I was huddled in a school classroom in Ohio with members of law enforcement and educators. The lights were turned off. Everyone was hiding from the shooter.
The man next to me was under a desk. Another guy was between two filing cabinets. Two women hid behind boxes.
Waiting was tense. Eerie anticipation. Knots twisted in my stomach. Hiding, as I was told earlier, is merely just waiting to be a target. And what would I do once the shooter burst into the classroom? Should I be like Jason Seaman, an Indiana teacher who thwarted a school shooter by throwing a basketball at him?
In the hallway, we could hear shots being fired: pow-pow-pow, accompanied by the shooter screaming, “LOOK AT ME! LOOK AT ME!”
“It’s been a great career,” said a school principal, a large man lying in the corner clustered next to another guy. “Nice knowing you.”
We really should’ve barricaded the door, but at least we covered the window, so the glass won’t spray into the classroom if it’s shot out.
The shooter, a short stout woman, finally burst into the classroom and started systematically shooting everyone within their hiding spots.
“LOOK AT ME!” she screamed again between shots, taking out the guy from under the table.
Next went the man between the filing cabinets.
One by one everyone in the classroom was shot.
“I can live with getting shot in the rear,” the principal smirked as the lights were turned on. “I gave her the finger when she shot me.”
“It’s like hide-and-seek,” laughed a woman from under a desk as someone joked about this being a “Code Brown” situation (active shooter humor).
“What were you waiting for? Someone to shoot you?” said George Hunter, our instructor, at the completion of our active shooter role-playing scenario. As we were debriefed, Hunter, who vaguely resembled the sergeant in Full Metal Jacket, provided the lowdown: the active shooter drill resulted in 40 people being shot and 20 people killed.
“It was easy,” proudly proclaimed the shooter, who was all smiles as she puts down her Nerf rifle.
“Actual shooting time was two minutes,” Hunter declared. “And we haven’t even called 911 yet.”
Active shooter drills have become a commonplace national occurrence. Thirty-two states have laws requiring some form of drill to prepare students from shooting incidents while at school.
And for the adults who were with me in Loveland, Ohio, their goal was to take that active shooter preparation training back to their respective communities—as certified instructors.
“My biggest fear,” said Hunter, “what if this happens tomorrow?”
School shootings in the United States have become a sad cliché with the only solace usually offered from politicians being thoughts and prayers—yet it happens again, and again, and again.
In 2018, there was an average of one school shooting per week—and overall, at least 288 school shootings in the U.S. since January 1, 2009. The United States has had 57 times as many school shootings as all the other major industrialized nations combined. (Mexico is second with eight.)
Just crunch the numbers and do the math on how NRA policies and U.S. gun laws have brought us to this grim, depressing place.
That’s why I was there, in a classroom at Loveland Intermediate School with roughly 50 people who paid $595 to attend a two-day ALICE (Alert Lockdown Inform Counter Evacuate) Training, during which we partook in a series of active shooter role-playing scenarios that utilized proactive response strategies in the face of violence, including rushing a shooter in certain circumstances. As we were taught: lockdown and hiding are no longer enough. The goal was to empower school members to participate in their own survival.
Yes, grossly underpaid teachers in America now have to prepare themselves—literally—for combat.
Loveland is a nice all-American community, deep in the Red State of Ohio, with groomed lawns, an array of tranquil churches and a plethora of Jesus channels on the car radio.
Outside of Loveland Intermediate School—where several police cars were parked in front—happy children frolicked on the school playground. Meanwhile inside:
“It doesn’t take a lot of time to kill a lot of people,” said Hunter while standing under an American flag, a prop gun in his belt that he occasionally pulled out for demonstration purposes. I settled in at a table with a member of the SWAT team and two school resource officers (SROs) surrounded by a handful of women and large men who looked like a 1950s perception of woodshop teachers.
It was time to strap in for a long tense day.
“We’re prepared for natural disasters, why not prepare for man-made disasters?” Hunter continued, while throwing out some terrifying stats.
