Lt. Brian Dillman, deputy director of special operations at Montgomery County Police Department, clearly remembers what happened at Seneca Valley High School the afternoon of May 31.
A high school freshman was walking down the hallway of Seneca Valley when she heard a mob of students shouting and crashing into lockers. Her response was one she learned from the school shootings in Parkland and Sandy Hook. Would her high school be next? She pushed her classmate walking next to her into the nearest classroom and told the teacher to go into full lockdown. She barricaded the doors, called 911 and huddled shoulder-to-shoulder with her classmates in the corners of the room.
When police arrived minutes later, they discovered there was no active shooter. The uproar was part of the “junior stampede” — an annual Seneca Valley tradition to celebrate the junior class’ rite-of-passage into seniority.
The freshman was responding the way she learned a few months prior, in her school’s active shooter training.
High school and middle school students are participating in active shooter drills across Montgomery County beginning this school year, in what MCPS Chief Safety Officer Ed Clarke calls a “lockdown with options.”
On the heels of the deadly shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Gov. Larry Hogan signed the Maryland Safe to Learn Act into law in April 2018. The bill went into effect two months later and committed millions to enhancing school safety and mental health services.
While the bill itself doesn’t mandate an active shooter drill yet, Clarke said MCPS has been moving forward with these drills to “get ahead” of the curve, knowing that the state-mandated regulation is on its way.
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“I would say we’re very proactive,” Dillman confirmed, noting he thinks MCPS is one of the leading school districts in the state when it comes to active shooter preparedness. While he acknowledges Montgomery County isn’t the first to implement new active shooter drills, he said he thinks the combination of this training and recent security enhancements — like locked doors, ID scanners and security cameras — is “well advanced, not only in the region, but in the country.”
All students and staff across Montgomery County from elementary to high school finished their active shooter training in June. This school year, they’ll apply their knowledge in simulated drills.
In the case of an active shooter, a “lockdown is just not good enough,” Dillman said. “We have to give people additional options to increase their chances of survival.”
“[A typical lockdown] doesn’t work when you’re in transit from one class to the next,” Dillman said. “It doesn’t work when you have 400 students all gathered in the cafeteria eating lunch. It doesn’t work when you’re at a pep rally in the gymnasium. So there’s better ways to teach people, to empower people, to make decisions.”
In these new drills, students will hear a school administrator over the P.A. system announce where the pretend gunman is. Based on their location in the school, students will respond using the three-pronged “Avoid, Deny and Defend” (ADD) strategy.
“Avoid” tells students and staff to run away from the scene, until the school is out of sight. “Deny” means to turn off the lights, cover the window to the classroom and barricade the door with desks and chairs — whatever will make a gunman’s entry into the room more difficult. The final approach, “defend,” breaks from the typical lockdown drill and requires staff and students to fight for their lives.
“That’s when fight or flight really kicks in, for any human being,” Clarke said.
There will be no simulated gunman during these drills, unlike other drills around the country that have faced criticism over too-realistic active shooter experiences. MCPS officials acknowledge it would merely raise the level of anxiety among students.
“We know the trauma that would create,” Dillman said. “So what we do is it’s all scenario-based training.”
Dillman said that most importantly, students need to get into hard corners, which are the parts of a room out of range from bullets. Part of the staff training shows teachers how to mark these corners in the classroom with tape on the floor. “It gets them out of the fatal funnel,” Dillman said. During drills, Dillman stands in the doorway to a classroom and extends his arms in a V shape to illustrate the fatal funnel — the vulnerable area where a bullet can penetrate through the door.
While teachers are not directly taught defensive tactics or armed with weapons, the training encourages teachers to think about “protective assets” in the classroom that can be used to defend themselves. Dillman said strikes to the throat and groin and throwing books in the pathway of the shooter could afford time for students to get to safety.
“There’s nothing fair about this fight,” Dillman said. “You have to win.”
Dillman said that by defending themselves, students and staff buy time for police to arrive. He said police responded to the Seneca Valley High School incident in less than 60 seconds.
“Once the police arrive, the ongoing loss of life almost immediately ceases because the assailants either commit suicide, flee or they are engaged with law enforcement,” Dillman said. “Although it’s a difficult topic to discuss with people, this training is something that has become necessary.”
Dr. Christina Conolly, who serves as the director for the MCPS Division of Psychological Services, said she wanted to make sure drills were “developmentally appropriate” for each student age group. That means writing drills in words students can understand and taking the “psychological needs” of the students and staff into consideration throughout the training.
High school and middle school students are encouraged to make their own decisions during an active shooter situation, through proper training of the ADD method. Whereas elementary school students “don’t know what the word avoid means,” Conolly said. These younger students are trained to listen to the adults and staff they’re with, rather than make an independent decision. “That’s not a reasonable expectation,” Conolly said.
She makes sure counselors and psychologists are on hand to speak with students and staff after the drill.
Clarke said the focus on mental health throughout these drills is a primary focus so staff and law enforcement can identify students, staff or community members who may be on the pathway of targeted violence in schools and provide support through intervention.
“These events happen. None of us live in a bubble,” Dillman said. “Kids have access to social media; they know what’s going on. So they know this has been happening for some time now, but no one’s talking to them about it and no one’s addressing the issue.”
Dillman said the students’ response to the drills have been “amazing” and said he believes the drills lower the level of anxiety among students.
“I think everyone has been wanting to see this for some time,” Dillman said. “I wish we didn’t have to do it. For people to put a blind eye to this is a huge mistake, because we’re dealing with reality, and reality is this is something that we’re dealing with in this country.”