Children

My High School Faked a Massacre


After Columbine, the writer participated in what was then a rare simulated shooter drill. Today, they're an all-too-common practice even preschoolers are subjected to.



At about 9:30 this morning, the main campus of the Community College of Philadelphia was put on lockdown after a gunman was spotted on campus—which is less than five miles from my home. This, not even a week after another, separate gunman walked into a classroom at the Umpqua Community College in Roseburg, Oregon, and murdered ten and injured nine others, and only a day after all colleges and universities in the Philadelphia metro area were warned by the FBI and ATF of a vague threat made on 4chan to an unnamed area campus. I’ve been following the Philadelphia events on Twitter since the initial announcement, convinced—terrified—that we were about to witness another massacre at yet another school. 

That the latest reports indicate that this was a confrontation between two students, and not a targeted attack on the school, is cold comfort. The fact of the matter is that we are now conditioned to accept that someday, someone will bring a gun on campus. Judging from manpower deployed to CCP and the speed with which they arrived, it’s clear that school administrations and law-enforcement agencies are all-too-prepared for what happens next.

I was a freshman in high school when we’d witnessed the Columbine massacre. At my high school in El Paso, Texas, each of our semesters began with our teachers recapping evacuation procedures alongside homework and attendance policies. Some faculty and staff members lamented over the fact that they could not bring guns to school to defend their students. There was a brief discussion of sealing closed the banks of lockers housed in two of the school’s three academic buildings so that weapons could not be stored there. Those same loners who were common at every high school were treated with increased scrutiny and suspicion.

During my senior year at Coronado High School, in 2001, I was one of about 20 students standing on a campus courtyard when a bomb went off. In a way, it was surprising that it  took so long for this to happen: The bomb. The shower of bullets. The SWAT units swarming our hallways. The paramedics waiting outside at a safe distance. So much shouting. And eventually, the all-clear, given to a gymnasium full of students who had been evacuated there.

Don’t bother looking on Wikipedia for a massacre at Coronado High School—you won’t find it. The news stories that ran that afternoon and evening are buried somewhere so deep that even Google can’t dig them out. If it weren’t for a mention of massacre in our yearbook, there might not be any evidence of it happening at all. That’s because the entire incident was a “crisis drill” coordinated by the El Paso Police Department and the El Paso Independent School District, with the full support of Coronado’s principal. The school was the perfect training ground due to its layout—several unconnected buildings, all built around atriums or courtyards, rather than one standalone building with infinite halls—and the 20 of us in the courtyard were theater students, asked to stand in as victims. We were given instructions: Wait for the bomb to go off, and then scatter. See if you can get a teacher to let you into his or her classroom. Hide from the shooters. Find the police. Run.

A team of makeup artists that had experience working on police procedurals were brought in to provide additional realism: Victims were made up to have afflictions ranging from severe burns to bullet wounds to embedded shrapnel. I remember that one classmate had a real-life broken leg and therefore could not run through the halls. Her face, neck, and hands were coated in a chalky, bluish-purple paint; she was made up to represent the shooter’s first fatality. Another classmate, Whit Carter, recalls sheltering in the faculty bathroom for over an hour until the SWAT team cleared the area. He remembers that things got “a little too real” when one officer placed his boot on Whit’s head until the unit could confirm that he was not the shooter.

A third friend, Christian Moldes, recounts running through the school’s halls to see if his favorite teacher could be convinced to give him shelter. “I remember screaming and crying relentlessly in front of her classroom door … banging as hard as I could, purposely yelling her name in an attempt to get her to open up: ‘THIS IS CHRISTIAN! PLEASE! HELP ME! I’M GOING TO DIE!’ …  I spoke with the teacher after the fact, and she admitted it was excruciatingly difficult to hear my desperate cries for her help, even though she knew it was just a drill.”

