Rocks, Water Bottles, Fire Extinguishers: Kids Taught How to Fight Back in a School Shooting
By: Erin Duffy, The Omaha World-Herald
As a fifth-grader at Manchester Elementary this year, 10-year-old Cosette Kaminski is supposed to learn about the Declaration of Independence and the basics of geometry — how does a pyramid differ from a cone?
But on this humid Saturday morning, Cosette is learning a different set of skills – how to block a classroom door with desks and chairs, how to wrestle a gun out of the hands of an intruder and how to tie a tourniquet tight enough to stop the flow of blood.
Welcome to “how to survive a school shooting 101.” 88 Tactical, the shooting range and security firm in Sarpy County, started offering “School Safe” classes in March, after the school shooting that killed 17 students and staff members in Parkland, Florida.
Schools across the metro area already practice a litany of emergency response drills – fire drills, tornado drills and lockdown drills that instruct students and school staff to hunker down and take cover in case of an intruder.
But the core message of the 88 Tactical training – if an attack happens in your school, you don’t have to cower in the corner as bullets ricochet around you. You can run, you can hide or you can fight back is a message that’s appealing to a segment of parents, teachers and kids who feel some school responses are too passive.
“Lockdown procedures for schools are great,” said Kurt Sorys, a senior instructor at 88 Tactical who leads the class. He’s a retired Omaha police officer who worked on the SWAT team and responded to the 2007 shooting at Von Maur. “Most of them have decent doors, and they will protect our children. But what we’d like to see those kids do is once they get in that lockdown, we want to see them prepare to fight for their lives, if necessary.”
The 2 ½ hour classes—more are planned for this fall—cost $65 and are open to kids ages 10 and up. At a session earlier this month, eight kids and six adults attended, a mix of parents and teachers. Sorys estimates that 150 have taken the class since last spring.
I don’t want to just put my kids in a corner and hide and make sure the door is locked,” Jenna Dudley, a first-grade teacher at Brownell Talbot School, who signed up for the class with her two teenage boys. “I will not be a victim.”
Some safety experts have cast doubt on whether this type of training is effective. Even police officers and members of the military sometimes freeze up when confronted with danger. The on-duty armed school resource officer in Parkland waited outside the school, confused and paralyzed with indecision, for minutes as a former student fired an AR-15 inside. Can we really expect seventh-graders to take down a gunman?
And despite the attention school shootings command, statistically, they remain exceedingly rare.
That’s not much comfort to Cosette’s dad, Brian Kaminski. He decided to enroll Cosette and her two teenage brothers, Elkhorn High students Trayton and Oliver, in the School Safe class after the May 18 school shooting in Texas, that killed eight students and two teachers.
It’s a grim reality that Kaminski acknowledges: He’s here on a Saturday morning with his three children, watching them practice blasting an attacker with a fire extinguisher.
“Yes, it is upsetting that we have to do this,” he said. “But by the same token, I think it’s just a fact of life.” At work, I mentioned this to a co-worker and I said, “After the last shooting,” and she said, “Which one?”
The first hour of the class takes place in a classroom that echoes faintly with the sound of gunshots from the nearby firing range.
Sorys rattles of the names of cities, towns and schools that have become synonymous with violence and tragedy: Parkland, Orlando, San Bernardino, Columbine. He shows news clips of different responses to different attacks, pointing out the do’s and don’ts.
Don’t: waste precious time and energy texting mom and dad if a shooter is in your school. Steel yourself, pay attention to your surroundings and figure out a plan. Do: tailor your response to the specific situation at hand. An armed robber at a Starbucks probably just wants your money and get out. There’s no need to play the hero and intervene.
“We want to harden your mind, without hardening your heart,” Sorys said, a message he’d repeat several times.
Much of the training centered on the “run, hide, fight,” active shooter response, tailored to a slightly younger audience. The approach advises that to survive an active killer situation, you have to be attentive, act decisively and work as a team to stop the threat. Minutes might pass before law enforcement shows up.
And, a video instructed, “fight is a strategy of last resort. Use it only when your life is in immediate danger and no other options are available to you.”
Teachers, Sorys suggested, could keep a bucket or rocks in their classrooms that students could use to pelt an intruder. Stainless steel water bottles could become an improvised weapon.
