In danger? Run away from the scene, expert says

This article is part of our Learning to Survive series.

This is the final part in a three-part series on what parents need to know about the training their children are getting on how to survive an active-shooter emergency at their school.

PORT ORCHARD — In three decades as a law enforcement officer, after having survived perilous situations in pursuit of criminals, retired Pierce County Sheriff’s Deputy Jesus Villahermosa said his most frightening on-duty experience involved a school shooting in 2007 at Foss High School. And in the midst of that crisis on campus was his son Ben, who was a junior at the time.

Seconds after receiving a radio report about the active-shooter incident at the school, Villahermosa said he floored his patrol car to more than 100 miles per hour pointed in the direction of Foss. While speeding to the campus, the deputy was somehow able to reach his son by phone.

“The first thing I heard was loud panting” over the phone, the former deputy said. Villahermosa screamed into the phone, “What are you doing?” Ben’s response was the best he could have hoped for, he said: “I’m running, dad!”

“The last thing I heard as I hung up the phone was, “Everyone, keep running!”

Those were sweet words indeed for the retired cop, who now teaches active-shooter survival training at schools across the country. It’s hardly a surprise that his company, Crisis Reality Training, is doing a booming business as a result of mushrooming statistics that indicate school shootings are on the rise in this nation. Television news, after all, are seemingly broadcasting a new shooting incident every month or so.

Villahermosa and his company were contracted by South Kitsap School District to conduct active-shooter survival training for staff and students in each of its schools. A recent presentation he made to South Kitsap High School parents shed light on practices that school districts need to put into place so that people in educational facilities will have a fighting chance to survive should a gunman appear on campus.

First choice: run

His choice piece of advice for anyone facing such a horrifying situation is to NOT sit and hide under furniture, but RUN — and keep running as fast as possible until they’re clearly out of danger.

“Running is the number-one survival tactic,” Villahermosa said. “If your kid calls you from a 7-Eleven in Idaho, you’re having a good day.”

And, by all means, he said, don’t call your kid. Wait for them to call you. By calling them, he added, you could be putting your child in danger should they be hiding from a lurking shooter. Texting is a safer form of communication since it’s quieter than talking. It also uses less cellular bandwidth than a call, lessening the chance of overloading area cell towers and interrupting emergency communications by law enforcement.

The safety expert said parents can play an important part in preparing their kids for such an encounter. But there are steps that they also need to follow:

  • Tell their children to resist calling them should they be in the middle of a shooting incident. “Please tell your kids, ‘Call me when you can, but if you know where the bad guy is, you call 911.’”
  • Insist that your kids — part of the millennial generation — stop video recording the mayhem. Villahermosa said they should instead focus on escaping the scene, particularly if they are within range of the shooter. “There are kids who have died trying to chat on Instagram in their last moments when in reality, they should have been running.”

Villahermosa said he has a copy of a video recorded by a student at a Florida shooting in which the student was doing the wrong thing, at the wrong place, at the wrong time.

“Unfortunately, the kid who was shooting the video … is away from the door wall side,” the expert said. “The chances are going to be pretty high when we get the report that he’s dead. And the only memory his parents are going to have is of him screaming and yelling as he’s recording the video.

“That student should have been taught that if you feel trapped, go to Plan B … what would you want your son or daughter to do? Do whatever. But don’t sit there waiting to die.”

Forget ‘duck and cover’

Villahermosa said safety experts have determined that there’s one common denominator that leads to fatalities: instructing students and staff to get under desks or tables.

“We’ve been teaching our kids how to die,” he said of the venerable practice.

He offered a chilling example of how that protocol has played out to a devastating conclusion: “At Virginia Tech, two of the professors that we know of, followed the protocol to a ‘T’. They saw the shooter come, they shut the door, which had no lock, and they turned to their students and said, ‘Everyone, get on the floor immediately.’ Guess where they found 98 percent of the dead people? Exactly where we told them to go — duck and cover.”

That protocol followed by students and staff have been hammered into their psyche, he said, by emergency procedures training that originated 68 years ago as the Cold War emerged. Known as “duck and cover,” students were taught to crouch under their desks or classroom tables and stay in place, should an emergency occur.

The logic behind the procedure was shaky even during the days when school administrators and national leaders were obsessed with fears of nuclear blasts. While shielding one’s body under a desk might be advisable in an earthquake, it would leave little protection even in a tornado, let alone a nuclear “incident.”

“Duck and cover is useless for shootings and nuclear attacks,” Villahermosa said. “It somewhat protects from a vertical overhead threat. But shooters shoot bullets from a horizontal position.”

He said those in danger should go to the side of the room against the wall where the door is located. Sitting at the opposite end of the classroom makes for a lineup that the shooter can quickly and easily take out with a semiautomatic weapon.

At schools such as Virginia Tech and Sandy Hook, there were no locks on the classroom doors the shooters entered. Here at South Kitsap High School, he said locks have now been installed on all of its doors to deter an active shooter.

Don’t sit — move

Instead of enlisting duck-and-cover techniques, Villahermosa advises those in danger to do what they can to escape being in a vulnerable position. If it means that jumping from a second-story window is the only way to escape — do it.

Students stranded in a Virginia Tech classroom on the second floor faced such a dilemma. Jump or stay in place? Of the seven students there, four decided to jump and three remained in place. Villahermosa said all four survived their leap; the three were executed by the shooter.

In this exercise, participants practice using any means available to fight off a shooter. (Republic of Buzz photo)

In this exercise, participants practice using any means available to fight off a shooter. (Republic of Buzz photo)

And by all means, he said, if there is absolutely no means to escape and the shooter is fast approaching, fight by using anything at your disposal.

The safety expert said to use your desk, a stapler — anything with bulk or weight — as a weapon against the shooter to defend yourself.

And Villahermosa reemphasized that in an emergency situation, students need to make use of their senses, reasoning skills and creativity to survive. It could be their best and only chance to survive.