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Thinking the unthinkable: Officers train to deal with school shooting

By Jason Lesley
Coastal Observer

When students Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold entered Columbine High School in Colorado April 20, 1999, and killed 13 students and teachers, law officers took 45 minutes to organize themselves and storm the school.

Today, the first officer at an “active shooter” scene will confront the suspect immediately, according to Alan Walters, director of safety and risk management for the Georgetown County School District.

State Law Enforcement Division special agent Wayne Freeman led two two-day training exercises for sheriff’s deputies and other officers at Waccamaw High School in the past week on confronting an armed intruder in a school.

Walters said the training reflected changes in tactics and doctrine in dealing with the threat. “We want the staff to understand what’s going to happen in an active shooter situation,” Walters said. “The officers are not going to stop and talk to the principal or treat a wounded person. They are going right to the threat and try to eliminate it. Even if someone is injured, that officer may go right on by them because preventing more injuries is more important than stopping to see what’s going on with them at that very moment.”

Walters said school personnel will be trained to be prepared for the quick response of law officers — some may enter schools in street clothes carrying weapons. “Once we get school open Aug. 20,” he said, “we will have individual school training sessions.”

Sgt. Gary Todd of the Georgetown County Sheriff’s Office said individual patrol deputies will be armed well enough to handle any situation they might confront in a mass shooting. “We want an individual officer to come in by themselves and deal with the threat accordingly without waiting on backup or a SWAT team because time is of the essence,” he said.

Todd said Sheriff Lane Cribb decided he wanted more training for both patrol deputies and administrative officers on active shooters. The training sessions at Waccamaw High drew county deputies along with Georgetown City Police, Pawleys Island Police, SLED and a state constable. “Unfortunately, you have to plan for these situations,” Todd said. “Across the country there have been more and more active shooter events at schools as well as businesses. We want to be better prepared here in case we have to face the situation.”

Officers encountered scenarios where the intruder was barricaded in a classroom, holding hostages or hiding and ready to shoot it out.

“Some school buildings can be challenging” Todd said. “They are very big with upstairs and downstairs and large hallways. There are a lot of places that somebody could hide. It’s an extremely big building for one officer to search. That’s why we want the first law enforcement there, whether state, local or a municipality, to be able to work with others and isolate the threat as quickly as possible.”

Walters said schools will have more cameras, and law enforcement officers will have access to a variety of doors by using a coded card. Dispatchers will have school floor plans to assist them in locating a threat and finding specific teachers’ rooms.

Keeping intruders out of schools is the first line of defense, Walters said. Others schools are getting “entrance hardening projects” this summer similar to a glassed entry at Waccamaw High that forces visitors to go through the office rather than getting free run of the campus. Once visitors enter any school’s office beginning this month, they will be asked to scan their driver’s licenses into a computer system that runs their names against the national sex offender registry.

There is also a new safety “Tip” phone app for members of the public to report concerns. It is available on the school website and sends the messages to Walters and the school administration.

“Our board and Dr. [Randy] Dozier have made a priority of safety,” Walters said, “spending over a million dollars this summer in security enhancements. We’ve learned that teachers can’t do their job and students can’t learn if they are distracted by concerns about safety.”

Training hits close to home for WHS resource officer

David Reagan took part in training to deal with gunmen at the S.C. Criminal Justice Academy last week. He taught similar courses during his 15 years with the Myrtle Beach Police Department. This week, Reagan was part of the training at Waccamaw High, where he is the school resource officer.

“It was an eye-opening experience,” he said. A deputy with the Georgetown County Sheriff’s Office, he is starting his second year at the high school. “You learn a lot of techniques and get rid of a lot of old habits,” Reagan said. “It’s a very useful tool in our toolbox that we hope we never have to use.”

Reagan gets occasional questions from parents about school security, usually from parents who move from “rougher areas,” he said. He offers assurance, but doesn’t give out details. In the case of an “active shooter,” Reagan is on the front line.

The training sessions at Waccamaw High this week and last week were valuable because they involved all area law enforcement. The sheriff’s office and school district deserve credit for holding the sessions and making them inclusive, Reagan said.

Although knowledge of the campus helped as officers ran through the scenarios, he said it was the shared knowledge of tactics that helped the most. “Your training kicks in,” Reagan said. “It was an amazing thing that we were able to come together. It was a smart thing.”

The school district started the school resource officer program after the 1999 shootings at Columbine High School in Colorado. The main goals are safety and enforcing the state law on campus. “We’re protecting the future,” Reagan said.

“You will do anything in your power to save these children,” he said. “Those kids mean everything to me at that school.”

– Charles Swenson

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