WASHINGTON – As the word spread via email alerts and social media that a violent mob had breached the U.S. Capitol last week, workers in offices throughout the complex locked and barricaded their doors, turned out the lights, stayed low to the ground, silenced their phones and sat quietly in the dark hoping the danger would not come to them.
For many of the Hill’s younger staff members, the decision to take those actions wasn’t instinct, it was training. An entire generation of Americans who grew up during an epoch of horrific school shootings have learned since kindergarten what to do when an outside threat enters the building.
In a small conference room in the offices of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., eight of her staff members hunkered down undetected for 2½ hours as the invaders occupied and trashed the offices of the third-most powerful person in the country.
“You could hear the mob going through her office, breaking down the door, yelling, ‘Where are you, Nancy?’ ” said Henry Connelly, Pelosi’s head of communications. “There was a lot of screaming.”
As the rioters took pictures and defaced the speaker’s offices, Pelosi’s staffers remained quiet inside the locked and barricaded conference room and tried to stay calm. One of them, a 23-year-old from Northern Virginia, thought back to training she had received growing up.
“In the Fairfax County Public School system, we had a lockdown drill every year where we were taught to turn off the lights, block all the windows, not open the door for any reason and to stay away from the windows. Last time I did that drill was senior year in high school, so it wasn’t too long ago,” the staffer, who asked not to be identified, said in a statement. “Also, as a Virginia Tech student, we were all trained during orientation for an active shooter/lockdown situation. Once we were settled in the dark, what was running through my mind was to be ready to run and fight. Thank goodness that didn’t have to happen.”
Previous training for live shooters in a school kicked into gear when the attempted insurrection started, said Sarah Iddrissu, chief of staff for new Rep. Jamaal Bowman, D-N.Y. Bowman is the founder of Cornerstone Academy for Social Action, a public middle school in Eastchester, Bronx, and served as principal for a decade before winning his House seat in November. Iddrissu was part of the founding team of the school and taught literacy there before joining Bowman on Capitol Hill.
“We’ve done many drills before as educators and immediately knew what to do,” Iddrissu said. “In that moment, the congressman went into full principal mode and started to survey the situation and make sure everyone was OK.”
They used what she called “educator language”: “shelter in place” and “active shooter drill.”
Tabitha Raskin, 23, a Philadelphia teacher, was at the Capitol that day to support her father, Rep. Jamie Raskin, D-Md., a former constitutional law professor who has been named an impeachment manager for the Senate trial of President Trump. The Raskin family had just suffered a tragedy on New Year’s Eve – the loss of Raskin’s son, Tommy, 25, to suicide.
Tabitha Raskin said she and her brother-in-law were in a Capitol office with a window facing the Mall with a view of the Washington Monument. They saw a crowd starting to move toward the Capitol, she said, and soon she could see some of them climbing on the scaffolding.
“We were at the point of thinking, ‘How did they get so close?’ ” she said. They then went to the House floor to see her father, and not long after a security detail escorted her to a Capitol office where she was locked in with her brother-in-law and Jamie Raskin’s chief of staff, Julie Tagen.
“That’s really when my mind went to the drills we had in school: Hide under a desk. Hide in corners. Turn lights off and turn off any noise. Don’t speak,” she said.
“We had a camera streaming from the House floor running, but we turned off everything. I hid under the desk with my brother-in-law,” she said, with Tagen hiding near them. “We didn’t make a sound.”
She was “freaked out,” she said, especially when rioters tried to open the door of the office but left when they realized it was locked. Tagen had picked up a fire pick in the event that they did get through the door, she said.
“In my mind I was wondering, ‘How are these people still out there? What is going on?’ Your mind goes to the worst place, and you think, ‘Where is law enforcement?’ Law enforcement is gone. You are fending for yourself,” she said.
“Finally, after about half an hour, we heard, ‘Police. Open up.’ We were nervous it wouldn’t be the police. We thought they should have a key and open it up. But it was the police, and they took us to the place where the members were sheltering.”
The violent attack on the Capitol and the fear it engendered surfaced memories of the 2018 shooting of 14 students and three staff members at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, for Rep. Ted Deutch, D-Fla., whose district includes the high school.
In a television interview with a Florida news channel that he posted on his Twitter account, Deutch said he had been contacted by constituents who were reminded of the trauma they felt following the shooting.
“As someone who has been through the crisis of trauma associated with a mass shooting, I hope we learn from this, not just what happened that led to this breach on our democracy, but I hope it reminds us that we need to do more to address the mental health aspects of things like this when they happen and to redouble our efforts to prevent the kinds of things like that horrible shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas in February of 2018. This sort of trauma is real.”
Some staffers have taken to social media in recent days to express the fear they felt during the takeover and its lingering effects.
On Monday, Natalie Johnson, communications director for Rep. Nancy Mace, R-S.C., tweeted, “The more time that passes since Wednesday’s siege, the worse my anxiety gets. It’s hard to describe the sheer fear of being locked in an office hearing nothing but incessant sirens, not knowing where the rioters were headed next & if that was to us.”
While there are shelter-in-place drills and training that take place periodically for Hill staffers, another reason they know how to respond is their experience dealing with constituents who are victims of mass shootings and attacks, said Nicole Tisdale, who was an intern and staffer on the Hill and served on the House Homeland Security Committee from 2009 to 2019.
“Unfortunately, as a staffer, you hear firsthand the stories of what worked to prevent more casualties and what constituents wished they had done in those moments of an attack,” Tisdale said. “Talking with those victims and the survivors as they become policy advocates in the aftermath of an attack created a strange muscle memory for congressional staffers.”
Tisdale said that staffers absorb response tactics by listening to testimony and reading incident reports and letters from constituents about attacks and shootings.
“It acts as a sort of training they didn’t even know they had and hoped to never need,” she said.
A 28-year-old House aide from New York said that as a voice came over the loudspeaker telling staffers to shelter in place, his first thought was, “How am I going to protect myself and everyone else in here and my member? And also to keep calm.”
The aide, who asked not to be identified because he was not authorized to speak publicly, said he was immediately taken back to the school-shooter drills he took part in during high school. But there was a difference.
“As you get older, you realize how real these things are. It’s one thing to watch a mass shooting on television. It’s heartbreaking, but it doesn’t hit you until you’re in a situation similar to it when your life is literally in danger,” the aide said. “It really wasn’t until after when you start watching videos and looking at all the articles and you think, ‘Wow, I was there. I was actually a target.’ ”
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