In an active shooter incident the sound of gunfire is often mistaken for something else — fireworks generally.
Police chiefs in Whitman and Hanson have advised school officials that, statistically, teachers won’t react in an emergency for 45 seconds to a minute because they can’t identify the sound of gunfire for what it is right away.
“They think it might be a car, or something else,” Whitman-Hanson Regional High School Principal Jeffrey Szymaniak said.
Those seconds could be critical for saving lives.
With that in mind, Szymaniak began a training program in April, along with school resource officers from both towns’ police departments, to educate teachers and staff on how to know what they are hearing in an active shooter emergency.
“We have a safety team which incorporates three building principals, central office, the chiefs of both Whitman and Hanson police and fire and their deputies,” Szymaniak said. “[Police chiefs] Mike Miksch and Scott Benton said about two and a half months ago ‘one of the things we’d like to demonstrate is what the sound of a gun … and the smell of a gun is like.’”
There was some initial push-back from some concerned about the potential for triggering PTSD reactions in veterans and trauma survivors among the staff, but Szymaniak said those concerns were addressed and alternate training will be made available where needed.
“I have a few in my building that I’m working with myself,” Szymaniak said. “They don’t have to be in a group. We’re looking at other types of simulations. We don’t have one yet, but we’ll make sure the teachers have an avenue to have that training, so to speak, without having to sit in a classroom by themselves when we do the training.”
The idea is to help teachers react more quickly in the event that an active-shooter incident occurs.
“We’re not inflexible,” Szymaniak said. “But we have to talk about it. It’s 2018 and sometimes we have to talk about bad things that happen in schools and prepare.”
The exercises began at Whitman Middle and Duval Schools as well as Hanson’s Indian Head and Maquan schools before April vacation and continued on Tuesday, April 24 at Conley School and Thursday, May 3 at Hanson Middle School.
The high school training is diffused among other school buildings, Szymaniak said, because the training has to be done when school buildings are closed and there are too many after-hours events held at the high school.
“I’ve gotten great feedback from Indian Head and Maquan, good feedback from Duval,” he said. “Whitman Middle gave us the first feedback that you couldn’t really hear well.”
He said high school teachers who had expressed concern have spoken to him directly.
The safety team discussed and agreed with the suggestion and met with the Whitman Hanson Education Association teachers’ union representatives and asked for their advice on how the teachers should be advised of the exercises.
“Their expectation was their teachers went through the training,” he said. “Because one of the questions I had and [Whitman Middle School Principal] George Ferro had was what if a teacher has had a situation where they don’t want to be involved because of a PTSD or because of an emotional issue?”
Kevin Kavka and Beth Stafford of WHEA were asked to reach out to building principals in such cases so some other accommodation could be made.
Lessons have been learned along the way in the course of conducting the training. In Whitman, teachers congregated in the cafeteria and Whitman Police officer Kevin Harrington demonstrated the firing of an AR-15 rifle in the hall and different parts of the lobby.
“It didn’t work as well as we had hoped it would because there was a lot of echo,” Szymaniak said. “So, lessons learned already, in Hanson — [School resource officer] Billy Frazier and local FD and PD were there — we met with the teachers in the library and then we just dispersed them to their classrooms.”
When Frazier and another officer walked through the hallways, shooting in different areas, the teachers found it more instructive.
“But they did say in some cases, ‘When you shot it off on the side of the building, and we were on this side, it sounded like somebody just dropped a bunch of books,” he said. “We’re just trying to get people sensory aware.”
The sulfur smell of gunpowder after a weapon is fired is also instructive, according to Szymaniak.
“Right away, you knew something was going on,” he said. “That’s the part of the training that we wanted people to engage in, not the fact that this could happen, but I’m trying to give you every tool we can to have you feel safe in your classrooms and be aware of situations.”
Szymaniak sent letters out to parents and staff ahead of the training to explain the reasons for it and how it would be undertaken, urging those with questions to contact him or building principals.
“I’ve had zero negative feedback,” he said. “Parents want it, too. They want to know what’s going on.”
School and public safety officials also plan in incorporating the exercise in next year’s Alert, Lockdown, Inform, Counter and Evaluate (ALICE).
“When we used to do ALICE training, Billy [Frazier] would be out in the hall yelling different things and it’s not as real,” Szymaniak said. “This will be a bit more.”
Students will not be involved in the training but the issue will be discussed with them.