The Frog and the Terrorist

frogWay back when, after 9/11, our city’s Emergency Manager received a grant from Homeland Security to conduct one of the first terrorist attack simulations at a high school and, for the first time, test Unified Command with police, fire and education. 

We had previously conducted an active shooter simulation with law enforcement. That had been a Columbine type sim, with kids, teachers, administrators, classified staff and SWAT teams.  We had learned an unbelievable amount that led to new trainings for both schools and law enforcement. So we moved ahead with this exercise in order to better inform our work in keeping students, staff and schools safe.

I should note that a simulation is not completely scripted; it’s a lot of pushing dominoes and then evaluating what happens.  What could possibly go wrong, especially when including 2,000 teenagers, a hundred or so teachers, and a couple hundred parents?

Nine months of planning and preparation — a lot like giving birth — and we were almost ready. 

We had met with students, teachers and parents, given them their roles and responsibilities, as well as the opportunity to opt out of the simulation. The same thing happened with elementary and middle schools in the surrounding neighborhood. Very few opted out, which made the event much more realistic. Of course, we had mental health counselors available during and after the event, although they were not needed.

On the school side, we were adamantly opposed a script having a terrorist coming onto a campus; that would give too many idiots too many ideas. So we settled on a substitute teacher, which was a safe choice as subs always get blamed for everything anyway.  The sub was assigned to a science class and then lost it because the lesson plan called for dissecting frogs.

I’d probably lose it too, even though I’m not particularly fond of frogs, but then I don’t carry a gun so my response would have been in the neighborhood of getting queasy and turning green.

Our sub was scripted to have belonged to an organization opposed to dissecting frogs which qualified as a terrorist organization, go figure, so we were covered under the grant requirements.  The sub was actually a former SWAT officer with a disarming smile which was helped because he was going to be “killing” three different teachers before shooting a young female drama student who tried to escape.  And yes, he used very loud blanks to make it all the more realistic.

One of the educational objectives was to see if our students could successfully take charge of the classrooms without an adult after the shooter moved on (the “dead” teachers being comfortably positioned on the floor and trying hard not to nap).  The kids did exceptionally well.

Our young drama student, ecstatic over her lead role, was going to be “killed” in front of audience of city council members, county supervisors, numerous school superintendents, police chiefs and other invited VIP guests who then got to watch the sim unfold while being very aware of our young student-actress sprawled out on the ground twenty feet in front of them.

Personally, I think it’s very helpful to unnerve leaders every once in a while and we did accomplish that.  They were all pale and visibly shaken by the time the exercise was completed.

Our primary objective, however, was testing Unified Command, wherein the people in charge from the participating systems — in this case, police, fire, education — worked together to problem solve issues with the lead agency in charge of rendering decisions. While most citizens would assume that, oh, police, fire, public health, mental health and schools all happily work together, it is not often the case so this sim would be very interesting in testing the newly federally mandated “unified” approach.

First, however, we had to bring all the participating police responders, fire/rescue teams and school administrators together to go over the scope of the sim, without giving away the details of what would get thrown their way.

As we were planning the prep meeting, it occurred to the fire and police commanders that if either one of them, or their chiefs, told the group to not hi-jack the script, the other department would never listen. Fire obeys fire; police obeys police. Evidently, though, they were all still terrified of English teachers because I was handed the task of reinforcing that they all stay on script.

That completed, we were ready to go.

To be continued…

 

 

 

8 thoughts on “The Frog and the Terrorist

  1. Interesting. It is good to know the school populations were informed before the exercise. At my grandsons’ school before Christmas (and it may have been a countywide exercise, Prince George’s Cty, MD) there was no warning. No children, parents, or teachers were warned, leading to substantial upset.

    Here in my school district, we recently had a bomb threat at one of the high schools. It was a real, outside call and had to be treated as such. Fortunately, students and staff dealt with the evacuation well. As it turned out, a bank robber across town had called the threat in, to remove law enforcement from where he planned to hit the bank. And too bad for him, a university police officer was near that bank when the alarm for it rose, and was able to apprehend the robber. Sort of an alls-well scenario, except for the tremendous resources, including a whole school day for 2000 students, that went into the evacuation and clearance of the building.

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    • I hate to hear that kind of report where kids, parents and teachers were unprepared and frightened. Bad, bad, bad on so many levels and does nothing to build trust between the systems.

      Since the first Columbine sim, all pre-K – 12 schools throughout the region were trained in “Code Red” lock down procedures for an active shooter — run off campus; hide in classrooms/offices and barricade the doors, cover windows, down on ground off-line of fire from the door and behind an internal desk barricade; fight as a last resort.

      Annual drills are conducted with police, so for this exercise, kids and teachers knew exactly how to respond, unlike other areas where the kids and teachers are solely used as props for police exercises. Even later, when we had surprise drills or actual events, the groundwork and practice was there (like a fire or natural disaster drill) so that kids and teachers knew exactly what to do, making them empowered partners with the police, not frightened props that are essentially being re-victimized during police response. (more to come on this in the next posting!)

      We also had a 911 number that any teacher/first responder could use to pause the sim while a student or teacher was evacuated to a safe room with mental health support and evaluators in key rooms/locations noting everything going on and also had the ability to halt the sim if the situation warranted. This is basic Safety 101.

      Sounds like the false bomb alarm went better, though. Kids do know how to quickly evacuate, with mandated fire drills, so it’s much easier even though it’s a pain.

      Thank you for sharing ~

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      • Drills should be done, and reminders should be given. You don’t need to terrorize students to tell them what to do. A 5-minute review twice a year to say “in a fire alarm we do this; in a lock-down we do that; in a tornado we do …” In the high schools where students are in different classrooms all day long, each room/teacher may have to do a review to remind them of nearest exit doors, or other instruction. But it shouldn’t need to be a big traumatic thing, just matter of fact.

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  2. You bring up an excellent point: no trauma, no terrorizing. The latest research out of Harvard shows that our natural tendency is to freeze, so beyond reminders (like those cards in the plane), drills or mentally walking through a response are necessary to re-wire the brain’s response (a great read on this is The Unthinkable by Amanda Ripley — reads more like a novel and riveting about who lives and who dies in emergency situations). A relatively unknown fact: hundreds of kids died in school fires in the U.S., yes, poor building codes, but primarily due to the brain freezing and the ensuing panic. Since fire drills have been mandated, there hasn’t been a death in a public school due to fire. Drill!!

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  3. It’s so very sad that we have to do this for our children–This terrorist readiness camp when they should all be enjoying free play and education. #HumanityMatters, and it is something that we, the collective ‘we’ that is our culture, has forgotten.
    Bravo on the sim and I look forward to reading more.

    L

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    • Thank you, Lisa — it’s a yes and no on the sadness factor. We teach kids not to get into strangers’ cars; to look both ways before crossing the street, etc. Potential harm is out there, but if you know what to do, then children (and adults) can be relatively safe. Otherwise, it’s the ostrich factor and burying your head in the sand, which never works in the long run. The good news is that once kids learn how to be safe, they are free to play and learn.

      And, yes, there is so much the collective “we” have forgotten, or have chosen to forget…

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  4. Was it not in one of these drills that Mimi was assigned the role of an angry and impatient parent whose hysterical outbursts and demanding shouts for preferential treatment challenged the police and firefighters with a realism that made the drill even more effective? You know what I mean. Like whose side was she on anyway, all victims of just her little darling?
    S.

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