Pima County Sheriff's Department's Active Shooter Workshop: the Most Valuable and Important Professional Development I've Experienced as an Educator
Active Shooter Workshop sounds pretty ominous. Not the type of professional development I've ever sought out.
After Friday, June 30, 2017, I question my own mental models. Why had I not sought out this kind of training in over 18 years of teaching?
The simple answer is plain ignorance. Adults, me included, think that catastrophic circumstances won't ever happen to us. It's a mature reshaping of the teenage immortality complex. Both are sadly misinformed.
We live in an unpredictable world where I would rather be uncomfortable for a few hours, but prepared with a chance of living than ignorantly cozy and more likely to be killed.
My experiences at the Active Shooter Workshop and the lessons learned there will stay with me thanks to the dedication of the Pima County School Resource Officers who started planning this opportunity at the beginning of the 2016-17 school year.
How was the day structured?
The morning session: classroom instruction
Two different SROs presented an information-rich Powerpoint that included audience engagement and customized videos.
The deputies paced the Powerpoint content well. They clearly planned and practiced their delivery. While the tone of the information remained serious, the deputies interjected humor at appropriate moments, elicited various audience participation, and used repetition to hammer home the salient points.
Even though the deputies were quite self-deprecating about PCSD's lack of acting talent, the videos were short snippets of focused content. They consistently showed both examples and non-examples of how circumstances could play out in an active shooter event.
The afternoon sessions: scenario role playing
To keep all of the participants engaged, we paired up to run through three distinct scenarios that wound across the Cienega High School campus in Vail, Arizona. Each teacher duo was paired with an SRO who helped with instructions, monitored our progress, and most importantly contributed to each scenario's debrief.
We knew that the guns used here contained no projectiles, and we could end any events that scared us too much by saying "End scenario." Finally, we were assured that none of our actions would be viewed as mistakes. These scenarios were created to make us think and consider our reactions.
Based on the instructions given, this scenario seemed to be the warm up. No one else would be entering the scene. We were playing two teachers supervising students outside. The deputies stressed that we should interact with the students like we would on our campus. We were told the boundaries of the simulation and a distinct exit route consisting of an unlocked door.
My partner and I entered the area and immediately the Cienega High School student volunteers from their drama program channeled their teenage characters.
One girl stood alone next to a pillar seemingly muttering to herself. I approached her and briefly asked how she was doing. She declared more than once that she was fine, she didn't want to talk to anyone, and she disengaged by walking backwards away from me.
I turned to the girls at the table closest to me and asked if they knew the other girl. I heard my partner inquiring about the distressed girl with another group as well.
Before our conversations could go anywhere, the distressed girl had pulled out a blue fake gun, which we would take seriously given the simulation. The distressed girl exclaimed suicidal thoughts, something about wanting it all to end.
Even though I knew something would happen, I was still surprised. My partner and I instructed the girls at the tables to run toward the exit door. Neither of us tried to talk to the suicidal girl. We ran to the exit, through the door, and simulated calling 911.
In the immediate debrief, I got the impression that the SRO who was paired with my us may have been surprised that nether of us tried to engage with the suicidal girl. I heard from other participants who did try to talk to her that she pointed the gun at them.
Running away in this scenario was an easy decision for me. During the classroom session, the SROs stressed how there will be times when you have to leave behind the people who are not participating in their own survival, or others who may be injured badly enough that moving them puts your life in danger or the lives of the other students counting on you to lead them to safety.
Within this scenario, though, I didn't feel emotionally conflicted walking away from a stranger.
What if this were real? What if I knew the student? What if the student was one of the kids I know I'll remember twenty years after having them in class?
Would I be able to walk away from that moment?
I also considered, though, prior to the student pulling out the gun, would I let that student walk away from me, like I did this teenage stranger? Or would I have insisted that she walk with me to a counselor's office?
If you'd like to see some of all three of the scenarios, KGUN9's report on the Active Shooter Workshop shows highlights from the simulations.
