful eye on those who enter school grounds.
“We need to be more nosy. You see somebody on your campus not wearing a visitor’s badge, go up and ask them who they are and why they’re here,” he said, referring to a recent incident when a parent circumvented the visitor’s office and made a bee-line to the cafeteria, only to be escorted off the premises.
Keeping schools as safe as possible is always the main priority of school administration, Garret said, and presentations like these help keep them abreast on how to shape policies and procedures.
"We always hope nothing like that would ever happen here, but of course, there are never any guarantees," she said.