Learning to survive: Parents play a role in crisis

PORT ORCHARD — Faced with a troubling rise in mass school shootings across the nation, and having a number of school facilities well past their prime, South Kitsap School District’s superintendent and board of directors have concluded there’s an urgent need to better prepare their school community for the unthinkable: the appearance of an active shooter on one of its campuses.

While resources are being allocated for upgraded security equipment and access controls, the school district believes enlisting a smarter approach through human capital is critical to minimizing casualties, should a shooting ever take place.

Earlier this year, administrators contracted with retired Pierce County Sheriff’s Office deputy Jesus Villahermosa, Jr. and his company, Crisis Reality Training, to educate school staff members and the district’s nearly 10,000 students on ways to elude and ultimately survive the destruction wrought by a person carrying — and using — deadly weapons.

The former SWAT team point man for the sheriff’s office, a 33-year veteran, has been giving presentations to school district staff and administrators since the beginning of the year.

Students at South Kitsap High School, the largest in the state, and the district’s middle-schoolers will receive training later this spring. Parents were given an overview of the training philosophy at the high school last month, kicking off an effort by Villahermosa and the district to get parents and community members on board with the training program.

Villahermosa told parents attending the half-filled auditorium that not only will students and staff need to be fully trained so they can increase their chances for survival in an unfathomable situation, but parents will need to take on a role as a critical part of the new process.

While acknowledging that parental apathy is a tough hurdle to overcome, the former deputy said the conversation “has to start somewhere.”

If there had been a shooting that day at a school nearby, he said, “this auditorium would be packed.”

Getting in the way

In the urgency to protect their children, he said, parents who arrive on the scene can unwittingly impede first responders and put themselves and others in unnecessary danger.

“In three shootings, so many parents arrived on the scene, which I can tell you would easily happen here, they blocked all the surrounding roads,” Villahermosa said. “They abandoned their cars and congregated — and the dying children in the ambulances inside couldn’t even move them to get to a hospital.

“What if that was your child?”

In another chilling example, he recounted an instance at the Sandy Hook Elementary shooting in 2012 when a parent arrived on school property carrying a cell phone. A teacher peeking through the closed blinds of her classroom mistook him as a second shooter with a handgun. Her mistaken identification — and the parent’s carelessness — managed to divert law enforcement’s attention from the actual shooter, Adam Lanza, who continued on his horrifying shooting spree. Complicating an already dire situation, the parent also refused to follow police instructions and nearly got shot in the process.

Parents have a role to play

In a cautionary note, the security expert said parents need to exercise discipline if an actual lockdown takes place.

“You’ve got to make sure that if you hear about a lockdown, that you listen to the radio and go to the social media feed for more instructions,” he said. “Otherwise, you could endanger the life of your child by coming to the school. We [law enforcement] don’t have time to deal with you. We’re trying to get a bad guy.”

Part of the new crisis process also means that parents shouldn’t expect to pick up their child in the midst of a lockdown situation at their school.

“Stop promising your kid that you will come to save them,” Villahermosa said. “Tell them ‘I will come see you at the reunification point.’ You need to know that we’re going to send your child to another school for reunification.

“Kids cannot be released from classrooms unless law enforcement releases them, one classroom at a time. At [South Kitsap High], in my opinion, that will take over five hours. In a lockdown, there’s no way you will be picking your child up in an actual event at the school. It will become a crime scene.”

School safety expert Jesus Villahermosa Jr. of Crisis Reality Training says more safety forums will be scheduled for South Kitsap School District parents. (Bob Smith | Kitsap Daily News)

School safety expert Jesus Villahermosa Jr. of Crisis Reality Training says more safety forums will be scheduled for South Kitsap School District parents. (Bob Smith | Kitsap Daily News)