Officers from across Grand County train during mock shooting at Middle Park High School
August 30, 2009
A room in Middle Park High School was fogged with fake gun smoke and a looming “what if?”
What if these imitation guns were real? What if students really were injured at the hands of persons gone mad?
What if Granby were reliving the horrific scene from Columbine High School, April 20, 1999?
Twenty Middle Park students sacrificed Friday’s no-school day to assist in the mock run.
Responder agencies from Winter Park to Kremmling practiced their roles, and school administrators took part to better understand for themselves.
“To the average person, like us, it’s an alarming thing. It’s not something you see everyday,” said Middle Park High Principal Jane Harmon. “It’s a sick feeling for us. We’re thinking, ‘If that did ever happen for real, what would be going on? What would be going through our heads?'”
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“Even though it was staged, it actually felt pretty legit, like it was actually going down,” said Kaylee Findley, 17.
In a fabricated scene that started out the day’s drills, Bill Edelstein of Granby’s bad-guy character took 20 students hostage in room 410 with a rifle, aided by “armed” cohort Dustin Peterson of Granby. Edelstein’s made-up motive was to negotiate a way to force his ex-wife to speak to him. During the scene, simulated gunshots were fired, two students feigned death and five pretended to be injured.
Dillon Berger, 15, played the role of a student who was killed.
“It really does teach kids what to do and how serious it is and how scary it is, even when it is fake,” he said. “And it helps law enforcement because it was so planned out.”
The day-long training was principally arranged by Bill Housley of the Granby Police Department. Grand County sheriff’s deputies, Kremmling, Granby and Fraser-Winter Park Police, Grand County medical technicians, the Office of Emergency Management, dispatchers, fire district chiefs, Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado Division of Wildlife and Grand County Road and Bridge Department personnel all took part.
Actions were monitored by evaluators from Jefferson and Summit counties. Their feedback, Housley said, will be used “to overcome any deficiencies.”
Grand County’s special weapons and tactics (SWAT) team, created last year, is called the Middle Park Emergency Response Team. Made up of Winter Park, Granby and Kremmling police officers, they descended on the school, and in all scenarios, attempted to take out the criminals. Evidenced by red marks on Edelstein’s side and thumb after the first hostage scenario, the team would have succeeded in “debilitating” him, according to Edelstein, a former officer in the Chicago area.
Throughout the scenario, Edelstein said he made demands and sometimes hung up on negotiations conducted by Detective Amy Zacek Smith of Fraser-Winter Park Police.
Students had been instructed to pull down blinds in the classroom and sit quietly in the dark. Unbeknownst to police, the “bad guys” were tuned into a radio frequency that allowed them to scan police actions.
“It’s like your mind starts playing tricks on you, and after a little bit, you are like, oh my gosh, something could happen to me and to my friends. They could be killed. And then you realize again that it’s fake,” said Kailiegh Nicklas, 16.
During the scenario, the Office of Emergency Management and Public Information Officer Noelle Curran provided updates to the public, as if it were a real emergency situation. The East Grand Middle School was designated as a place where parents could gather and await students’ arrival once they were evacuated.
In the pretend plot, about 400 high school students were trapped in the school.
Ambulances waited outside. EMTs attended to students’ fake injuries once police evacuated them to safety.
“We would much rather be prepared for an incident we never have to respond to than to have to respond to an incident we never prepared for,” said Housley.
“One of the situations that all of us look upon as one of the worst things that could happen would be an incident in our schools. That’s why we felt it was important to train for an incident that could happen at any school.”
“Everyone in this room has a huge sense of responsibility as we’re going through the drills,” said East Grand School District Superintendent Nancy Karas, motioning to the commons area full of agency officials, officers and administrators during lunch break. Karas added that the district invites additional training with teachers, the various agencies, and possibly all students.
After lunch, the next of three scenarios took place. Several students were trapped in a different classroom with the criminals. In the hallway, students lay in the walkway, presumably victims of a shooting rampage. Simulated gun shots followed by screams led the SWATT team to the room, where rounds of fake bullets were directed at the “bad guys.”
Students wore protective vests, helmets and thick clothing in case fake soap-filled bullets happened to hit them.
According to Edelstein, all officers involved in the scenario turned in their real guns back at police stations. They were rechecked prior to the training.
“Even though it’s scary, there’s something comfortable about it, knowing they have practiced,” Karas said. “Even though it’s uncomfortable to be here today.”
“It makes me feel safer,” Nicklas said. “If they’ve (police responders) done it once, then they could do it again. And when it’s real, they’re going to be serious, and their adrenaline is going to be pumping. So I feel safe.”
– Tonya Bina can be reached at 970-887-3334 ext. 19603 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.