A group of about 20 teachers new to the Highland School District were sitting quietly last Friday in the Highland Middle School library undergoing Active Killer/Shooter Awareness Training when the day's lesson suddenly got real. The unmistakable sound of gunshots shattered the silence.
Some ducked under desks. Others took up positions behind bookcases. Luckily, this time it was a drill.
Highland officer Chris Clewis had passed through the back of the room, shooting blank rounds from an AR-15 rifle.
"Is everyone okay?" asked Highland Police Sgt. Damian Feeny.
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Startled eyes stared back at Feeny as the educators began to move shakily back into their seats.
"Obviously, this is not something that they ever expect to have to go through," Feeny said.
But these days, it's a must. Almost every Highland School District employee has been through this training, which is provided on an annual basis, according to Feeny.
"We want to make sure our school district is as safe as it possibly can be," Feeny said.
The class was first curated by the Highland Police Department about five years ago for the school district, though HPD now also provides similar instruction to organizations and churches. The training is taught by specially certified officers and is designed to help develop situational awareness for highly stressful emergencies and active threats.
The class starts with a classroom-like discussion. The officers go over the tactics for handling emergencies, including managing students, 911 calls, being a good witness, what to expect when officers arrive on scene, and how to handle weapons they find. Teachers are also given a list of other active shooter resources, and have the opportunity to ask questions.
At one point, the class moves out into hallways and classrooms, where employees are taught how to use their surroundings to help protect themselves and their students. Officers demonstrate how to make effective door barricades, give tips on strategically planning for furniture placement, and routes of escape.
"Sometimes it does get heated. We make them move. We make them barricade doors. We make them run away. We make them fight back," Feeny said.
The teachers are also warned that they will hear live gun fire several times.
"We use an actual patrol rifle with a blank adapter, and we fire blank rounds through it," Feeny said.
Each scenario plays out a different active shooter situation. The teachers are moved to different locations within the school, and the perpetrator comes from an unknown location. In some instances, there are multiple shooters. But in each case, the scenario comes as a surprise.
Though it might be stressful, Feeny said it shows the trainees how they react in emergency situations. He said the scenarios also give teachers a chance to apply what they have learned to a real-time situation, and have a plan if that situation becomes real.
"Our biggest training point that we try to get across to them is that when you hear that gunfire, you need to take action," Feeny said.
The department also tries to be realistic, so teachers can understand what gunfire sounds and smells like inside of a school.
"School buildings are notorious for long hallways and sound travels very oddly through those hallways," Feeny said.
But even during the mock situations, Feeny said the officers always see impromptu acts of heroism, and teachers always take it very seriously.
"It's amazing, from the first time they hear gunfire during this training to the last scenario, how their reaction time and how their actions change," Feeny said.
During this round, a Highland Middle School sixth-grade social studies teacher Chris Frey instinctively reached out and grabbed the arm of one of the fake attackers. He said that, even though he reacted this way, and he knew what was coming, the sound still frightened him into shock.
But overall, Frey said the training was necessary and useful.
"It's quite enlightening. It's scary. But at the same time, unfortunately, it is something that we kind of need to know," Frey said.