In an average school shootings, one shot is fired every one to five seconds with a 50 to 70 percent hit rate; 98 percent of the time, it’s carried out by a single attacker. Even if someone immediately calls 911, there’s no way for the police to get to the school fast enough.
“This afternoon, we’re going to put the attackers on the defense,” Hunter stated. “If someone wants to come through that door to do me harm, in my house of worship, in my home, in my place of work… I’m going to give it all I got.”
The group, who sat under Buckeyes football banners, looked at each other in agreement.
“Like Mike Tyson says, everyone has a good plan until they get punched in the mouth,” Hunter stated. “There has to be a better plan. You have to be in charge of this in order to stop it.”
Everyone then put on safety goggles as it was time to test these theories in action.
“We’re not going to talk about the experience, we’re going to do it in the hall,” explained Hunter. “We’re going to go full ALICE—you’re allowed to do whatever you want,” he said—whether it was wrapping a belt around the handle to prevent a door from being pushed open or diverting the shooter’s attention by throwing chairs and projectiles at the gunman (or gunwoman).
“If you’re going to be the shooter, I’m going to stay at arm’s length of you,” said Hunter, as he loaded a Nerf rifle and looked for a volunteer, adding if something went awry, he’d yell the safe word: “Safety.”
“I’ll volunteer to be a shooter,” said a burly man, a graduate from the FBI training academy.
Before the active shooter scenario commenced, our momentum was halted.
“Hey George, I think I saw some kids heading upstairs, they were heading to the bathroom or something,” informed one of the woodshop-teacher-looking attendees.
“There’re kids in the classes downstairs, so everyone stay upstairs,” Hunter instructed, pointing out, “Never have one of these drills unannounced.”
These drills sometimes traumatize not only students—but also teachers. Some schools have been sharply criticized for unannounced active shooter drills that sometimes leave participants with PTSD, after thinking the drill had actually been the real thing; unexpectedly, their school hallways fill with the sound of blanks being fired, teachers scream “active shooter!” and someone in a mask bursts into the classroom brandishing a weapon. Some schools even implement these drills for kindergartners.
Kind of a mind-fuck.
The flipside: Obviously school shootings happen in the U.S.—more than in any other industrial country—but statistically, since 1999, there’s roughly a 1 in 614,000,000 chance of a school student being killed by a gun on campus. Yet, a constant state of fear and anxiety perpetuates.
Some schools get really carried away.
“We did the full blood thing,” shared a man sitting across the table, describing his school’s active shooter drill as amateur theatrics with fake blood and students pretending to be victims. “The athletic department and the drama club love to come out and be involved because of all the blood,” he stated. This, though, resulted in the guy portraying the shooter spilling some real blood. “Someone got carried away and threw a chair at him.”
“People take this to an area they’ve never done before folks,” confirmed Hunter, regarding how overly enthusiastic some participants get during these role-playing situations, while stressing, “Notify the local police department that you’re doing drills.”
“Folks, we’re going to have some fun in these scenarios,” Hunter proclaimed in an attempt to get us excited, although I don’t think “fun” was necessarily the proper word choice, considering these scenarios were intended to simulate children being shot at.
Then, it got crazy…
“GOING LIVE! GOING LIVE! GOING!” Hunter yelled from the hallway, as we took refuge in different classrooms and a hand horn loudly signaled each time a shot was fired.
Moments later, grown adults were dashing through the hallways of Loveland Intermediate School—as fast as they could—trying to get out of harm’s way.
The faux gunman had just burst into our classroom. To affect his shooting accuracy, everyone had been given a handful of balls to throw at him. It became like dodgeball, as projectiles flew through the air toward the gunman to a cacophony of screams and hand horns.
Controlled chaos then erupted as everyone rushed past the shooter and into the hallway.
Once again, all smiles—afterwards.
“For our kids, we tell them to grab something; that’s not an issue,” a friendly woman, who’s on her local school board, told me as we walked down the hall. “They’re going to grab a desk.”