While other students were assigned to cover different aspects of the drill for the school newspaper and our video news station, my journalism teacher told me to carry a video camera and stick to the victims’ story. In addition to being present for the initial explosion (a smoke bomb placed in a trash can near where we were told to wait), I was given a wristband that rendered me “invisible” to the SWAT team and the officers who stood in for shooters. Wandering through our smoke-filled halls in search of the classmates from whom I’d been separated, I found myself more than once staring down the barrel of a gun, furiously waving my right hand in the hope that my wristband would be seen. One officer swept me to the side, up against a wall, and chastised me for getting in the way, shouting: “I could have killed you!”

This was a drill, but it was not a game.

***

In the aftermath of the Sandy Hook massacre, smaller scale look down drills have become de rigueur. Students and teachers practice sheltering in place—behind locked classroom doors, away from windows, in closets if possible.  Friends who teach high school tell me that these drills happen so often that many of their students now fail to take them seriously, though others tell me that younger children take the drills much more seriously and a recent Momestary Facebook post describes the terror that they bring home later.  But now, 14 years after our own drill at Coronado High School, when I tell people of the scope of the simulated crisis that we staged, they’re incredulous. Some are surprised that the district was willing to let one of its schools sacrifice a half-day’s worth of learning to the exercise. Others are amazed that the funds for such an event couldn’t be put to better use in the classroom. Still more worry about the trauma that might have been inflicted on the students and teachers who were on campus that day. But across the board, there’s a recognition that while the event was shocking, there’s been an increased need over the past two decades for this level of preparedness—not just from students and teachers, but from law enforcement.

Nena Tatum, my freshman year English teacher, told me that the idea for the drill originated with CHS’s principal at the time. “The day after Columbine, I saw him walk that campus for hours. He knew it wasn’t secure by any stretch of the imagination, and he knew something had to be done. We had to be prepared.” 

Peggy Ligner, the journalism teacher who made sure I’d have a camera the day of the crisis drill, added that it “was not a joke; there were a lot of discussions” in the aftermath of Columbine and the lead-up to the drill “about what to do.” But, she adds, “a lot of us were concerned because we all knew that if someone did attack it would most likely be a student or teacher and they would know the process. That is still a concern. When we plan we are most likely planning for one of our own to attack. Any emergency plan will be flawed because of that.”

An exercise of this magnitude though isn’t unprecedented. Barrington High School in Barrington, Illinois, was host to one such event, during normal school hours, this past May. Pinkerton Academy in Derry, New Hampshire had one a month earlier. In September, a “safety drill” was staged at Steele High School in Amherst, Massachusetts, with faculty and staff standing in for students. It’s reassuring to know that schools are ready for whatever might come their way, but it’s sickening that the world these schools prepare their students for is a world where such exercises are necessary.

These exercises aren’t limited to high schools. Last year, Launa Hall, a teacher in Arlington, Virginia, wrote of a harrowing lockdown drill she experienced with her preschoolers.

 

For Mrs. Tatum, the 2001 drill at my high school was worth it. “It gave me a sense of confidence that I at least had a plan—a way to give my students and myself a chance to survive. I felt then, and still do, that the drill was absolutely necessary to help instill the understanding that CHS was not immune to what happened at Columbine.”

By my count (comparing a full list of all on-campus shooting events to Mass Shooting Tracker’s definition of what qualifies as a mass shooting), there have been 28 on-campus mass shootings since April 20, 1999—the date of the massacre at Columbine—representing 152 deaths and 185 injuries. Even if you remove the handful of these incidents that were allegedly gang-related rather than a direct attack on a school, these are unconscionable numbers.

A crisis drill can be a good thing for schools that want to protect their students. A world in which they’re no longer necessary, however, would be better. But until we as a society shift our focus from preparing for the inevitability of a shooting to the hard work of preventing them in the first place, it will be more drills, more attacks, more fear, more resignation, more helplessness. More lives lost. More families destroyed.

We have crisis drills because we still live in a society where the crisis might not be a drill at all. We owe it to ourselves to fix that.

 

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