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Spokane students taught to confront shooters when other options have run out

UPDATED: Fri., May 10, 2019

Another life was lost to a school shooting on Tuesday. His name was Kendrick Castillo, and he saved the lives of his fellow students, alongside two other students, who were injured when they fought back and stopped a shooter.

This time, the shooting was in Colorado, not far from Columbine and only weeks after the 20th anniversary of that mass shooting.

This act of bravery isn’t something far off or abstract for those in the Spokane area. The death of Sam Strahan in the Freeman High School shooting has become an important part of our community’s experience.

As more and more children lose their lives interceding, the question becomes: How are Spokane students being trained for such situations?

Steve Fisk, the principal at North Central High School, said student response to Freeman was immediate. His students felt helpless, and they wanted to do something about it.

“It was really a student voice saying ‘We need more training. We need more information. We need more practice. And we need to be given the tools and skills to deal with this,’ ” Fisk said.

Soon after the shooting, Fisk was approached by the Center for Personal Protection and Safety about filming the video “Beyond Lockdown – Preventing and Responding to Extreme School Violence” to educate students everywhere about prevention and threat response.

“In training, what they really looked at was last options where you have to assess the situation,” Fisk said. “It’s that situational awareness that informs the decision-making, so we just want to empower kids and our staff.”

At East Valley High School, students learn “run, hide, fight” – in that order, Principal Matthew Stevens said.

“The fight option is really at such a point that that barrier might be breached and you are no longer safe and that there is very serious and direct imminent threat to you and in that case the doctrine is fight,” Stevens said. “Whatever you can to distract, to dissuade, to make the culprit less effective in their efforts to harm people or to harm you. … We teach that it is a last resort, that you should not seek to be a hero.”

But when a student has exhausted their options, some fight.

“I think it’s too bad that there has to be people who have to make that decision,” Stevens said. “It takes a certain amount of courage in the moment to do something that might protect oneself or others. I think kids are capable of doing amazing things.”

Coeur d’Alene police Capt. Dave Hagar said law enforcement works with schools to prevent shootings before they happen.

“We talked about prevention, things to look for, some of the warning signs,” Hagar said. “It’s about taking that ownership over your school like you would your house.”

Training can only go so far because the innate forces in our brain will steer how we respond to a threatening situation, said Mark Baird, an assistant professor of psychology at Whitworth University.

“For some kids, they see the threat, and it really doesn’t matter what has been said to them, they’re moving towards it and they’re trying to take out the threat,” Baird said. “I think we see in this last instance. This child, despite being up against a deadly threat, went towards it and saved lives because of it.”

Baird said he likes to think he would fight, if it came down to it, but no one knows what they would do until they are in that situation.

“But would I want my 9-year-old to?” Baird posed the question, but had no answer, other than a sigh.

Terese Medina, a mental health counselor at Northwest Counseling Center, also said there is no way to predict who will have that response. Medina counsels children dealing with trauma.

“I think there is just an innateness, I don’t know that it’s something that you can teach,” Medina said. “I think it’s just something within that individual.”

The fight, flight or freeze response to a threatening situation is part of the most basic part of our brain, and while most of our brain develops as we age, this response has little to no change between childhood and adulthood, Baird said.

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