Strangely enough, despite its relatively light weight, I found a degree of assurance as I released and reattached the Velcro strap snugging the body armor close to my torso. With that last adjustment behind me, I turned my attention to the Glock pistol I held in my right hand, checking to make sure the slide was all the way forward, a round secure within the chamber. Confident in my equipment, I looked toward my partner, Robert, at the same time he looked back at me.
With a nod, we began moving silently and deliberately down the hallway of Gulf Shores High School, moving toward the gunfire and shouting that had echoed off the now silent lockers just seconds before. Responding to an active shooter required movement to contact, ignoring one’s desire to find cover and concealment. Responding to an active shooter wasn’t something I planned on when I accepted a position as a teacher of third-graders some eleven years earlier.
But here I was, my pistol pointing toward the direction from which we came, my eyes scanning for the threat I knew stalked those halls. My right hand securely held my weapon, and my left hand rested on my partner’s back as I allowed his eyes and ears to guide us forward past the blue lockers illuminated by the seemingly-inadequate fluorescent light. His confidence was enough, and I was determined not to let him down as I covered his six o’clock.
Unchallenged to this point, we turned left and found the result of the mayhem we so recently heard. A student sprawled across the floor, his eyes and voice pleading for help as we came around the corner. Blood oozed from an apparent gunshot wound to his right leg, and he clawed at my partner as we came within reach. Despite the urge to do otherwise, we did our best to ignore him, brushing him away as our eyes continued to scan for the threat we knew was well within the effective range of our weapons, knowing we were within range of it as well.
“Open door to the left,” Robert barked, and with a last glance to the rear I prepared to follow him into the room. We smoothly entered what was apparently a storage room, his body following his weapon in and to the right as I went in after him, swinging my own weapon up and to the left.
“The room’s clear,” we called out almost simultaneously. Given the opportunity to attend to the victim lying on the floor, I sent my gaze past the sights of my weapon and back into the hallway, scanning left and right while my partner dragged the student into the empty classroom. Forced by the situation to be content with this small action on behalf of the victim, we headed back out into the hallway.
“Open door to the left,” I heard, and once again we swept into a classroom. As with the last, this room was devoid of human threat. As we prepared to move back into the hallway, our individual positions put me in the front of our two-man team. As he had before, I felt my partner’s hand as it rested on my upper back. As he had before, I moved forward without the need to worry about an undetected threat from the rear. Flashing lights, similar to those seen from a fire alarm, added to the sensory load we were experiencing, and we could hear shouting just ahead of us.
With my left shoulder dragging along the wall, I moved toward a blue tarp that hung inexplicably across the hallway ahead of us. Suddenly, the threat burst through the tarp, and time seemed to stand still as my mind struggled to process what I was seeing. I was aware of a figure dressed in black, a mask covering his face and his hands clutching what appeared to be an assault rifle.
In retrospect, I am given pause by how I reacted through instinct and training. My index finger moved without thought from its position along the side of my weapon and onto the trigger. Within what seemed less than a second I pulled the trigger three times at nearly the same time my partner did so with his own weapon. We watched the target drop to the ground, continuing to move toward us as he fell.
And then the corporal’s whistle blew, letting us know this part of the scenario was over.
“Put your weapons on the ground,” we heard. “Move into the classroom ahead of you!” With her shouts echoing in our ears, we placed our pistols on the ground and moved quickly through an open door, leaving the shooter on the floor behind us.
“Pick up the keys and lock those doors!” Totally disoriented by the 120 seconds of chaos we had just experienced, we were now tasked with placing a key in the lock of a door knob mounted to a stand in the middle of the room. Earlier in the day I had learned about the effect stress has on fine motor skills, and now I was faced with that reality first-hand. Picking up a set of keys from the floor, I fumbled with the effort, finally placing the remarkably tiny piece of metal into the hole and, after another several seconds, turning the lock and ending the exercise.
“Good job–take off your masks,” the corporal ordered.
And just like that, we were done.
Every day, in schools across the country there are law enforcement officers who serve alongside teachers and administrators. School Resource Officers–SROs–are there to protect and establish a positive relationship with young people as well as those who seek to educate. I’ve recently had the privilege of attending the annual conference of The Alabama Association of School Resource Officers (TAASRO). This narrative reflects (as best as I can remember it–things got a little crazy) my experience with TAASRO’s active shooter familiarization experience for educators.
UPDATE: I’ve had a few questions about why law enforcement is training teachers to respond to active shooters. They’re not–not even close. This was simply an exercise designed to help us as educators know what was going on outside of our locked doors. I am appreciative for the opportunity. Also, this is a personal narrative–a story. It doesn’t include anything that didn’t happen, but it also doesn’t delve too deeply into all of the coaching and direction that we received during the exercise. In simple terms: wow, did we screw up…but we learned along the way. Thanks again, TAASRO!