By SUSAN TEBBEN
Two Boardman High School students lay helpless, one in a first-floor hallway bleeding from her arm, one on the stairs missing half of his leg.
Both are screaming in agony as police and SWAT teams run by, looking for an undetermined number of shooters who entered the school through an inadvertently unlocked door.
Principal Tim Saxton is dead, shot by a female shooter who took his secretary hostage and hid in the office as police combed the school. The school security officer has been found dead as well.
Like many in the school, Shana Craig-Yardas’ class is piling desks in front of the door to keep a gunman out. Craig-Yardas is contemplating breaking windows of the first-floor classroom to escape. They can hear the screams of fellow students outside the door.
“For first-responders, the first priority is to find the shooter — not to tend to your missing leg,” Don Fisher, coordinator of this exercise, told students before the mock scenario began.
Fisher was asked to come up with the two-hour practice scenario by Boardman police to create a realistic situation for emergency responders. Fisher previously worked for Boardman police, then moved on to the Central Intelligence Agency, where he worked on security assessments for the government.
None of the responders was told the scenario beforehand so Fisher could get the most realistic reaction.
Law enforcement from Boardman, the Mahoning County Sheriff’s Office, Beaver Township police, the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Violent Crimes Task Force, local fire departments and emergency medical crews combed the high school, looking for shooters and wounded.
“I wanted to treat the office as the heart of the school, the brains of the operation, and see what happened when you took out the highest administration, and the first shooter took out the intercom system as well,” Fisher said.
The responders and school officials were tested on all aspects of their communication, including new digital radios.
Lt. Troy Duncan of the Chardon Police Department took notes in a small notebook and watched the SWAT team check rooms. “They have to have control, they can’t just run around checking things,” Duncan said to another officer.
Duncan had important insight, from his experience working the actual school shooting at Chardon High School in February 2012, when three were killed. Just a few years before the shooting, Chardon police had run a similar drill to test their skills.
“The initial officer that responded in the drill ended up being the initial officer that responded to the shooting,” Duncan said. “And he said when he walked in he realized he knew exactly what to do because of the drills we’d run. Because of that drill, we saved a lot of lives that might not have been saved.”
Hallways were checked multiple times, rooms were evacuated, shots (with fake guns) were fired and a wallet rigged with fake explosives was to be given to a high school administrator as a message from the shooter.
Outside the school, dispatchers were getting their practice as well; students and teachers were given phone numbers to treat as emergency lines to give dispatchers information. The lines were quickly flooded with calls from cellphones.
As the scenario wound down, Saxton, with streaks of blood still trailing across his head, watched the scene on his computer through cameras placed throughout the school. His biggest focus was student management and control of parents searching for their kids.
“It really opens your eyes to what goes into having 1,500 kids to watch,” Saxton said. “It’s a really good test of the command structure since I was gone and the security officer was dead.”
Had he not been shot, Saxton said, his office would have been a command center, coordinating the lockdown of the school and waiting for law enforcement.
The students were ready to learn from the experience, and hoped even the students who weren’t there for the drills would learn from it.
“I think it’s a good idea for us all to see this in case something happened,” said Lindsay Soltis, 17, who was asked by a softball coach to participate.
Sheriff Jerry Greene and Boardman Police Chief Jack Nichols said their personnel would pick up skills from running through the drills, especially from mistakes made.
“It’s not so much training as finding out what we do wrong,” Nichols said. “So we know if, God forbid, we have to use this skill set in real life.”