It started out like any other day. An early morning rain slowly gave way to bluebird skies and cotton candy clouds.
Students went about their normal routines at the Woodland Park Middle School, when an angry, disgruntled student pulls out a gun and starts gunning down his fellow students and teachers.
Frantic calls flood 911: “Someone is shooting us, please help.”
Woodland Park Police scramble and within minutes three cruisers arrive at the school. Officers brandishing semi-automatic rifles and clad in body armor quickly, but carefully, approach the school doors, use a card key to gain access, and enter, not knowing what lies ahead.
Fortunately, this was just an exercise conducted by the Woodland Park RE-2 School District and the Woodland Park Police Department, with the assistance of Teller County Sheriff’s Dept, Northeast Teller County Fire Protection District, Ute Pass Regional EMS, Teller County Sheriff’s Posse, Cripple Creek Police Department, Colorado Mounted Rangers, Fish& Game officers, and Woodland Park High School drama club. In all, including students and support staff, over 150 people were involved in the event, held on Wednesday, June 1.
WPPD has never done an exercise of this scale before. The planning has taken six months and is very detailed in its coordination.
Commander Jim Halloran of the Woodland Park Police Dept. (WPPD) briefed the media before the exercise and provided detailed information about the exercise, as well as limitations of media access to the event and its participants.
Halloran said, “We’re trying to have a full scale exercise along with the school. It is for police officers and first responders for Woodland Park and the area.”
“There are law enforcement people and first responders who live in the area but who work outside the area, who may be in town and able to respond to a situation. This exercise is for them too, that is why you may see people from, say Cripple Creek Police Dept. and Fish & Game here.”
“What we want to do is build up from this to more in depth future exercises. We would like to do these exercises yearly, if not twice a year.” he said.
The timing of this exercise was significant to this and future exercises. Halloran and his staff have been planning this event since January. He said the date chosen was quite deliberate. “We chose this date so that it was as close to the closing of school for the year as we could, so we could get the teachers here before everyone dispersed to the wind for the summer.”
These exercises are obviously directed at law enforcement and first responders, but the not so obvious beneficiaries of these exercises are students, faculty, teachers and all school employees. “It is extremely important to have the teacher involvement. It’s not just a law enforcement exercise; it is how the school reacts too. It is how the teachers react and how we react with them.” said Halloran.
Stacy Schubloom, a media and public relations representative for the Woodland Park RE-2 School District, gave some background on the school’s involvement in the exercise. She said, “Teachers are involved so that they know exactly what would happen and what they would do in that situation.”
“All of our staff have ALICE training. ALICE Training teaches individuals to participate in their own survival, while leading others to safety. Even the kids have had this training, with the level of it depending on age groups. We are extremely happy the police department has taken a proactive approach to this issue. The number one focus is the safety of our students so we felt it was really important to be involved.”
The exercise was only scripted to a point. An important part of the exercise was to see how everyone would react when the scenario went off script and participants are challenged to react appropriately to changing conditions on the ground.
With so many agencies involved in the exercise and each agency having its own communication protocols, it would seem chaos could easily become a disruptive and dangerous possibility. That is why a central command post was established to coordinate all communication and direction of resources.
Students from Woodland Park High School drama club volunteered to participate in the exercise to add realism to the event. They were made up to look like victims, complete with fake blood and apparent gun shot wounds.
Halloran continued, “What we’re trying to do here is walk not run. Today’s exercise is not that long. It is over fairly quickly.”
According to Halloran, future exercises will be more complicated and more drawn out. “What we want to do in the future is make it a little longer so we can look at things we may not have seen earlier.” he said.
Exercises like this are being conducted throughout the country in the aftermath of the Columbine High School incident of 1999 and Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in 2012, when 20-year-old Adam Lanza fatally shot 20 children aged between 6 and 7 years old, as well as six adult staff members of the school.
Active shooter incidents are become a very real threat around the country and no town, large or small, is exempt from the possibility of an incident occurring.
In 2006 Colorado experienced its second such tragedy at Platte Canyon High School in Bailey, Colorado. A drifter named Duane Roger Morrison, took six female students hostage and sexually assaulted them, later releasing four. When police broke open the classroom’s door with explosives, Morrison opened fire with a semiautomatic pistol before shooting hostage Emily Keyes in the head.
After the exercise was completed, Woodland Park Police Chief Miles De Young said, “I think it went very well. It was a real eye opener for some folks.”