October 9, 2019 10:22:49 AM
STARKVILLE -- The Starkville High School faculty of almost 130 participated in an active shooter drill Tuesday after school that involved security officers shooting blanks from firearms in hallways while teachers practiced training protocols in classrooms.
Faculty at Henderson Ward Stewart and Sudduth elementary schools went through the same drill earlier this school year.
"Civilians sometimes attribute gunfire to fireworks, so we want to give them a chance to experience the actual sound and smell in the air from (gunfire), just to make them very aware," said SOCSD security chief Sammy Shumaker, a retired police officer and the drill's coordinator.
The prevalence of mass shootings nationwide, in schools and elsewhere, means people have to be alert at all times, SHS Principal Sean McDonnell said. He mentioned the Armed Defense Training Association's levels of awareness, ranging from white for unaware and black for in the midst of a fight.
"The days of living at white are over," he said. "We need to be aware of our surroundings, be aware of what's happening, especially in a school situation. Safety in this environment is first and foremost on our minds."
Mississippi school districts are required to conduct an active shooter drill within the first 60 days of each new semester thanks to a law the state Legislature passed in March, the Mississippi School Safety Act of 2019. The drills at the Starkville-Oktibbeha Consolidated School District do not involve students in fourth grade or below, and fifth through 12th graders go through drills similar to lockdown drills with no gunfire simulations, according to an email Superintendent Eddie Peasant sent parents at the beginning of the school year.
The law does not specify the nature of the required drills -- such as whether firearms have to be deployed as part of the training -- presumably leaving that up to the school districts.
SOCSD Board of Trustees President John S. Brown agreed with McDonnell that active shooter drills are necessary in a time of regular gun violence.
"The more realistic you can do the training, the better off you are," Brown said. "It's going to have a stronger bearing on the minds of the people who participate in those drills if they see something that's realistic but still safe."
Shumaker, when asked, did not explain the specific protocols the teachers were taught during the training.
"In general, we will stage different scenarios and they will get a chance to respond based on what they learned," he said. "We will do different ones in different parts of the building so everyone will get a chance to respond appropriately."
SOCSD did not make any teachers at SHS, Sudduth or Henderson Ward Stewart available for an interview with The Dispatch.
Legally mandated simulations
Missouri, Arkansas and Illinois all passed laws requiring schools to conduct active shooter drills in 2013, in light of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Connecticut. New Jersey, Oklahoma and Tennessee later did the same.
Mississippi joined the group this year after Gov. Phil Bryant asked the Legislature "to pass a comprehensive plan to keep our school children safe" in his State of the State address in January.
The law also requires mental health training or professional development for school district employees every two years, training and certification of threat assessment officers through the state Office of Homeland Security and for those officers to conduct yearly threat assessments for every school in the state.
The bill passed both chambers of the Legislature almost unanimously, and all five legislators representing Oktibbeha County voted for it.
Dist. 38 State Rep. Cheikh Taylor (D-Starkville), though, still has issues with the law.
Active shooter drills are "reactionary" and "an unfortunate set of circumstances hiding a bigger problem," he said, which is the availability of assault weapons.
"We have twisted and kind of perverted the Second Amendment," he said. "We have been able to commercialize a new weapon of choice that kills as many people as possible within seconds."
Shumaker said the simulation did not involve fake blood or injuries, which other schools and districts across the country sometimes use in their drills. National news outlets including NBC and The New York Times have reported that active shooter drills of all kinds can be traumatic for students, especially since they are far more common than actual school shootings.
They can also leave teachers feeling "more traumatized than trained," and school security consultants and psychologists say intense drills like the one at SHS aren't necessary, school-centric news website Education Week reported in March.
But putting teachers through a stressful situation during the drill is necessary so they will know how to process and react to it in a real-life scenario, said Dist. 43 Rep. Rob Roberson (R-Starkville), who is also the attorney for the Oktibbeha County Board of Supervisors.
"If someone's going to panic or freeze up, I'd rather they do it during a training exercise than during a real situation, which may get themselves or someone else killed," Roberson said.
A teacher with a mental or physical impediment to the simulation, such as a phobia, can opt out by providing medical documentation as proof, Tupelo-based attorney Jim Waide said. This must be done before the drill or else the school cannot be held liable for any medical consequences, should the teacher choose to participate to the extent of his or her ability, he said.
"As long as (school administrators) reasonably perceive it as necessary for the safety of the children, they might be going way overboard and all that, but I don't think any court would question their authority to do it," Waide said.
Some SHS teachers were anxious in the few weeks before the drill, but that was to be expected, McDonnell said. He compared the active shooter drill to a tornado drill because both are precautionary measures in case of tragedy.
Assistant principal Ginger Tedder said one of the teachers found the best way to phrase the situation despite being upset about it.
"We're doing it for the kids," she said. "It's tough being an adult, but this is a skill set you have to learn for the safety and betterment of our kids."
Training goals and benefits
Active shooter drills lead teachers to have "a lot of great conversations" assessing their resources and how their classrooms are set up to make students safer, Tedder said.
SHS introduced a requirement this year for teachers to stand outside their classroom and in the hallways during passing periods between classes, partly to incentivize students to behave and partly to build relationships with students, McDonnell said. Those relationships could prompt students to tell teachers if another student shows inclinations to act dangerously, he said.
"We can come up with every electronic door that only lets people with ID badges in, we can tell teachers to lock their doors, but I think the first and foremost line of defense is to develop relationships with the students so we know when something's off or when something's not going right," McDonnell said.
Taylor thinks differently. While he hopes active shooter training saves lives, restricting access to assault rifles should be "at the forefront of the equation," he said.
Shumaker said he hopes the drills prepare faculty for situations in any setting, not just in school.
"This training you're getting just happens to be in school, but you take the knowledge that you gain with you so (you can use it) if you're at church, at the mall, at a restaurant, at a park -- this can happen anywhere at any time," Shumaker said.
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