School eyes security

FAIRMONT – As shots sounded through the halls of Fairmont High School on Friday, people scattered, diving into the nearest classrooms and slamming the doors behind them.

It was an exercise in intruder-response tactics – the gun was an air gun – and part of an in-service day for Fairmont Area and parochial schools.

Teachers were given three scenarios – one in which they had no direction and could only hide; and two in which they could use techniques learned earlier in the in-service.

They reported fear, confusion and helplessness in the mock event. Many were surprised just how real their emotional response was.

“It is a terrible feeling,” trainer Mark Warren told them after the drills, “but you had to feel it to know what to do. And I guarantee you will know what to do next time.”

In the first scenario, most teachers likely would have been shot. By the third, only three fell into that category.

The training was provided by Strategos International. Its main point focused on the fact that while law enforcement is on its way to help in the event of a violent intruder, teachers and staff are likely to be the first to encounter a threat, and must have tools in place to handle it.

“What you do here in these minutes and seconds first makes a difference,” Warren said.

The group was given history on recent school shootings – including hearing 911 calls, which brought tears to many in the audience – and then given practical advice on what to actually do in certain situations.

“We hear about [school shootings] and then go about our daily lives,” Warren said. “It is not the frequency of the event you are preparing for, it is the impact of the event on the community.”

For many teachers, the Columbine shootings in 1999 were the first time they really considered what could happen in the event of facing a shooter, but often they weren’t trained what to do.

Sarah Striemer, a fourth-grade teacher at St. John Vianney in Fairmont, was in college when that shooting occurred, but lessons learned from it were not offered in her curriculum for becoming a teacher.

Training is often limited to what a school district offers itself through in-service and regular meetings.

Fairmont Area school resource officer Jaime Bleess said Fairmont’s teachers have been given training every year. The school has several lockdown drills each year with students.

The teachers were taught on Friday three responses to a threat – Lock Out, Get Out and Take Out – and were given techniques for each step.

Time was taken to show how to lock a door with only a piece of rope, how to barricade both in-swinging and out-swinging doors, and where to position children to minimize gunshot injury in the case of entry.

Advice on the best way to injure an intruder was given, including how to improvise weapons, and the most effect way to use them.

The concept of fighting back is something many teachers were unfamiliar with in the past. Bleess said even four or five years ago, if someone suggested fighting back in the event of a school shooting, they would be met with blank stares. Now teachers are more willing to take that risk.

“I think it is good for the average person to know if you come into the school, you are going to have a fight on your hands,” Bleess said.

Strategos trainer Dave Thomas said the idea is to teach the teachers how to stack the odds in their favor – even if it doesn’t stop the intruder but instead simply slows him down so the police can arrive.

“There is no always or never,” he said. “This is an awareness class.”

The class was offered to high school teachers in the morning and elementary teachers in the afternoon, allowing for specific responses depending on the building.

“Columbine taught us we had next to nothing for a response … The law enforcement response of contain everyone and wait for the SWAT team was inadequate,” Fairmont Police Chief Greg Brolsma said after the training. “The school lockdown policies have helped some, but now we have the assembly of a team effort to stop the threat. We learned what time was wasted, and the teachers did wonderful. They embraced this and they felt empowered.”