WARREN TWP. – The quiet prior to the arrival of students at Warren Elementary School Wednesday morning was shattered by loud cracks and shouts, sending teachers into their classrooms or out of the building.
The source of the sounds was Washington County Sheriff’s Office Chief Deputy Mark Warden, smacking a ruler against a textbook and shouting “bang” as he went through the halls in a drill designed to prepare employees for the unthinkable – a gunman in the school.
“It’s sad that we have to go through this, but I think it’s good, especially as a student teacher, to be exposed to this,” said Elizabeth Meek, a Western Governor’s University student teacher at Warren.
Warden has conducted full-scale active shooter drills at area high schools, including Warren High School on Tuesday, involving staff and students in training based on the A.L.I.C.E. program. Rather than the lockdown-only approach favored for many years, A.L.I.C.E. – which stands for “alert, lockdown, inform, counter, evacuate” – emphasizes using multiple options to get to safety and, if necessary, fight back.
But a gunman in the building isn’t the kind of thing one can simulate realistically with younger children.
“It’s not developmentally appropriate for some of our younger students and some of our intermediate students,” Warren Elementary Principal Tricia Delaney said. “It might become more frightening than it is productive for these students.”
So, as he has done at half a dozen other elementary schools in the county this year, Warden conducted a drill Wednesday for the staff, to get them thinking about, and acting out, how they would keep themselves and their students safe.
“You’ve got to visualize having (those) kids with you,” he told the teachers during a debriefing after the drill. “Those little ones are going to be looking at you for leadership. They will follow you.”
The “inform” portion of the A.L.I.C.E. model focuses on getting information about a shooter out to people in the building so they know how to react. If the gunman is in another portion of the building, evacuation is encouraged. If the suspect is nearby, locking down and preparing to counter is the proper approach.
Warden encouraged teachers to regularly consider their surroundings and how they would respond if a shooter was in the building. Should it actually happen, they wouldn’t be at a loss for what actions to take.
“I believe as you visualize, what you’re doing, you’re training yourself,” he said.
And that includes visualizing how to respond if a teacher is backed into a corner and a gunman enters the room.
“Be on the offensive. It’s the hardest thing to do. It’s the hardest thing for me to tell educators to do,” Warden said. “You have to look around your room, say, ‘What can I really use as a weapon?'”
Wednesday’s drill was the second conducted at Warren Elementary. Last year, Delaney said, teachers knew precisely how it was going to happen and how they were expected to respond. This time, all they knew was that a drill was to take place. As Warden walked the halls, followed by Assistant Warren High School Principal Ryan Lemley, providing additional noise, and Delaney, he checked for locked doors and took note of where teachers went.
There was an added degree of uncertainty for Meek, who got caught behind a garbage truck on the way to the school and entered the building in the midst of the drill, just as Warden was returning to the first floor.
“I … instantly just ran,” she said. Her first impulse was “just to run and try not to be noticed.”
Meek didn’t have time to lock her classroom door and ended up hiding beneath a desk, her adrenaline pumping, as she saw Warden search the room.
The exercise was a worthwhile one to language arts teacher Jim Williams.
“The uncertainty of the situation, it creates a certain amount of anxiety, even if you understand that it’s a practice, an important practice to be sure,” he said.
Williams said things like active shooter drills weren’t even discussed when he began his career in education in 1974.
It is a topic fifth-grade teacher and building head teacher Kasey Brookover heard about in college, but Wednesday was her first time in an active drill. Brookover said she felt like she did all right but saw room for improvement.
“It definitely made me realize I wasn’t fast enough,” she said.
During the debriefing, some teachers discussed where they could secure their students, while others pointed out areas of concern. Warden suggested the school hold evacuation drills to get students used to the idea of moving toward a specific exit, saying they could be described as how to respond to a natural gas leak or other situation less worrisome to younger children than a shooting incident.
Such training is just one way schools have changed to respond to such threats. Delaney noted any visitors to the school, including parents, are required to sign in at the office and wear a visitor’s badge. Warden remembers the days when he could just walk into a school and if a door was locked, a helpful student would let him inside.
“This year I’ve gone to the schools and stood outside, and those students won’t let me in,” he said.
In addition, sheriff’s deputies now make random, unscheduled walk-throughs at schools in the county.