TALLADEGA -- Blood-curdling screams, multiple gunshots and a shroud of terror and panic create the canvas upon which a typical active shooter crime scene is painted.
Fortunately for the more than 150 staff members at the Helen Keller School of Alabama and the E.H. Gentry Technical Facility, the artistic masterpiece orchestrated by local law enforcement agencies and emergency responders Wednesday evening was merely a forgery — a simulation of a possibility in which Alabama Institute for Deaf and Blind President Dr. John Mascia stressed his staff needs to be ready to face should it ever happen.
“I think it’s important for our staff to be put in situations they might not anticipate,” Mascia said. “This scenario is very, very realistic, and it has forced the staff to think about what they would do if, God forbid, something like this ever happened. We hope and pray our staff will never have to use what they learned during this realistic exercise, but just like anything else, you need to practice so that you know how to handle a situation if it does arise.”
As "intruders" infiltrated the buildings in search of their "victims" during the active shooter training scenario, HKS principal Christy Atkinson noted just how difficult it was to separate the training aspect from the realities it represented.
“In my mind I could rationalize that it wasn’t real, but when you’re on the phone with the emergency personnel, you can’t contain your emotions,” Atkinson said. “My voice was shaky. I could feel the adrenaline. You can’t differentiate between it just being a scenario and being something you might possibly face.”
Atkinson praised the training as a great tool to help identify problem areas, react to the situation at hand and improve skills in order to enhance security within a campus that primarily serves children with multiple disabilities.
“My biggest challenge is to try to make sure that all staff are as prepared as possible to save the lives of every one of our students in a variety of different situations,” Atkinson said. “Having a scenario like this really shows the areas where you have weaknesses. It’s always easy, once it’s over, to think of all the things you should have done, and there are things that we will definitely change to make our campus even safer.”
Following the two scenarios, the staff attended a training session and discussion led by Talladega County school resource officer Niki Pitts.
Pitts provided information on the principles of ‘Run, Hide, Fight,’ and the four ‘D’s’ of school safety: deter, delay, detect and destroy. Staff members had an opportunity to ask questions during the presentation.
Talladega County Sheriff Jimmy Kilgore thanked the staff for participating in the scenario, which served the dual purpose of preparing the staff as well as law enforcement and emergency responders.
“This is what we train for,” Kilgore said. “I know everybody in here has seen the news after one of these tragic events happens, and you thought, ‘Boy, that’s awful! That’s terrible! Those poor people over there!’ Well, today gave you a different perspective, didn’t it? I’ve got good news and bad news for you. The good news is what happened today wasn’t real. The bad news is tomorrow it could be.”
Jennifer Oldenburg, a teacher for the Helen Keller School’s Awakenings program, explained experiencing the scenario as a gunshot victim changed her perspective of how she would handle the situation for her classroom consisting of primarily wheelchair-bound children.
“I probably would have tried to hide in our closet,” Oldenburg said. “In this situation, depending on where I heard the shots, I might try to (flee.) We have a smaller classroom, and we have a good ratio, so we would flee. We would run. I’m going back to my classroom, and I’m going to assign each person a child. Then that way, at any time, we’re going to grab that child and we’re going to run.”
Contact Shane Dunaway at firstname.lastname@example.org