Ferndale drill helps police prepare for school shooters

It’s a scenario no community ever wants to see, but it can happen anywhere.

After the Sandy Hook Elementary school shooting in 2012 in Newtown, Conn., school districts across the country wondered if they were doing everything possible to keep students safe in a school-shooting event. Ferndale was included in that, and on Thursday, Oct. 23, the Ferndale School District partnered with Ferndale police to conduct a school-shooting exercise that required over a year and half of preparation.

For law enforcement, it was a chance to test response times and communication among agencies in the event of a school shooting. For the school district, it was a way to test protocols for a variety of emergency situations and ensure student safety.

“It would be lovely if we lived in a world where we didn’t have to think about this,” said Ferndale School District Superintendent Linda Quinn. “But we don’t live in that world.”

Even after the Sandy Hook shooting that resulted in 26 deaths, the National Center for Education Statistics estimated that there were 17 school-associated violent deaths through November 2013. Quinn said they began preparing for the exercise shortly after Sandy Hook.

Thursday’s drill began at 8 a.m. when a “shooter” in Ferndale High School began firing a simunition gun that contained fake bullets filled with a detergent-based solution. Within two minutes, the first wave of police officers responded and had the assignment of eliminating the school shooter, said Ferndale Police Lt. Matt Huffman. The second wave of law enforcement arrived minutes later to rescue victims.

Students near the shooter went into lockdown and were later evacuated on two buses to Vista Middle School. In a real situation, Huffman said students from other parts of the campus would have been evacuated by teachers during the incident.

Ferndale Police Chief Michael Knapp said coordinating communication through all the agencies involved, including U.S. Border Patrol, the fire department and the school district, is the biggest challenge in shooter situations. He recalled an incident in May of 2014, when an attempted murder suspect called in a false report of a shooter at Ferndale High School.

“That was one of the reasons for this exercise here today,” Knapp said. Although police and the school district began planning the exercise months before the May incident, Knapp said the call highlighted some communication issues they wanted to address in the drill.

Knapp said following the exercise that every police officer will be required to familiarize themselves with the physical layout of each Ferndale school once a year.

The fake shooter, Bryon Powell, was a student volunteer in the criminal justice department at Whatcom Community College and is part of a criminal justice club there. He was instructed to fire simulated rounds at other volunteers in the high school’s library before police arrived. He then fired shots at officers and simulated a suicide.

Even though Powell knew the drill, he said it was still alarming to see the police approach him with what he described as a “forceful presence.”

“It definitely got my adrenaline going,” Powell said.

Powell, a freshman who hopes to one day join the Washington State Patrol, said participating in the drill gave him a different perspective of how people perceive actions of law enforcement. There were 11 other volunteers from the college’s criminal justice club, two of whom were shot by Powell’s ammunition that was similar to a paintball gun. They were carried off on a stretcher by rescuers as part of the drill, though they weren’t hurt.

The high school students were not able to see the shooting. Some of them heard gunfire, and volunteer Whatcom County Support Officers that counsel victims after major incidents spoke to the students. Rob Main, one of the support officers, said people still can be stressed even if they know the incident is simulated.

Quinn, the district superintendent, said teachers from four high school classes volunteered to participate in the evacuation and reunification, and 80 percent of those students agreed to be part of the drill. Those who did not participate were given time to study.

Huffman said he doesn’t remember any full-scale exercise like this being executed in Whatcom County involving the participation of both students and the school district. The police department is unlikely to run another drill of this magnitude anytime soon since it drained department resources.

Huffman said they did not encounter any issues with communication among agencies. There were some minor issues they could fix, Quinn said, but she thought the whole exercise went well.

“Our theory is that kids will feel more safe, not less safe, if they know we have a plan,” Quinn said.