Annual school training brings added gravity in wake of recent mass shootings
OAK CREEK — At the end of the locker-lined hallway, a girl screamed from inside a classroom, “Help! Help! I’ve been shot, I’ve been shot!”
On the other side of the school loud, popping noises echoed through the dark gymnasium.
As part of the annual active shooter training, law enforcement and first responder agencies from Routt, Grand and Moffat counties gathered at Soroco High School in Oak Creek on Tuesday and Wednesday.
For two full days, sheriff’s deputies, police officers, firefighters and emergency medical services personnel ran through numerous scenarios that included school shootings as well as domestic situations, workplace settings — and anywhere first responders might encounter an active shooter.
The schools provide valuable space and settings for training, said Steamboat Springs Detective Jordan Cyphers, who helped lead Wednesday’s training at Soroco. It is also a chance for regional first responders to become familiar with the layout of the school.
They’ve now held the trainings in all three public school districts in Routt County and have plans to hold one at Steamboat Mountain School, Cyphers said.
“But not every active shooter threat is in a school. As we saw last weekend, it can happen at a Walmart or at a bar,” he said.
Cyphers was referring to the shooting in El Paso, Texas, on Saturday that left at least 31 people dead, and the shooting on Sunday in Dayton, Ohio, which left nine people dead.
The double mass shooting over the weekend without a doubt adds gravity to the training exercise, Cyphers said.
There have been 251 mass shootings in 2019, according to the Gun Violence Archive, which categorizes mass shootings as incidents in which four or more people were shot or killed, not including the shooters.
Even in small, rural communities with low crime rates, Cyphers said that unfortunately, he operates on the premise that it “is not a matter of if, but when. Crime knows no boundaries.”
He said they use the statistics and data from many of the high-profile mass shootings from across the nation, starting with the Columbine shooting 20 years ago, to inform the training program.
The cooperation and collaboration between counties as well as agencies and schools is one of the most important parts of the exercise, Cyphers said. As is exposing first responders to real-life scenarios and giving them a rolodex of information in their brains to rely upon when needed.
One EMS responder participating in Wednesday’s training showed the bloody marks on his arms where he’d been shot 10 times with sim rounds — nonlethal training bullets.
The 9mm and rifle cartridges are intended to be realistic in that they allow for an accurate assessment of accuracy and lethality. And they sting a bit, especially on bare skin, which makes for a more visceral experience for trainees.
In one scenario, the EMS trainee played a man who had just shot his son and had a gun held to his wife’s head.
During a debrief in the hallway, one trainer asked unimaginably difficult questions about decisions that must be made in seconds and under duress — “Knowing an innocent victim may be about to expire, how long do you stand there with the gun drawn at the shooter? Whose life is more important?”
Cyphers noted there isn’t always a right or wrong way to do things, and the trainings instead give first responders first-hand experience and potential options during scenarios of which no two are ever the same.
Trainings within different agencies can look different, Cyphers said, and thus, it is very valuable to have the opportunity to spend time together.
“When one of these situations happens, it’s going to be all of us working together no matter what,” he said.
By including EMS and fire, Cyphers said, they don’t just train on how to stop an active shooter but on what to do afterward.
South Routt School District Superintendent Rim Watson said the scenarios he witnessed during the training were never simple.
“They created the most complicated scenarios,” he said, with numerous factors and difficult decisions to be made.
Watson invited every school staff member to attend the training but made it mandatory for every administrator and everyone on the crisis response team.
During a hypothetical shootout in the gymnasium, new Soroco Principal Steven Fuller was literally caught in the crossfire and hit by a couple of fake bullets. Only one left a mark.
From the school’s perspective, Watson said he was grateful for the willingness of the RAID trainers to bring in school staff and explain to them the reasoning behind how they carry out operations.
In terms of training the students, Watson said Soroco conducts fire and lockdown drills.
“First and foremost, we want the kids to know we have a plan, and we will not be caught flat footed,” Watson said.
- Safe2Tell Colorado is for students who need to report threats to themselves or others in a way that keeps them safe.
- Safe2Tell Colorado is anonymous. Anonymity is protected by Colorado state law.
- The toll-free number is 1-877-542-7233 (SAFE).
- Anonymous web reports can be made at https://safe2tell.org/node/52.
- Reports also may be made using the anonymous Safe2Tell Colorado mobile app available on the Apple Store and Google Play.
- Safe2Tell Colorado is for serious reports only.
Watson and Fuller also talked about creating an environment in which students are not scared to come to school and feel comfortable, supported and know they have a trusted adult to talk to regarding any issue that might come up.
Ideally that preparedness in providing students the support they need “prevents something like this from ever happening,” Fuller said.
And it is important for students to “have an awareness and know the role they play in keeping their school safe, and informing us,” Watson added.
Every report is taken seriously, and when something is reported, Watson said, there are several mechanisms of intervention, support and continued follow-up.
Watson also said he studies “action reports,” such as that written after the Marjorie Stoneman Douglas shooting, and works to implement their recommendations.
“We don’t just try to come up with our own plan,” Watson said. “We try to come up with a plan based on what everyone else has learned.”
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