North Jefferson News, Gardendale, AL

January 8, 2013

For the Unthinkable: Principals, teachers get shooter training

By Robert Carter
North Jefferson News

— The voice of Sgt. James Burns of the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office boomed through the school hallway, sounding for all the world like a movie director on a set.

“And we have — ACTION!”

A group of teachers stood in a corner of a mostly-empty classroom, along with other sheriff’s office personnel playing the role of school children. Suddenly, two men came in and pointed guns at the group.

The teachers hustled the “children” out into the hallway, as the sounds of gunfire and screaming echoed through the building. Gunshots, using simulated bullets somewhat like paintballs, rang out and shells littered the floor.

Moments later, more teachers and administrators — this time in full body armor, playing the role of police — came back into the empty room to shoot down the “attackers” in a hail of fake bullets.

“Stop!” Burns thundered. “You shot the wrong man! They gave you the wrong description.”

The drama was one of several that were part of a day full of simulations of so-called active-shooter incidents, sponsored by the Jefferson County School System to help school staffers deal with the unthinkable — much like the massacre of 20 children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Conn., last month.

The event was held Jan. 2 at the old Springdale Elementary just outside of Fultondale, a facility slated to be torn down; it was most recently the home of the Burkett Center for the Multi-Handicapped, which moved last year to the old Mortimer Jordan High campus in Morris.

The training session was staged by The Alabama Association of School Resource Officers

(TAASRO), in conjunction with the sheriff’s office. It was scheduled well before the Newtown shooting on Dec. 14.

Before that shooting, only about 20 administrators from around the system had signed up to attend. Afterward, that number nearly quintupled, and organizers had to add an afternoon session to go with the morning one.

Among the administrators taking part were Barbara Snider, principal at Mortimer Jordan, and Laura Ware, her counterpart at Snow Rogers Elementary. In the last drill of the day, the two principals donned body armor and become SWAT team members for a few minutes.

The armor didn’t keep Snider from being “wounded” in all the action. “Look — I got hit right here on my hand,” Snider said as she pointed to a spot of clay-based pigment from a simulated bullet, which hit her hand between the forefinger and thumb — one of the few places the armor didn’t cover.

Ware said the drill was very helpful to her.

“I think it helps us have greater awareness from all angles — being aware of everything around you on a daily basis,” she said. “It’s something I hope I never have to go through, even as a simulation.”

Dale Stripling, a student services supervisor with the county schools and an executive education advisor for TAASRO, said that putting administrators and teachers in the role of first-responder police helps to give them an idea of how law enforcement deals with an active shooter, and how school personnel can help them in a crisis.

“It helps them [school personnel] think about how difficult it is for law enforcement to apprehend a school shooter when they don’t have as much information as they need, and it gave them the idea of what they need to provide and help to partner with their SRO [school resource officer],” Stripling said.