LINCOLN COUNTY • The drill at Troy Buchanan High began Wednesday afternoon with three men armed with shotguns and semi-automatic rifles storming in from three different doors.
As the first blank shots rang out, teachers herded students into classrooms and locked the doors.
The shooters moved methodically down the hallways, trying every door and firing on anyone in sight. The deafening buzz of the fire alarm, activated by the gun smoke, added to the confusion.
By the time officers arrived a little more than three minutes later, many of the students had been “shot.” Drama students with painted-on bullet wounds portrayed victims. Bullet casings littered the floor. As police responded with guns drawn, more shots rang out.
A few minutes later, an all-clear announcement came over the school’s p.a. system.
The shooters had been taken out. The drill was over. It lasted eight minutes and one second.
The exercise is one example of active shooter response training — part of a program for schools established by a new state law.
The Lincoln County Sheriff’s Department has conducted drills at 13 schools since August. The program has helped develop policies for how teachers and law enforcement respond to threats, said Lt. Andy Binder.
“It’s brought up serious questions like, ‘If you hear shooting down the hall, do you risk opening up a door when you’re not sure who’s there?’ ” he said.
English teacher Melissa Surber was faced with that scenario during the drill. She had five students hiding in her classroom when someone shook her door to get in.
“My intent was not to get up but I guess I hadn’t gotten the door all the way closed because when she (a student) shook it, the door released,” Surber said. “She came in, and the gunman came in right after her.”
Surber said that as the reality of the situation sunk in, all she could think about was that people had been relying on her to keep the students safe, and she had failed.
“Thankfully, it was a simulation,” she said. “Now I know it’s not enough just to get the door closed. I have to pull and make sure it’s not going to open again.”
Binder said that briefings after previous drills had revealed other problems, things such as a quirk of the phone system at a particular school.
“You couldn’t dial 911 to get to an emergency operator; you had to dial 9 to get an outside line and then 911,” he said. “Not everybody knows to dial 9911 in a school, especially in a stressful situation.”
The school contacted its provider and got the feature changed.
School and law enforcement officials also learned that restrooms are a dangerous place to hide.
“Students would go in the stall and get on top of the toilets, but many of them flush automatically, and that gave away their hiding place,” he said. “Now we tell teachers not to let their kids run into a bathroom.”
Paul Fennewald, adviser to the Missouri Center for Education Safety, a partnership of education and safety groups, said that although he lauds Lincoln county’s efforts, he would like the drills to include all of the first-responders in a community, so they can coordinate their responses.
Because most shootings are over before law enforcement arrives, schools need to include a plan about how to respond until help arrives, he said.
Amanda Preston, a senior drama student at Troy Buchanan, said the realism of the drills had affected all of the students emotionally, some more than others.
“The first time I did one, the tears were real, and I had to call my grandma,” she said.
Fennewald said although the drills can be upsetting, they are the only way to realize what doesn’t work.
Colin Nelson, a math teacher at Troy Buchanan, agreed.
“Teachers are supposed to be the ones kids are looking to for help, and we want to be able to make a rational decision.”