PORT ORCHARD — Frightened students, frozen with fear and trapped in a school library with an active shooter heading their way, did what they had been taught to do in a time of crisis: crouch as best they could under tables to hide from the searching eyes of the armed invader.
For these high schoolers at Columbine High School in Colorado nearly 20 years ago, their reaction was in vain. Barely on the cusp of bright new lives, they unwittingly put themselves in position to be cruelly executed, one-by-one, by two emotionally unstable classmates armed with weapons — heartless, cold-blooded killers.
That’s a disturbing remembrance, for sure, but it was cold reality for hundreds of American students and school staff — too many to really comprehend — who themselves were confronted by this terrifying situation in the days, months and years following Columbine, widely considered this nation’s introduction to school violence at the hands of armed active killers.
The school shooting that ripped at the souls of Americans in the rawest form was the atrocity at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Connecticut in 2012 when 20 first-graders and six adults were gunned down by a young man pulling the trigger on an assault rifle. Since that horror took place, as of February, 239 additional school shootings have rocked the nation. The number has risen since that time. The human toll exacted from the violence up to that month: 438 people shot, 138 of them killed.
This year, the nation is on pace to beat last year’s statistics for active shootings, which was the worst in the history of the U.S.
Faced by those grim statistics, schools around the nation have begun to take steps to become better prepared should the unthinkable happen on their campus. Lockdown plans are being refined, reactive measures that take minutes, not hours, to fully implement, are being practiced by school staff members and students. And old notions — like hiding under desks and staying in place in an unsecured classroom or lunchroom — are being reexamined and replaced by tactics that can save more lives.
One key element that crisis-response planning experts say has been overlooked is just how precious seconds and minutes are for potential victims to quickly react to a rapidly unfolding situation in which an armed shooter equipped with rounds of ammo has entered their space. The experts say there’s not a second to spare when making a life-saving decision.
Plans to save lives at SKH
Troubled by a sharp increase in threats communicated to South Kitsap High school, much of it through social media, South Kitsap School District administrators decided earlier this year to enlist the services of a retired deputy sheriff with the Pierce County Sheriff’s Office — Jesus Villahermosa, Jr. — who is a 33-year force veteran with 30 years of experience on the department’s SWAT team as the point man on its entry team.
Villahermosa has been giving presentations to school district staff and administrators since the beginning of the year. His instruction begins by first defining what an “active lethal threat” actually is, and how those in danger should quickly respond so they have an optimal chance to survive by leaving the scene of danger.
“While we don’t want our schools to feel like prisons, we want to empower our students and staff to have current information and options when it comes to reacting and surviving a crisis,” said the district’s superintendent, Karst Brandsma, in a school district message earlier in the school year.
This fall, Villahermosa, who started a company called Crisis Reality Training to train survival skills in an active-shooter situation, has been sharing his modern-day tactics and strategies with high schoolers, teachers and staff at assemblies this school year. High schoolers and middle-school students will receive detailed training in life-saving tactics this spring. And last month, parents of South Kitsap High students were given the opportunity one evening in the school’s auditorium to get an overview of what their children will be learning.
A new approach
South Kitsap principal Diane Fox told the audience of parents that schools like hers have failed to adequately plan for an active-shooter incident. Fox said in the past, her school and others like it have conducted emergency lockdown drills while classes were in session. Doing so makes it more convenient to conduct a drill — hallways are mostly deserted, as are cafeterias and common areas. But scheduling drills at those times also misses a key element of a real-time situation, she said.
Past investigations have shown that a significant number of school shootings took place at a time when students crowded the hallways while moving from one class to the next — known as a passing period — or gathered in groups for lunch or to socialize.
That’s precisely the time when a shooter starts to attack — when teachers and staff are least in control of their students and when the number of potential human targets is at its peak.
“Their only goal is to produce fatalities,” Villahermosa told the parents.
The systematic notion of civility and submissiveness as a positive in schools, Villahermosa said, works against strategies to save lives. That won’t work in a crisis, he said.
“In an actual crisis event — a lethal threat — did you know that [school] policies, procedures and protocols don’t apply. At Columbine, students punched out the ceiling tiles and crawled into the ceiling to survive the attack.”
During the Virginia Tech shootings, students jumped out of second-story windows to survive. “Do we teach that in schools? No. What are we taught about running in the hallways? Always walk. If you’re caught running in the hallway during a regular day, you’re told to slow down.”
Villahermosa said in a crisis situation, rules don’t apply. When given the chance, those in danger should run — and run as far away as they can from the campus. He told students and staff that they can “jump out of any window, break any window and — hold on — we gave them permission to go to the staff lounge” if that’s where they’ll be safe.
“We’re giving [students] the message of survival, and it’s about time we did,” he said of his student presentations.