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It's a drill, but school violence is real concern

August 05, 2000

It's a drill, but school violence is real concern



By BOB PARTLOW / Staff Writer


WILLIAMSPORT - "We have a report of a student with a handgun in the vice principal's office."

With those chilling words crackling over the police radio, several dozen police fire and emergency medical personnel took off for Springfield Middle School just after 9:20 a.m. Saturday.

Those kinds of reports have become more common across the country in recent years, as high-profile cases of high school, middle school and grade school shootings rattle the national psyche.

The report Saturday was the start of what was only a drill, a practice for those who might have to face the real thing someday.

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This drill was unique in that county and state emergency medical personnel and school officials all coordinated to learn how to work together to handle such a situation. Past exercises have been conducted by individual agencies.

Washington County Sheriff Charles Mades said the tragedy at Columbine is much on the minds of people facing the potential of school violence. He attended a seminar headed by the sheriff of the neighboring county to Columbine.

"He said, 'Take your worst-case scenario and multiply it by two and that's what you had'," Mades recalled. "It was chaos, just absolute chaos."

Saturday's drill lacked the drama that usually accompanies such events - screaming parents running toward the school to find their children, news helicopters circling above, the sounds of gunfire, the frantic confused assembling of resources.

But there was confusion enough.

"We're going to make this real time," said William Ball, fire chief of the Williamsport Volunteer Fire Company. "We're going to make this seem real."

"We have a report that the vice principal and one other person have been shot."

The deputies assigned to Williamsport would be the first on the scene. They assessed the situation, saw it was beyond their abilities and decided "it was time to call in the cavalry," Mades said.

The scenario called for uncertainty over how many shooters there might be - with the added element that the suspect's father was also loose in the building and very unhappy.

An adult was brought out. It was unclear if he was a teacher, as he claimed, or somehow involved with the shooting.

Five young people portraying students and staff were brought out. All were injured. The worst injuries were a gunshot to the head and a shot to the shoulder. The ambulances finally arrived, but couldn't get to the students and staff because they came the wrong way into the parking lot..

It was a small irritant, but typical of the kinds of things that can be expected to happen, Mades said. Radio traffic quickly became overwhelmed. Nobody could find the student's mother.

"He says he's going to cap the principal unless he can talk to her in five minutes."

Hostages were then taken. Hostage negotiators were brought to the scene. Members of the Special Response Team entered in the building in a scene eerily reminiscent of footage from Columbine High School.

A command post set up behind the school was staffed with considerable personnel and equipment. Had this been a real-life situation, the problems would have been compounded by the fact that a high school and grade school are adjacent to the middle school.

Nearby, a neighbor mowed his lawn, unaware of the activity. Anyone within gunshot range would have been evacuated in a real situation.

"The father has a gray beard, gray hair, gray shirt and pants and is equipped with a flak jacket."

Observers in orange jackets watched the scene, filming to help in the critique. The goal is to create teamwork among agencies that don't always work together.

"Two years ago, we wouldn't have been asked to come to the school," Mades said. "Now they want us there."

The drill was planned in cooperation with the schools. Law enforcement officials wanted to do it during the school year and during school hours.

"They told us that even if the kids knew it was a drill, it would be very traumatizing, so we heard that and did it now," Mades said.

Under the scenario, the student was talked out of the building about 12:30 p.m.; the father about 1:30 p.m. The vice principal, secretary and five students were shot, but nobody was killed - at least in practice.

Mades said the critique of the drill revealed "a few minor glitches, but overall the entire group was satisfied with the effort."

The training was valuable, but he added, "We hope to God we never have to use it."

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