The woman, who had experienced a school lockdown after a shooting occurred near her campus, shared Hunter’s ethos: “We want to make sure we’re teaching our kids not just to hide but to take action.”
“We were actually in the middle of a school carnival,” she recalled. “We had to shut everything down and have the kids go inside, and they did it really well.”
“We know it does not take a gun to stop a gun,” Hunter debriefed, as we once again gathered together, pointing out how you could utilize items found in the classroom. Like something out of Home Alone, for example, a can of green beans from a food drive could be administered to the side of a shooter’s head, a spilled box of magic markers could be used to trip an armed assailant—same with a slippery puddle of hand sanitizer in front of the classroom door.
“How many things can a human being focus on at once?” Hunter noted, referencing the ball-tossing drill that prevented the shooter from getting shots off. “It was over in 20 seconds, and only three people got hit.”
“I got rushed. I wasn’t prepared for that,” the burly, FBI trained, man confirmed. “I was thrown off.”
Hunter pointed out that if a man with FBI training was thrown off, what would be the shooting accuracy of the average school shooter who, statistically, is the lowest tactically trained?
“I got shot in the Elvis,” proclaimed a participant to big laughs. (More active shooter humor.)
“All this is so simple,” Hunter summarized. “It’s not rocket science—it’s common sense.”
Sure these drills might reduce the number of casualties, but obviously there’s a high-caliber pink elephant in the room: the easy accessibility to firearms in America. A lot of these horrific incidents wouldn’t happen if there were gun laws in place that would prevent children and people with a history of mental illness from easily obtaining firearms. No one is implementing the approach that New Zealand took—by outlawing all assault weapons. And that was after a singular horrific mass shooting incident.
After each new Sandy Hook or Parkland occurs, little or nothing changes, except suggestions that the “good guy with the gun takes out the bad guy with the gun.” And, as I’ve previously pointed out, when does the good guy with the gun suddenly become the bad guy?
“Kent was our SRO who responded to the shooting,” said Lisa, a school superintendent from Middletown, Ohio, pointing to a no-nonsense man with a badge on his belt who stood across from me.
Lisa was referring to a 14-year old student who, on Feb 29, 2016, opened fire in their school cafeteria with a gun he stole from his great-grandmother. Four students were wounded.
Lisa’s school district responded in two ways. They added a second SRO officer. And, at the start of this school year: “We have armed teachers as well.” Her reasoning? “[It’s] less likely someone is going to come into the building if they’re not sure who has a gun.”
Nationwide, at least 466 districts now allow school staff to be armed, which also escalates the likelihood of gun violence; stats show if you introduce a gun to a situation, it increases the likelihood by five times that someone will accidentally be killed.
Meanwhile, in Lisa’s school district, the non-profit group, Faster Saves Lives, provides free gun training for all of her teachers.
“It’s actual on the range and simulated training with real guns,” she said. “They do 26 hours of shooting—civilian-based.”
It isn’t mandatory that the teachers in Lisa’s school carry a concealed gun.
“No, just for those who choose that they want to carry guns,” she explained and then laughed when I asked what percentage of the teachers carry concealed firearms. “I can’t tell you that, but we do have those who carry.”
Hunter had a different mindset.
“We do not support arming teachers,” he said at the conclusion of our final active shooter drill, during which a volunteer had just acted as a teacher with a gun to defend his classroom. “We know it does not take a gun to stop a gun,” he once again stated.
“The teacher is always shot first,” Hunter added, pointing to statistics—not to mention, the results of our drills. “That dispels the myth of the armed teacher.”
The volunteer who portrayed the teacher backed up Hunter’s point.
“I said, ‘I’m going to shoot the shooter and no one else,'” he recalled. “And, I probably shot five people behind him.”
And this is where we’re at in America, as we now live in a dystopian present in a nation of fear and failed gun laws, where children throw cans of green beans at the heads of active shooters in an attempt to reduce casualties—and garner a high school education.
Harmon Leon is a journalist and the author of eight books. Pre-order his latest book, Tribespotting: Undercover Cult(ure) Stories, now.