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Training for tragedy in a Manchester school

New Hampshire Union Leader

February 18. 2013 9:37PM
An officer with the Manchester Police Department secures a hallway during a mock school shooting drill at Parkside Middle School Monday. (TED SIEFER/UNION LEADER)

MANCHESTER - Alarms echoed through the school, students lay in the hallways crying for help, and police in helmets and flak jackets crouched behind banks of lockers, their weapons aimed.

This was only a drill, but it was still a disturbing scene at Parkside Middle School on Monday, as police officers, firefighters and school personnel responded to a mock mass-shooting based in part on the recent massacre in Newtown, Conn.

"Could this happen in Manchester? It can. We're hoping it doesn't happen, but we have to be prepared," said Police Chief David Mara at the scene of the exercise. "We just want to make sure our plans are updated and that we're on the same page as school staff."

The drill ­- intentionally scheduled for Presidents' Day, when school was not in session - was the police department's first in a school setting in a nearly a decade, and it was the first to also involve the fire department and paramedics.

The scenario, devised by the department's training director, involved a disgruntled former student. When the principal came to the door to meet him, the man shot him and then entered the school. The student was then joined by two student shooters in the school. Under one scenario, the shooters are killed and in another there is a negotiated surrender.

Along the way, several students were "killed" or injured. Some had "wounds" and were smeared with fake blood; others ran through the halls, calling for help. When they encountered members of the SWAT team, they were ordered get down and cluster near the officers.

No loaded weapons were used in the drill, and officers had their weapons checked by training facilitators when they entered the building.

Parkside Principal Forrest Ransdell - the first "victim" of the shooter - said the administration reached out to members of the honors society and student council for volunteers to participate in the drill.

"These are kids involved in the culture of the school, so we have a reasonable expectation that they'll handle it very responsibly - and they've done a tremendous job," he said.

As the mock shooting continued, police officers rushed to the scene, followed by the SWAT team.

Sgt. Mark Sanclemente, training director for the MPD, said the goal was to locate and target the shooter as quickly as possible. He said it reflected a shift away from past practice of surrounding and having forces in place before entering a facility.

Once police were confident the shooter was located and isolated, they would secure sections of the building, allowing firefighters to go in and retrieve victims.

"The time frame makes the difference whether someone lives or dies," Sanclemente said. "Once we felt comfortable we had the suspect isolated, we would begin the process of extrication, knowing that we have personnel that can provide the force protection element."

During the drill, firefighters would drag students out on special stretchers that could be used by one person, and they would be transported in an armored vehicle to the adjacent Gossler Park Elementary School, where the gym was converted into a makeshift triage station. Fire department trucks and ambulances clustered in the parking lot of the school, to coordinate the response and transport victims to the hospital.

Following district policy, all outside doors at Parkside are locked from outside and visitors can only enter the front entrance via a buzzer and intercom. Classroom doors also have locks, and during the drill, following security protocol for lockdowns, teachers were directed to lock their students into the rooms.

Parkside also has an on-site police school resource officer. In Monday's drill, the officer was wounded by the shooter.

Throughout the drill at Parkside, hallway sirens rung and flashed, and the intercom repeated the message: "Attention, an emergency situation been detected in this building. Proceed to the nearest exit and leave the building, do not reenter the building until directed to by the proper authorities."

Mara said the members of the police and fire departments, along with school officials, will meet to discuss the drill, and conclusions from the exercise will be used to guide future training.

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