If you stood on the rim of the parking lot of Community Baptist Church on Old Dixie Highway for much of this afternoon, you’d have heard sounds disturbingly familiar to early 21st century America: the gunshots, the screams, more gunshots at random intervals or rapid-fire bursts. Thankfully, the Flagler County Sheriff’s Office had propped up a few signs at the entrance to the church: “Training in Progress.”
But those signs and those sounds–the sound of blanks fired by a deputies rushing someone posing as a mass shooter in a school–were no less the signs and sounds of a nation that must now routinely incorporate that sort of training for its law enforcement ranks, and variations of it for school staff and students at every level down to kindergarten, for office workers in most professions, for retailers whose venues have also become favorite shooting galleries for mass killers.
Today, again and again and again, every Flagler County Sheriff’s School Resource Deputy–there’s at least one of them in every public and charter school in the county–and every one of the department’s new recruits took turns going through the scenario, gun drawn, with more than a dozen volunteers playing the roles of dead, wounded or fearful victims.
Each deputy would rush into the building the moment he or she would hear gunshots (there was at least one woman among the 26) then have to navigate a small, unlit lobby with an intrusive wall that turns into a long, narrow hallway with small classrooms on either side, navigating bodies, backpacks and the unexpected surge of students appearing out of nowhere and looking for a way out–without getting shot, all while gunshots are ringing somewhere at the end of the cavernous hallway.
It was the deputy’s job first to keep moving forward without hesitation, to make sure not to shoot the wrong person, to make sure not to get shot, to make sure not to breathe too much or too little and lose judgment, to make sure to clear every room before going on, to make sure to shoot the assailant in a room at the end of the hallway and to follow the tactical steps trainers have been talking about: there’s a trainer behind each deputy, half-observing, half-directing the deputy to go through the correct steps and avoid the wrong ones, all the way to the moment when the deputy discovers the shooter, guns him down and secures the room.
It doesn’t always go as planned. The odd student is shot by mistake. The occasional deputy will overlook the best way to secure a room, or ensure his own safety. They’re immediately reminded, their supervisor going through the exact motions to be followed.
Sheriff Rick Staly and the supervisors running the scenarios gave reporters today unusual and complete access to the training sessions, without restrictions but with the understanding that tactical details would not be revealed: the agency, understandably, doesn’t want to give pointers to would-be shooters (not just here, but anywhere there’s online access to this type of accounts).
“The reason I allowed this to be opened up to the media is because I think it’s important for the community and parents to know that we train for worst-case scenarios, hoping that we never have to use it,” Staly said. “But I want them to feel confident that when they send their child to school, they’re going to come home. Now, it takes a community to make sure of that too so, same thing, if they hear something or see something, they need to let us know. Same thing with their children: their children are telling them something, they need to let us know and let us check it out. In most cases what you find after the incident, you go back and there were friends and other people who had knowledge but didn;t connect the dots and didn’t report it.” The community has been successful to that extent, the sheriff acknowledged–sharing numerous tips that have triggered immediate investigations and results. “This is just a reminder to let us know.”
“It takes a lot to put on this kind of training, but it’s absolutely worth it,” the sheriff said.
“We certainly want to thank the church,” said Chief Paul Bovino, who oversaw the training with Sgts. Ryan Emery, Chris Ragazzo (who oversees SRDs), Phil Reynolds and Cpls. John Landi and Paul DeSousa, among others. “Anyone who helps us train and prepare, we’re very thankful.”
Senior Pastor Cliff Smith was observing some of the training. He explained why he was providing the church for the third time for sheriff’s training. “Number one our name is Community Church,” Smith said, “and to be a part of the community means you’re reaching out into the community and allowing people to use our church. These guys put their lives on the line every day, and if our church can help them train and save one of their lives and do their job better, then this building is theirs any time they need it.”
Meanwhile in the background the supervisors are debriefing after a long segment of scenarios, the trainees huddled close in a semi-circle, listening. “You’ve got to be ready, you’ve got to get your mind right, you’ve got to be ready.” “Why are you here, right? What are we doing here?” “What were you listening for?” The supervisors speak about many things the deputies have to keep in mind of course, and some things that are not expected.
A big, plushy elephant had been positioned in the room where the shooter was stationed. A supervisor asked the more than two dozen deputies who among them had noticed what, literally, turned out to be the elephant in the room (the shooter aside). None had. Actually, Observer reporter Paola Rodriguez told the sheriff she’d noticed it when he quizzed reporters about seeing anything unusual in the room. FlaglerLive’s reporter, of course, missed it entirely. Rodriguez would later take up the offer to run through the scenario herself, gun in hand, firing at the target–and discovering that she wasn’t immune from the rapid heartbeat and the visible shakes afterward.
The routine of mass shootings is reshaping the psychology and methods of police, schools and workplaces, but it’s not an entirely new phenomenon. “We’ve been doing this since 1999, we’ve been doing this since Columbine,” Bovino said, referring to the Columbine High School massacre in April 1999 that left 12 students and a teacher dead before the two assailants, seniors at the school, turned the gun on themselves. The police had been slow to respond to that shooting, or to enter the building. “We’ve just been doing it in different format. This is not by any means the first time the Flagler County Sheriff’s Office has trained that.” He said it’s being done differently, “different tactics have been taught, different mindsets have been put in pl;ace. It’s been more aggressive over the years. It’s morphed, the tactics have morphed, but we have been doing it for a very long time.” And now, he said, “the frequency of these things happening has been stepped up. I mean, it was never this frequent that these things have been occurring across the country. It’s horrible–”
Bovino is interrupted by the sound of nearby gunfire as another deputy goes through the scenario, and the voice of a volunteer screams out: “I’ve been shot.”
The training is mandated in police academies. It’s not clear whether it’s mandated among individual agencies, but that’s a moot point, the sheriff said, because he’s mandating it for all deputies.
“We’ve done active assailant training but this will be the first time that we’ve done this kind of training with this much scenario, real-life–trying to put them in a scene they might encounter,” Staly said. The agency has ordered Stop the Bleed kits for all school resource deputies and road deputies–kits designed to stop significant bleeding in a victim.
“What the community should know is that we will not have a Parkland incident here where a deputy sheriff did not respond,” Staly said. “I met with all of our school resource deputies this morning at 10:30 and reemphasized like I did last year that we immediately respond and we stop the threat.”
There’s a pine box at the entrance to the church with a printed sign taped to its front: “Please place prayer requests here.” The mostly unspoken, but occasionally verbalized prayer all afternoon was that the day’s training would, for supervisors, deputies and fake-blood soaked volunteers, remain just that–training. It is the sort of training that can do without validation.