We approached a courtyard where students were seated in two different groups. Our instructions were to interact with the students as we normally would as we supervised them in this contained area.
Since we were told specific information about escape routes in Scenario One, I asked if all the doors in the courtyard were unlocked and I received a shrug. This gesture raised my level of concern immediately making the hairs on my neck go up a little. While many doors on a school campus will be unlocked, there's no guarantee that they will all be unlocked. And I've never been on this campus before.
When the shooter fired and entered the courtyard, I was farther inside the courtyard than my teacher partner. I never saw the shooter, but I said, "Come on" and told the students to run "this way" indicating a direction away from the sound of gun fire.
As I lead the five students and fellow teacher in my adrenalin-filled run, I passed a bathroom and classrooms that were clearly marked as classrooms with blue placards. I careened around a corner hoping to find a hallway door unlocked. I found a double-door leading to a hallway filled with furniture-lined walls. When I pulled on both handles, the doors opened. There was an immediate, although brief, sense of relief that we could continue hauling butt.
My teacher partner flew around the corner exclaiming "Go! Go! Go!" and when he assessed the length of the straight hallway before us with another set of double-doors at the end, he yelled, "Go to the exit! Go to the exit!"
As the students ran, I yelled, "Keep going!" but as they got closer to the other set of hallway doors, they slowed down. I continued yelling "Keep going." I did record this scenario. While the video turned out terrible, the audio is clear. I repeated "Keep going!" a total of seven times. Since the students have been instructed to follow our directions, they started opening the exit door prompting the PCSD deputy paired with us to yell "End scenario!" I think he had to yell twice.
During the debrief, both my partner and I were articulating our thinking about the decisions we were making. In one of those fantastic teacher moments, we were with our school's SRO.
A little backstory: After the shooting at La Encantada, I had students asking me about what they did or what their friends did, and if their decisions were right. They were shopping that night and some of them hid in the public restroom.
Our SRO came to talk to the students at lunchtime and answer their questions. While we were talking and the conversation meandered, she mentioned how common it is for students to evacuate a school, but stop at the field's fence line. Fire drill procedures drilled into us.
In an active shooter event, you want to keep going. Escape. Find safety. Then one person from the group calls 911. As I was yelling, "Keep going" I was thinking about kids milling around as a giant target on a school field thanks to that one conversation with our SRO. After having that point reinforced in the active shooter workshop, I don't think I'd stop at a fence line if I were ever in a real attack.
A background video to give further context to the shooting at LaEncantada, a high-end outdoor shopping mall located within the Catalina Foothills School District.
The final scenario took place in a classroom on the first day of school with my partner and I playing teachers, team teaching, with several students seated at their desks.
A minute or two into the introduction, one student asked to go to the restroom. We had previously been instructed to allow students bathroom breaks. These are drama students volunteering and trying to stay hydrated in the summer heat. They get to use the restroom.
I don't know how long the student was gone, but shortly after her exit, we heard a piercing scream. And then a gun shot.
We shuffled the students into the corner of the room out of the direct line of sight from the window. We ran to the door to lock it and begin barricading it.
That's when the girl who asked to go to the bathroom came pounding on the locked classroom door. We didn't let her in.
During the debrief, the SROs emphasized, again, how there are no right or wrong answers in how individuals react to these scenarios. Did that girl really need to go to the bathroom or was she going to her locker for the gun? Did she scream or someone else? Was she alone? Was the shooter holding a gun to the girl's head demanding that she try to gain entry to the classroom?
For the final scenario, the workshop participants entered a long slightly curved school hallway as flies on the wall to watch PCSD respond to an active shooter 911 call.
As we entered the hallway, the drama students were strewn all around. Some lined the walls in various crumpled positions or were tucked in nooks. Others were lying in the middle of the hallway. All of them had various degrees of fake blood indicating gunshot wounds.
While I knew the blood was fake, the scene was nevertheless visually disturbing. As I walked down the hall so all of the observers could be spread out, I kept repeating to myself that this was a demonstration and these kids were actually fine.
