You know it’s the brave cruel world of 2018 America when 1,000 faculty members are welcomed back to school, as Flagler district staff was today, with an intense two-hour presentation on “active killers”: what to look for in a potential assassin, what to do and what not to do when the rampage starts, how to cooperate when cops storm in pointing weapons, all illustrated with authentic footage of mass massacres that in other places and times would have been indistinguishable from snuff videos.In this case they were called training videos.
The training in one form or another is now required by law for all school personnel and all students, the consequence of the Parkland school massacre last Valentine’s Day in Broward County, when a former student murdered 14 students and three faculty members at Stoneman Douglas High School, the latest in a near-routine of school and mass shootings (there were 346 mass shootings, where four or more people were killed or injured, in 2017, according to the FBI).
“Where is this happening?” the Flagler County Sheriff’s Sgt. Mike Lutz told the audience from the stage in the voice of an ex-New York city cop speaking loud enough to overcome Times Square’s din. “Everywhere. That’s the point.” He flashed a huge map of the country on the auditorium’s back screen, red dots indicating where blood spilled in mass shootings in a single year. “Is it happening in Florida? Oh, hell, yeah it is,” he said, his humor rippling against the horror his map had elicited. And pointing to the midwest, as characteristically bland and red-splotch-free, he added: “I think when I retire I’m going to South Dakota.” The audience laughed, gratefully, but not for long.
So it went between bursts of scares and admonitions to one-liners that again and again broke the intended tension–and kept the audience paying attention.
Depending on their grade, students will get similar if progressively less impactful training during the year. But faculty today got the long version, presented by the Flagler County Sheriff’s Mark Carman–the Palm Coast Precinct chief–and Lutz. The pair has made active-shooter presentations in some variation some 70 times over recent years, appearing before civic groups, church congregations, neighborhood watch groups, and most recently before the employees of Palm Coast government. It shows.
For a two-hour presentation Lutz and Carman had their audience captive, not because there was no break, no let-up in the language of alarm and videos designed to shock (anyone could leave, anyone could take a break) but because the pair has honed its message and timing to a science. Lutz and Carman team-tagged each other the way they tagged their themes, going from grim warnings and revelations to light-hearted anecdotes, or by humanizing their warnings even through examples of depraved behavior: “Bill from finance,” the prototypical nut job everyone knows fits the profile of a mass murderer, was especially dragged through their theoretical worst-case-scenarios.
But Lutz and Carman threaded their disconcerting warnings through a message that somehow made its potential terrors more manageable, less abstract, and therefore more within the control of schoolteachers and employees: the message is that school shootings happen (if rarely: schools are still by far safer than, say, the road you’ll drive to drop off your child at school), but if they do, there are many things teachers and students can do to seek out safety, minimize danger or even confront it.
In a few words, no one needs to be a sitting duck even before law enforcement arrives (a response time in Palm Coast now below four minutes, or several minutes below the national average).
The applause Lutz and Carman got at the end was likely not just the polite version of a crowd’s thank you, but acknowledgement of having understood something to the point of empowerment, though it’s just as clear to what extent employees want law enforcement’s protection rather than to themselves be the protectors. Lutz and Carman were applauded only two other times during their presentation. The first was when Lutz said deputies, any deputy, are under orders from Sheriff Rick Staly to immediately rush a school during an incident. No more waiting for a SWAT team, no more strategizing outside while bullets fly inside. The other time they were applauded was when they mentioned the response time being under four minutes.
By then they’d talked about the psychology of mass shooters, the things they almost always have in common–being bullied, being marginalized, feeling alienated, being humiliated, often by being called gay, a particularly bigoted form of bullying that goes to the core of many adolescents’ vulnerabilities about their unformed identities. But Lutz and Carman were keen to point out that workplace bullying can be just as corrosive and is just as reprehensible.
“There are a lot of supervisors here. Know your employees. Know who it is you work with, OK?” Lutz said. “You’re coming to work today and you hear on the news, the local news, that there’s someone in the Bunnell water tower and he’s shooting at cars of people driving by. And what’s the first thing that comes in your mind? ‘’Ha, I bet it’s Bill in Finance.’” Of course it got a huge laugh, but Lutz had a point: “You’ve got to pay attention to these people.” Lutz later did not hesitate to tell employees that if they have a chance to jam a pen in an assailant’s eye, they should not hesitate. They should commit. “Yes, it’s ikky,” he said.
Through it all, Staly sat in the front row after introducing his team, which also included Randy Stroud, director of the homeland security division at the Sheriff’s Office. (“Schools are just as safe a place as you can be,” Stroud said in a brief interview after the presentation, adding some context to caution.)
“The communities have changed dramatically since the days you and I went to school and you never had to worry about an active incident on a school campus,” Staly said. “They were extremely rare. But unfortunately today, across America and across the world, those days are gone.” He noted that the skills taught faculty and employees in the training can be used in their personal lives wherever they may be. “They’ll at least now know what to do to protect themselves, and some of the things to look for to try to prevent some of those things from happening.”
For the first time since the earlier part of the last decade, there will again be at least one school resource deputy in every Flagler County public school, and two each at FPC and Matanzas High School. That, too, is part of a new state requirement, though the state is paying for only half the cost. The Flagler district and the Sheriff’s Office, through County Commission funding, are splitting the local cost to taxpayers, which approaches $2 million. All the new school deputies are veterans of the agencies, they received specialized training from the Florida School Resource Association and from the Sheriff’s Office. There are also safes in every school containing AR-15 assault rifles, which deputies can access biometrically.
“We want to train and be prepared and pray that nothing happens,” Staly said.
For school officials, contending with these new realities is now the norm.
“It’s absolutely a new world, I never imagined it coming,” Superintendent Jim Tager said of the training. “But I think the fact that we are a town that cares about education, all the deputies were here this morning, the deputies we’ve chosen that were selected I think will be good with kids as mentors, too, so I look at it as a plus.” He sat through his first active-shooter training today, as did school board members.
“I don’t think anybody wants to be in this position,” School Board member Andy Dance said. “We don’t want to have to know how to protect the students in this type of capacity, but we do what we have to do to make sure that we’re prepared in case of an incident, so we do it.” Three weeks after the Parkland massacre Dance had a long discussion with high school students at Flagler Palm Coast High about the anxiety the shooting had triggered, “but I got the overall sense that they felt safe. But they all think there’s things that we can do, and it was helpful to bring that back to the board, listening to the students.”