Meridian Star

May 23, 2013

For the sake of the children

Officers hold live shooter drill

By Brian Livingston / blivingston@themeridianstar.com
The Meridian Star

MERIDIAN —     For the vast majority of children quietly walking from West Lauderdale Elementary School Wednesday morning, they knew they were taking part in a drill.

    But for a very few of the students, as they walked past SWAT team members holding locked-down assault weapons and handguns, it was evident they weren't quite sure what to think. The expressions on those few small faces afforded a snapshot into what the mood would be like if there were actually someone inside the school bent on the kind of slaughter suffered at Sandy Hook Elementary School.

    "I've already seen one massacre and I'd rather not go through that again," said Lauderdale County Sheriff Billy Sollie, who was an observer during the live shooter drill conducted at the school. "Especially if it involved children. As difficult as Lockheed was, this would be a hundred times worse."

    Sollie was referencing the Lockheed Martin shooting of July 8, 2003. The gunman, 48-year-old Douglas Williams, an assembly line worker at the plant, shot 14 of his co-workers with a shotgun, killing six of them, before committing suicide.

    The drill Wednesday was to train officers in how to deal with one or more people who showed up at the school with the intent of killing as many people as possible.

    On December 14, 2012, Adam Lanza, 20, fatally shot 20 children and six adult staff members in a mass murder at Sandy Hook Elementary School in the village of Sandy Hook in Newtown, Connecticut. Before driving to the school, Lanza had shot and killed his mother Nancy at their Newtown home. As first responders arrived, he committed suicide by shooting himself in the head.

    "We can't take for granted someone will commit suicide when we arrive," LCSD Chief Dep. Ward Calhoun said. "We have to assume there is someone inside who is shooting and looking for more victims. This drill is to address that scenario and to help us see where we need to improve as a law enforcement agency in stopping something like that."

    There were a number of interested parties watching, including observers from neighboring counties and within the Lauderdale County School District. Cheryl Thomas, principle at Clarkdale High School, was on hand to watch and learn.

    "This is our biggest fear as school administrators," Thomas said in reference to an armed person coming onto campus. "I wanted to see how this plan works and how we can better prepare."

    The drill was a joint exercise between law enforcement and officials with the Lauderdale County School District. One of the first lessons learned by Sollie and his department during the Lockheed shooting is that one agency cannot properly handle the massive issues that arise from this type of incident. Sollie said that is why so many agencies, from the Mississippi Department of Transportation to the Meridian Police Department were part of the exercise.

    Several meetings were held leading up to Wednesday's exercise. Randy Hodges, superintendent with the county school district, said plans on paper look good but until you put them into action with all the players taking part, you never really know if you are doing everything possible to first prevent and then to react to this sort of event.

    "So many different agencies, many of them represented here today, would be responding to this sort of incident," Hodges said. "We have to be on the same page in terms of communications and procedures so we can minimize the damage and confusion as best as we can."

    At 9 a.m., Central Dispatch in Meridian put out the call of a live shooter at the school while at the same time stressing this was a drill. That call set into motion scores of law enforcement officers from various agencies as well as emergency responders and medical teams. Even buses from the county school district were headed in the direction of the school to evacuate the students as soon as the all clear was given.

    Sollie said it would be later Wednesday when everything was over at the school that officials would sit down and dissect the morning drill. Paramount would be trying to figure out what went right and what went wrong.

    "We will be hard on ourselves in evaluating the drill," Calhoun said. "We need to get this right. We will see where we need work and try to improve on those details."

    More drills are likely. Sollie said he'd like to see one conducted at each campus in the coming years. Hodges said he would give his full support for more drills. Hodges also said parents at all county schools should expect these drills in the future.

    "We have drills for tornadoes and other emergencies that can occur at our schools at any time," Hodges said. "This is just as important. The children understand that this was a drill today and I also believe they understand why we have to do this."