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Active-shooter training preps officers for school scenario
AMANDA BROWN SNOWDEN
It can, and it will, happen in an instant.
A peaceful downtown area, shopping center, festival or family gathering can turn from a joyful and safe environment to a deadly scene of terror within seconds.
Perhaps the most vulnerable are the children, and the events of May 24 this year in a neighboring South Texas town are evidence enough that the one place where our youngsters should feel at their safest can at any time become the place where they may die.
A gunman walked virtually unimpeded into the Robb Elementary School in Uvalde that Tuesday afternoon carrying an assault rifle and shot dead 19 children and two teachers, injured 17 others and spent more than an hour in the building while many of his victims bled to death and others cowered in fear under furniture before he was eliminated.
At schools across South Texas this summer, administrators have reviewed many of their districts’ safety measures, procedures for the event of a crisis, and means by which they may delay or entirely deter an intruder with harmful intentions towards the children and staff.
At the same time, law enforcement agencies have ramped up their preparedness, offered updated training sessions, and forged stronger bonds with each other in readiness for collaborative intervention in an active-shooter situation.
The FBI recently designated 61 incidents of 2021 as ‘active shooter,’ in which law enforcement officers responded to and engaged a gunman in a crisis. The statistic is separate from the total number of so-called mass shootings in the nation for the calendar year.
As of Monday, July 11, there had been a total of 388 incidents of mass shooting in the United States for 2022, an average of two incidents per day in which four or more people were injured or killed by assailants with firearms, according to data collected by National Public Radio, the Gun Violence Archive, and the Washington Post.
Ten of those incidents occurred on the Fourth of July holiday Monday. In one of those on Independence Day, seven people were killed and 25 injured by a gunman taking aim at crowds lining a parade route in Highland Park, Illinois.
The total number of dead in mass shootings for 2022 by July 11 had reached 442, with a further 1,613 injured.
The attack at Uvalde on May 24 was the 253rd incident of mass shooting in the United States for 2022 alone. It ranks among the deadliest school shooting events in the nation’s history. At the time of the May 24 attack, there had been 26 other incidents of shooting at a school or on school property this year, according to Education Week, as reported by CBS News.
Data gathered by the FBI for the period 2017-2021 indicates that active-shooter incidents are on the rise. A Bureau report published in May showed that the overall number of active-shooter incidents in the US rose by more than 52 percent from 2020 to 2021 and that there had been a 96.8-percent increase over four years between 2017 and 2021.
The mass shooting at Uvalde this year served as a reminder that a deadly incident or life-threatening crisis may occur in any school, at any time, and that law enforcement needs to be prepared for what many describe as the unthinkable.
In La Salle County, Sheriff Anthony Zertuche said this month that he and his officers recognize the risk of a deadly incident unfolding in the communities he serves, especially on school campuses.
“We have chosen to be proactive in our efforts to better protect those most vulnerable members of our community,” the sheriff said. “Two active-shooter training events were hosted in Cotulla recently, at Ramirez/Burks Elementary School on June 18 and Cotulla High School June 28 through 30.”
The training events were under the direction of specialized tactical US Border Patrol groups as well as Homeland Security. Among those on the scene and taking part in the simulations was La Salle Lt. Homar Olivarez, who was also involved in coordinating the events in close collaboration with neighboring law enforcement agencies.
“We planned these training sessions to be done in venues where we would likely be responding, as well as for tactical response training specific to those situations,” the lieutenant said. “The goal was to mimic real-life possible situations at the actual campuses that we serve, so we can be better prepared for protecting the students of our community.”
Participating officers were sent through immersive simulations in the hallways and classrooms on the two school campuses. They were exposed to sounds of yelling and simulated gunfire inside and around the buildings.
Several agencies were present and participated. Members of the La Salle County Sheriff’s Office, Encinal and Dilley police departments, as well as locally stationed Texas Department of Public Safety Highway Patrol and US Border Patrol agents were all sent through simulations together.
“We wanted to go through this with other agencies to help familiarize each other with working situations together,” Olivarez said. “Nearby agencies are the most likely to respond with aid if a situation were ever to arise, so it helps already to be acquainted with each other.”
School resource officers – of which La Salle County will have four by the beginning of the new school year – were provided additional training alongside other employees of the sheriff’s office.
“School resource officers are not simply security guards but are accredited officers who are employed through the sheriff’s office and assigned to the school district,” Sheriff Zertuche said. “It is crucial that quick and organized action be taken if an active shooter situation were to happen.”
Prior to the tactical training hosted by the sheriff’s office, a meeting session was held between local deputies, members of the La Salle Fire Rescue, school district representatives, city and county government representatives, and community members to discuss planning and coordinated efforts of response for an incident involving an active shooter.
The sheriff’s office confirmed this month that it has plans to further its training for tactical response in schools as well as across the community.
Crisis response training is not new to the La Salle County Sheriff’s Office. Changes in law enforcement policies and procedures after 2015 reversed a prior standard in Texas and across the nation of establishing a secure perimeter or isolating a gunman. Training sessions held at the Frank Newman Middle School in Cotulla in 2016 involved officers advancing on a gunman in a simulated crisis in order to eliminate a threat as quickly as possible.
The policy of first officers at a scene taking immediate steps to stop a gunman follows a guiding principle of law enforcement officers effectively taking the place of potential victims in a crisis by placing themselves between an assailant and the intended targets while advancing in order to end the threat.
The instruction and training courses continue.
“Repetitive training helps us to ensure we are staying proactive and just that we are prepared to protect the community if any situation were to arise,” Lt. Olivarez said. “That’s why we’re here.”