By RUSSELL JONES
Adorned with replicas of different planets in our solar system, the blue and white hallways of Otter Valley are cast in long shadows as the harsh glow of the fluorescent lighting falls on four VSP recruits who are moving stealthily down the school’s hallways, their black uniforms in stark contrast to the usual brightness and joy of their surroundings.
They move through the hallway in a diamond formation, each step taken seemingly in unison with their teammates, eyes ever vigilant, with arms extended, ready to fire their weapons at the first perceived threat.
“Closed doorway left,” the hall boss quietly calls to his team.
The two flanking members break out of formation to clear the room, stacking up on the door as the designated breacher leans across the point man to pull the door open before they burst into the dark classroom in what is known as a dynamic entry.
The hall boss stands stoically in the center of the hallway waiting for his flankers to finish clearing the room, protecting his team from any threats that may round the corner in front of them, as the rear guard protects the team from anyone who might sneak up from behind.
As the door swings open, the point enters the room with the breacher close on his heels. As the point swings his weapon to the left and clears that corner of the room, the breacher pivots right to clear her side. The two then “pie off” sections of the room, effectively clearing slices of the room before making their way back to the hall.
“Two coming out,” the breacher calls to her teammates as they make their way back to the diamond formation.
The foursome continue down the hall, clearing each room they come to, searching for a shooter who has broken into the school to harm students, staff and teachers during this simulated training event.
“Bang! Bang!” shouts Lieutenant David White, with the VSP tactical response team. “Shots fired, visual on suspect. He takes off running, back down the hall out of sight, what are you going to do now?” he yells, as the team takes off running toward the sound of gunshots.
They continue to move down the halls to chase their attacker while staying together and working as a team. At the stairwell, a pair of recruits move up the stairs in sync, one facing forward to clear the landing and one facing the rear to protect them from anyone popping up at the next floor to shoot down on them while the two remaining teammates keep watch at the bottom of the stairs.
While it’s a drill, the potential threat is real and the simulation all too realistic.
THREATS MAKE IT REAL
After Jack Sawyer was arrested last year before he could pull off what might have been a school shooting he had allegedly planned at Fair Haven Union High School, and again after a threat at the Middlebury Union Middle School in December, it is very apparent that school officials and area police forces must actively plan for the unimaginable.
The Vermont State Police took advantage of Otter Valley Union High School’s spring break last Wednesday as eight members of the VSP tactical response team and 36 basic trainees used the school to practice what to do in the event of a school shooting.
“The training is crucial; there’s no way to tell when it may be needed,” White said. “Unfortunately, that is the world we live in and have to respond to.”
White and his cadre of tactical response trainers drilled the recruits in the way to enter buildings and doors, move up and down stairways, and the proper way to move through large hallways while actively searching rooms for a shooter.
These recruits will not all be members of the state police squad when they graduate, as many will be headed to local or county policing agencies — and that’s a key facet of the training.
“It’s important that all law enforcement officers have the same idea on how to respond and are able to work efficiently together,” White said. “The multiple agencies are taught the same basic principles so even if they don’t work together normally, they can come together and be effective.”
White said that the tactical response team began training Vermont law enforcement agencies three to four years ago on a regional basis to get everyone on the same page.
SCHOOLS ALSO PREPARE
The school administrations also have programs in place in the event a school shooting were to occur, but because they are closer to the students and their daily lives, the schools are in a much better position to work on prevention rather than reaction.
“It’s become a reality of schools today to do proactive planning around school safety,” RNESU superintendent Jeanńe Collins said, which means “we do planning on how to support kids emotionally and planning on how to respond.”
The goal for the district, she said, is to find ways to develop relationships between the students and the staff so that they can get ahead of an emotional outburst before it grows into a tragic occurrence. Sometimes that may manifest in an advisory class where small groups of high school students meet to discuss the happenings in their life, or the way students are disciplined for unwanted behavior.
In Otter Valley High School and Lothrop School, a system called PBIS is being used. PBIS stands for Positive Behavior Interventions and Support, which rewards good behavior rather than punishing bad.
The Otter Creek Academy in Leicester is looking into adopting the state-sponsored PBIS program as well, and Neshobe Elementary has a similar program.
The district is also using what is called restorative justice in the high school to help kids learn from their behavior and accept accountability for their actions.
“Exclusionary punishment, which is what schools typically do (expulsions and suspensions) does not help the child learn something different or help society deal with it when they’re out of school,” Collins explained.
The schools also:
• have safety teams in each school to make sure emergency plans are in place;
• focus on a “see-something, say-something” initiative;
• have used state safety grants to install video cameras at all schools and will soon be implementing access control locks at school entrances; and
• have formed relationships with all law enforcement units in the area.
Even as emergency plans are put in place, the students are also being taught how to think on their feet and make quick decisions.
“We’re now practicing options-based evacuation drills where the students and staff have to make decisions on whether to hide or flee,” Collins said. “All of this didn’t really exist 20 years ago and has definitely increased over the past 10 years… These are all the different things we put in place to be proactive to make sure we are doing all we can to respond appropriately in a situation,” Collins said.
Debbie Alexander, principal of the Lothrop School added that “when thinking about the school’s response we are really looking at an umbrella of teaching students to think… about what they might do in case of an emergency.”
To facilitate that thinking, they drill the students in a system they call Plan, Practice and Prepare.
They plan and discuss with the students what they may need to do, then they drill them on several different scenarios such as sheltering in place, a lockout to prevent anyone entering the school, evacuating the school for multiple reasons, locking down the school requiring all students and staff to stay where they are, and even barricading themselves in, and options-based responses that differ with each scenario.
“We’re trying to build a skillset that goes beyond the walls of the school,” Alexander said. “Danger can be anywhere now, that’s the world we live in. We try to help students think about where they might go in case of an emergency.”
DRILLS ARE WORKING
If all that sounds alarming, Alexander said while they are doing the drills they also try to keep students from acting in a way that would make them nervous. The focus, she said, is teaching the students to brainstorm and respond. They do that by giving out scenarios to each classroom and letting them work out how they would respond.
The drills are also announced ahead of time because they don’t want to scare students (by pretending it’s real), and if they ever needed to respond to an emergency they want students to know it’s real.
Brandon Police Chief Christopher Brickell said that the practice at OVUHS shows whenever he attends the drills.
“Because the school has these drills and these discussions with students,” he said, “they truly do take it seriously. We respond to OV when they do the clear the halls or the lockdown drills and the halls are utterly quiet. It’s a large school and for that to happen that quickly shows there is good progress being made.”