And then there was the teenage girl lying in the middle of hallway on her back, appearing shot through her chest or stomach, panting too fast with shallow breaths. She maintained that utterly unsettling breathing pattern for the entire demonstration.
As PCSD entered the hallway, I could hear some students calling out for help, and some even recognized their SRO and begged him for help.
The shooter appeared at the far end of the hallway and PCSD descended upon him. Watching the officers focused bee line toward the shooter gave me greater appreciation for how the Capital Police engaged the gunman in June 2017 during a Republican baseball practice.
How scary was this workshop?
Overall, the fear I experienced occurred in short bursts and was completely manageable. Now that I've experienced this workshop, in no way could I ever justify skipping such an important training. My break down of the day's activities:
The morning classroom Powerpoint session had some emotional moments. How do you react when you're watching live coverage of a shooting or terrorist attack? If you consider yourself an empathetic person, then learning more about specific active shooter case studies may prompt a similar reaction to that news coverage.
I'd consider Scenario One the softball. Not because of the content of the events. Rather, the instructions set us up for success. Mainly, we were told that the blue door was unlocked giving us our escape route.
Scenario Two was the most adrenaline-pumping. I was prepared to keep running until I was instructed to stop. I do think my fear level could have been affected by my placement around the corner when the gunshot went off. I didn't see the shooter.
I felt the most emotionally conflicted during Scenario Three. Hearing that girl screaming outside the classroom door. Pounding, banging, and begging to be let in was gut-wrenching.
What did I learn?
Avoid knee-jerk reactions.
Follow the FBI model: Run. Hide. Fight. In any order.
Even if I'm shot, keep going. Move as far as I can.
Make that adrenaline work in favor of my survival and the survival of those around me.
Keep thinking about the next escape route.
Find barriers that could stop bullets.
Shut doors. Lock them if possible.
Find the next escape route, like breaking windows.
Embrace my inner Mama Bear.
Yell instructions to others.
Warn others away if I see danger.
Disrupt the romanticized vision of this attack that the shooter has recorded in his head. He probably does not have a back-up plan.
Look for anything that can be weaponized: heavy or sharp objects, objects that are easy for clobbering and smacking, objects to throw and flip the shooter's script.
Take the 90 degree angle to people around me. Force the shooter to choose who he targets rather than clumping as one group of victims.
Stay aware of any opportunities to kick a weapon away from the shooter.
When I've reached a place where I feel more secure, one person in my group calls 911. An accurate description of the shooter helps. Stay on the line with the 911 dispatcher.
At the end of the third scenario, I asked if the SROs were planning more Active Shooter Workshops. I'd like a more advanced option. Something where once I'm running I find myself facing another danger.
While they would like to offer more advanced workshops, they have constraints like any other government institution. I was encouraged by a Facebook post I saw this fall from PCSD letting people know that they would offer more Active Shooter Presentations.
Why am I posting my thoughts six months after the workshop? My sense of teacher obligation to give a bit of perspective on a challenging workshop outweighed my fear of being judged by readers.
I wrote all of the text until the mention of PCSD's Facebook post in July. I just couldn't hit the publish until now.
In these scenarios, I left one suicidal student behind and locked another out of the classroom where I was hiding with another adult and several students.
I think about those decisions and whether or not I would make the same calls if the scenarios were actually real. I also think about the numerous PCSD School Resource Officers I interacted with that day. Their mission 100% was to educate and support us. Not once did I feel like any of my decisions were being second guessed or judged.
Those SROs want as many people to survive an active shooter event as possible.
Surviving such a tragedy requires forethought. People need practice. We need to have some muscle memory of how to react when that "I never thought something like this would happen to me" moment actually happens.
As an educator with over 18 years of experience, I highly encourage other teachers, counselors, administrators, and school staff members to seek out this kind of training.
Will it be uncomfortable, possibly even emotionally wrenching? Yes. Suck it up. Not only could this training help you save your own life, it could help you save the lives of your students, your kids.