07/05/2000

20 police from four states and volunteer hostages prepare for a situation they pray won't

"We can't just sit back anymore and say, well, we don't think this will happen here..." At E-town High School, 20 police from four states and volunteer hostages prepare for a situation they pray won't happenLANCASTER NEW ERA (LANCASTER, PA.) -- It's a normal school day inside Elizabethtown High School's Room 1210, where two dozen students talk brightly of this and that as they wait for Spanish class to begin. Then comes a frightening sound that's all too familiar in this post-Columbine era. Gunshots, clear popping noises that carry like explosions through the classroom and down the long high school corridor. Someone has stood up in a back corner of the classroom and started shooting. Soon, the students are screaming and fleeing the classroom. A short time later, police arrive. The first officer into the room wheels, faces the gunman and takes a military stance. With both hands on his pistol, he fires several quick shots, and the terror is over. It all seems so real, but in fact this scene was part of a training session that's thought to be the first of its kind in Lancaster County. The goal? To help police become better prepared for once-unthinkable events like Columbine and other school shootings around the U.S. "We can't just sit back anymore and say, "Well, we don't think this will happen, so therefore we're not going to prepare for it,' " Mount Joy Township Police Chief Casey Kraus said during a break. "You have to go under the assumption that things like that could very well happen, and we better have some training in place, some knowledge of how to handle it if does. "And if the training's done right, they make it as real as possible." The training sessions, held Monday through Wednesday, drew 20 law enforcement personnel from Pennsylvania, New York, Ohio and Maryland, including a number from Lancaster County. Participants spent two days in classes learning how to handle school violence situations. On the third day, they had their final exam, putting their skills into practice in "real life" situations like the one in room 1210. They were helped by some 30 volunteers, most of them E-town school district personnel, playing the roles of students, victims and hostages during several different staged scenarios. Rob Cartner, a former Tulsa, Okla. police sergeant and police tactical division leader, was lead instructor for the sessions, which he critiqued afterward. Overall, he said his law enforcement "students" performed well. Cartner -- now with a training organization for law enforcement people, the National Tactical Officers Association -- said, "There are a lot of things that can happen with something like this, so that's why we want to keep changing the scenarios." Things indeed look pretty realistic, although they were using soap-like pellets that leave a visible sign when you've been "hit," and wash off quickly. During one situation, confusion seemed to reign just like it would during a real-life drama. "Even though it's not real, you still get pretty worked up," one policeman said, as officers yelled, "Keep your hands up" to the students who could get out, and "Stay down!" to those who could not. An officer came up to one play-acting victim after one scene and asked if he could walk. "How can I walk? I'm dead," the man said, laughing. One of the "terrorists" was Dan Burns, who in real life works for the county's Probation & Parole Department and is an E-town school probation officer. As he looked over his clothing for signs of where he may have been shot, Burns said he doesn't mind being a bad guy, although "I know how it's going to end each time." Burns, like the other play-actors, also wore goggles to protect his eyes from stray shots. Various situations were staged with one or more gunmen -- actually, "gunpersons," because one shooter was a woman. The volunteer victims also were asked for their thoughts. The different situations are good, Kraus explained, because "when you get there, you don't always know who the bad guys are or how many there are, so you have to try to determine that as you go through. "Before, you would get there and take cover, and you would never go into a building where you didn't know where the suspect was. But if somebody's in there shooting people, you don't wait -- you go in, so it's totally different training." One of Kraus' officers, Carl Steinhart, planned this week's conference. Organizers hope such sessions are now used elsewhere by other police departments and schools. Volunteer Lois Brewer of Mount Joy Township said later, "You got to see and feel and hear how things might happen. I also liked how the guys leading the training shared with us why they did things certain ways. "It just helped you to have a better understanding, broaden your perspective a little bit." The police said they're very thankful for the district's help, including E-town's assistant superintendent, Marilyn Baker, who was one of the volunteers. "Something like this does bring some reality to it -- it gives people a sense of how they might feel, and as a district it helps us to refine our (emergency) plans to make them more effective," she says. Kraus' 23-year-old daughter Kim, of Marietta, also was a volunteer. Afterward, she said she was "surprised at how real it felt. Especially the first time -- it was overwhelming emotionally, with all the screaming and running around. "You really didn't think it was pretend, and I was just real impressed with how the officers handled themselves," she said. "I also thought about how sad it was that we have to train for something like this, because five years ago when I was in high school, you never would have thought something like this could even happen."

Back to previous page