At one point, he warns the room that the conversation is going to take a heavy turn. Schools are supposed to be nurturing places where kids have been conditioned not to hit people or fight back, he said. Throw those rules out the window if an attack occurs.
“If someone comes into your school with a gun and starts shooting people, they’re trying to kill you,” he said. “You as a group of students have the right to use force against them, which could include killing them to stop them.”
Schools have spent millions of dollars on security features like door locks and surveillance cameras. And then there’s the emergency drills and training, including the annual fire, tornado and bus evacuation drills required by law.
The state recommends that schools practice the lockdown, lockout, evacuation, shelter and reunification processes, too.
Several districts, including Westside, Papillion-La Vista, Elkhorn and Omaha, turn to a standard response protocol that encourages everyone from law enforcement to teachers and students to use common terms and practices that put an emphasis on securing the classroom. These protocols can be used in a variety of situations, from bad weather to an irate parent who shows up at the office.
In Papillion-La Vista, for example, middle and high school students and staff are taught that during a lockdown, students should be quiet, move out of sight and keep doors closed. Teachers should lock doors, turn off the lights and keep their class silent.
Some, like Papillion-La Vista and Elkhorn, also teach, “run, hide, fight” if a threat is imminent.
“However, while practice is important, we also recognize that there is a fine line between preparing children and raising their anxiety to levels that interfere with learning,” Alan Bone, Westside’s director of student services, wrote in a letter to families after Parkland.
An OPS team is reviewing the district’s procedures and working to ensure consistent responses across 80-plus schools. That could entail tweaking drills and incorporating more simulation-style training “to help staff and students think on their feet,” spokeswoman Monique Farmer said.
Sorys said he’s not trying to suggest that schools are doing it wrong. The School Safe class demonstrates a different approach that some might take, with more intensive and realistic training exercises.
Complicating matters is the possibility that school shooters may be students familiar with the school’s drills.
“There is no right answer for every scenario,” Papillion-La Vista spokeswoman Annette Eyman said. “One of the things we have tried really hard to communicate is we trust the adults in our buildings to make decisions.”
Michael Dorn, the executive director of Safe Havens International, a campus safety nonprofit, is a former police officer. He and his team have conducted thousands of school safety simulations and trainings.
Campaigns like “run, hide, fight” aren’t intrinsically bad, he said. “But don’t try to boil it down to an infomercial.”
In some simulations, he found that school staff armed themselves with textbooks but forgot to lock the classroom door, a simple step that’s incredibly effective. They chose to confront a drunk guy approaching the school instead of taking students inside and calling police. Instead of talking down a suicidal student with a weapon, they lunged at them.
What his organization does recommend is running different drills and responses that react to fluid situations. Don’t forget to practice for the much more common events, like fires or tornadoes.
￼Sorys pulls on a gray hoodie and grabs an airsoft pistol. He fires off a few realistic-sounding shots with the fake gun, and a mad scramble begins.
The class participants duck and run, giggling nervously and weaving in and out of partitioned rooms as Sorys stalks around.
It’s time for the hands-on portion of the class.
“Oh no,” one woman says as Sorys finds her. “Don’t say ‘Oh no,’ ” he tells her. “Run away.”
The kids take turns discharging fire extinguishers — the chemical spray can choke and blind someone, Sorys said. They practice gun disarming techniques, locking arms with Sorys and trying to wrest the fake gun away or tackle him to the floor. They practice creating makeshift tourniquets with bandanas, a skill that can come in handy for a gunshot wound or a bike accident.
“When you came today did you think you’d be wrestling with a gun?” Sorys asks. “And now that you have, how does it feel?”
Katherine and Elizabeth Luther, sisters from Nebraska City, said they felt empowered.
“I feel more confident,” said Katherine, a sophomore.
“And safer,” Elizabeth, an eighth-grader, chimed in.
“If this would happen, I know what to do,” Katherine said.
It almost did happen in Nebraska City in April. The middle and high schools went into lockdown for hours after a student called police and said she was in a hallway at the middle school and planned to shoot her teacher. It turned out to be an empty threat.
Students exited the school with their hands in the air, surrounded by police.
“There wasn’t an actual live shooter, but we had the feeling like this was exactly what would happen,” Katherine said.