While students examine and compare class schedules, and parents formulate car pool plans, local police are doing their own behind-the-scenes back-to-school preparation as well — planning and preparing for the worst.
Thursday morning at Gainesville Middle School, the Gainesville Police Department conducted an active shooter training scenario.
“It’s important that parents know we conduct this type of training, so they have no doubts or hesitation on their children’s safety,” police spokesmen Cpl. Kevin Holbrook said. “We have plans in place for the worst-case scenario. It’s a scenario that we hope we’ll never have to use. However, it’s important that we are prepared for anything, and that includes the worst-case scenario.”
Training Division Lt. Jay Parrish oversaw and instructed the group of about 15 officers, some of whom were merely observers, some of whom took active roles during the about 25-minute shooter scenario.
Parrish said it’s the third active shooter training the department has held this summer.
“There will be one more, but it’s an ongoing thing,” he said.
Parrish’s role as an instructor in firearms, policing and active shooter response, is to teach the tactics and evaluate them.
Officers had no clues where the “shooters” were, the idea to keep the exercise as realistic as possible, with the scenario evolving as they progressed.
“We give them as limited information as possible, and they problem-solve all the way through. That’s why it would get kind of slow at times, because they would have to problem-solve,” Parrish said.
He gave them solid marks for their effort, saying each scenario is a learning opportunity.
“I would give them a high B-plus, and in saying that, every time we do this, we learn something new, both as instructors, as students,” he said. “I can’t give them an A because there were casualties (in the scenario), but the main objective is to stop the shooter.”
In 2009, Parrish was on a team that responded to reports of an active shooter at Lakewood Baptist Church, though it was a false alarm. He explained the importance of conducting the scenarios.
“One of the main things is they learn the layout of each of our schools in our city, and more importantly, they learn to work as a team in a tactical situation,” he said. “Prior to Columbine (1999 shooting in Colorado), only SWAT teams worked in concert as a contact team. Since Columbine, we’ve learned we can’t wait on SWAT. We have to teach every patrolmen how to work as a small unit to do what SWAT used to do, and to also provide them with the resources to do that.”
On hand to observe the drill was Assistant Superintendent Alfreda Lakey, who said she has been impressed with the training.
“They’re very methodical and strategic,” she said. “I would put this department up against any police department in America. They do a fantastic job, and they’re very supportive of Gainesville City Schools. It’s been really nice to see the training and I’m glad I got the invitation today. Every little detail has to be so precise, that sort of thing. It’s been an eye-opener.”
On the schools’ end, she said, the goal is to have the kids match the department’s efforts with equal efficiency in their drills, called “Code Red.”
“I want our Code Red drills to be just like our fire drills,” Lakey said. “When those bells go off, the kids know immediately what to do, so when they hear someone announce ‘Code Red,’ they’ll know immediately what to do. And that’s our goal for this year, to make sure it becomes a part of them, just like all the fire drills are.”
Sgt. Earl Roach, director of safety and emergency preparedness for the Hall County School System, said increasing visibility of law enforcement will be emphasized next school year in the county.
“We’re actually doing a lot of things,” he said. “One of the key things we’re doing is with our patrol units. We met with our patrol captains, and we’re encouraging our patrol captains to stop in the schools in our districts ... especially at those elementary schools,” he said.
The department is calling that effort Operation Safe School, he said.
“That presence is key,” Roach said. “It’s all the difference in the world. Presence gives parents that state of mind of safety, the faculty a state of mind of safety from seeing an officer in a marked car.”
Holbrook said that one of the department’s goals is to familiarize new officers during field training to the schools.
“We introduce our new officers through the field training officer program, so they do come in and walk around the schools and get the lay out of the schools,” he said. “One thing we don’t want to do is come in blind. We want to know every nook and cranny of the school if we have to.”
The sheriff’s office also conducts active shooter training courses led by training staff to create a shooter situation for officers to tackle.
“All of the school resource officers participate in that training, and then we want to involve our patrol units as well,” Roach said.
On Aug. 21 and 22, Roach said administrators from the school system, Capt. Joe Carter and himself will attend an FBI course in Canton that will talk about strategies for mass shootings.
“We’re continually trying to enhance our security measures, review them and make sure they’re up to date, and we have strategies and guidelines and a lot of scenarios that our deputies go through,” he said.
Holbrook said the training is an invaluable tool in a volatile world of crime.
“Training is one of our most valuable commodities,” he said. “Law enforcement is a profession which changes constantly. We have to stay abreast of new tactics, technology, and events to stay ahead of the criminal element. I don’t think you can necessarily put a price tag or limit on anyone’s life, and our training focus strictly on that — preserving life, and property, in that order.
“As an agency, we do a lot of focus on training, and that’s something that the community should support because their well-being and life may very well depend on it one day. It truly is an investment.”