The call went out over the radio at 8:40 Thursday morning at University High School. “Students report an intruder,” the voice said. “Let’s go into lockdown.”
Thankfully it was only a drill. The voices of the principal and vice principal gave a running commentary of events over handheld radios carried by school staff as they acted out the scenario of the drill. A man armed with a baseball bat was soon located in a classroom. “It looks like there’s a teacher down on the floor,” the voice said. “There’s blood.”
Representatives from Spokane Valley Fire, the Spokane County Sheriff’s Office and the American Medical Response participated in the drill. The entire event, plus radios and emergency equipment for the school, was paid for by a $70,000 Comprehensive Safe Schools Grant.
By 9:01 a.m. deputies were handcuffing the suspect, and victims began to be taken away by ambulance. Junior Missy Hunt, made up with fake blood and wounds, played one of the victims. “We were in the classroom when we got attacked,” she said.
The scenario had a student let the husband of a teachers in through a back door even though all visitors are supposed to enter through the main office. The man was upset that his wife had just filed for divorce and entered her science classroom with the baseball bat.
“He just ranted and raved,” Hunt said. “We were supposed to be doing a lab with acids, which explains all our wounds. He knocked over vials that supposedly contained acid.”
Hunt said the entire experience felt more real than she expected. “It was pretty scary,” she said. “I didn’t think it would be so weird.”
“It’s intense,” said junior Jessica Crum, who also played a wounded student. “It feels like a real situation. It really helped me realize what to do in that situation.”
According to Hunt, it was so intense that one of the students playing a victim apparently had an asthma attack.
Spokane Valley Fire Capt. Jeff Bordwell said the drill had been planned for two months. The goal was to try and make it as real as possible to find any weaknesses in the emergency response. “It went off relatively well,” he said.
There were some communication issues, with the fire department not being able to communicate well with student officials because of different radio systems. “Sheriff and Fire have worked hard over the years on communication,” he said. “In a scenario like this it’s probably more with the school.”
One problem that came as no surprise was the difficulty first responders had with their radios inside the school. It’s an issue that has come up before in real-life situations. “Our radio frequencies have a hard time penetrating that steel,” he said.
Another problem cropped up when all the representatives from the Sheriff’s Office began the drill inside the school and didn’t pretend to respond as the fire department did. That meant all the deputies were isolated inside the school with no liaison to work with the fire department first responders. Bordwell said that wouldn’t happen at a real incident.
“We had nobody outside to talk to as far as Sheriff,” Bordwell said. “They were all inside. In a normal circumstance we would have had someone from Sheriff right there.”
Principal Daryl Hart agreed that communications was one thing that stuck out. He wishes the deputies had been able to have an open microphone with dispatch as the incident unfolded, something that would happen in a real-life situation. “We didn’t really want to activate it for real,” he said. “If we had the open mike, everyone would have heard the same thing at the same time. We didn’t have that today, so there was a delay in some of that information.”
Hart also is reconsidering his response to the drill, when he roamed the school investigating reports and checking on classrooms. “I think we’ll look at that,” he said. “If it was the real deal, they would want me outside.”
The school also will look at identifying students and their injuries more quickly, he said. “I think we handled it pretty well, but there were some definite things we’ll look at to do better.”
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