Teachers locked and barricaded classroom doors, while others fled through side exits into the snow as police officers stormed the hallways, fanning out in precision teams sweeping deliberately through the school.
This was just a drill, but the tension at Kennebunk Elementary School Wednesday afternoon was palpable. School staff and Kennebunk Police and Fire Rescue personnel, along with training officers from the Portland Police Department practiced active shooter drills designed to prepare for what has become an all too real possibility in this country’s schools.
KES Principal Ryan Quinn and Kennebunk Police Lt. Eric O’Brien had already scheduled the training, which became even more timely following the school shooting on Feb. 14 in Parkland, Florida.
KES students went home at noon Wednesday, but 15 high school students volunteered to act as elementary school students for the exercise.
The law enforcement teams used the cafeteria and some classrooms to train during the morning, practicing searching and clearing rooms, carrying victims, stuffing bullet wounds, and more. They brought in a big set of doors and practiced smashing through them.
Sgt. Dan Hayden of the Portland Police Department led the training and the drills.
He praised the KES staff for being fully invested in the training and taking it seriously.
“We don’t want to think about this coming to our communities,” Hayden said. “But you have to be prepared for anything.”
Hayden and his team have done a number of active shooter trainings at schools and businesses throughout southern Maine. He said having a plan and practicing it regularly is key. He also said schools need to rethink the drills that they’ve been doing for years, such as fire drills.
The Parkland, Florida shooter pulled the fire alarm, and it was the second one the school heard that day, Hayden said. So students did what they were trained to do and went out into the hallways, creating a lineup of easy targets.
“It’s been 51 years since a kid was killed in a fire in a school. It’s been two weeks since a kid was killed by a shooter in a school,” Hayden said.
“So maybe you hear a lock down announcement, and then you hear a fire alarm. Do you take your kids out into the hallway? No, stay where you are. Or maybe you hear the fire alarm, and you wait for an announcement. We need to rethink these types of things now,” he said.
Following the drills, staff members debriefed with Hayden and Portland Police Department Sgt. Aaron Pepin, who acted as the shooter for Wednesday’s exercise.
As unnerving as the drills were, teachers said they felt better prepared and had more information and ideas on how to keep their students safe.
One of the teachers asked if it was still worthwhile to barricade the doors, since they all open out. Another teacher said during the drill she piled two tables on top of each other so that the top one would fall on someone if they opened the door. Pepin said “anything that buys you time is worthwhile.”
Another staff member said when the first lockdown drill was called she took a moment to look out into the hallway before locking the door.
“I did a quick sweep of the hallway visually to look for any kids who might be out there before I closed the door, should I do that?”
Hayden said teachers should use their best judgement in the situation.
“Sometimes there’s no good answer. This situation sucks. It just does. If you hear the announcement, and you don’t hear anything outside your door, you might have time to pull some kids in and you can do that,” Hayden said. “But if you’re hearing pop, pop, pop, you’ve already got 30 kids in the room and the door is locked and secured, you’ve made a decision.”
Another teacher asked if they had any pointers in how to keep 19 small children quiet in a room during a crisis. Both officers emphasized practice.
“Start talking to the kids about it, and start practicing so they know where to go in the room, and they know to be quiet. Look, We know it’s hard to keep 5-year-olds quiet for hours. Realistically you need 15 minutes. Start talking to them about how to exit the school safely,” he said.
Quinn said he was inspired to schedule the training after he participated in an ALICE training last summer. ALICE is an acronym for alert, lockdown, inform, cover or counter and evacuate.
He said in the training they showed a photo of a classroom full of students hiding under their desks, as they had been trained to do.
“Then we learned that it was a photo from the Virginia Tech shooting, and all of those students died. In the classroom next door the kids barricaded the door, and they survived. So those are things that we’re talking about that we had never talked about before,” Quinn said.
Evacuating the building is also a new concept, but it makes sense, Hayden said.
“If you can get out, get out, run and hide, it’s that simple,” he said.
During the third drill, a lockdown was called over the intercom with “a problem near the office.” Following the lockdown call, two classroom doors opened on the other end of the school and two groups of teachers and students fled out the side doors of the school.
“If you have the chance to get out of the building and hide, it makes sense and some of our teachers did that today. Two of the groups went out the end doors. We’ve been talking about that, we talked about thinking on your feet, creative thinking and working as a group,” Quinn said.
There are 10 drills a year at KES, eight of them are evacuation drills. Wednesday’s training provided a laundry list of changes, some very simple, that Quinn said they will begin implementing immediately.
“Ten things we just discussed in there we will do differently starting tomorrow,” Quinn said. “We’ll have doorstops for every classroom. I have doorstops in the storage room. Something that simple acts as a deterrent. It’s such a simple thing that can make a difference, because a shooter is looking for easy access.”
Quinn said they will continue debriefing as a staff and fine tuning their plan.
“We are always going to be continuing to train to keep our staff and our students safe, we’re doing everything we can. We’re doing the best we can do.”
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