A life-and-death exercise

Drill: Atholton High School stages a mock hostage crisis to test readiness in the event of real-life drama

June 01, 2000|By Tanika White | Tanika White,SUN STAFF

The shootings, hostages and hysterical parents weren't real, but the gravity of the situation was.

Yesterday's "crisis" - a staged shooting at Atholton High School, complete with a hostages, reporters, police and emergency vehicles - was a collaborative effort among the school district, Howard County General Hospital and police, fire and rescue workers, designed to test each agency's readiness for a real crisis.

There were some flaws.

A reporter from The Sun who was participating in the drill and a handful of parents were able to get into the building after the shooting by climbing through a back window.

Real reporters were closer to the crime scene than the school system would have liked.

Though teachers were told not to leave their classrooms unless Principal Connie Lewis or police ordered them to, after a fire alarm was pulled, some teachers evacuated the building. And communication wasn't the greatest, school spokeswoman Patti Caplan said.

"When I first got here, I had difficulty locating my counterparts from the other agencies," Caplan said. "And I had a hard time getting access to the school."

Such missteps were welcomed, though, Lewis said, because it showed what would have to be done better in a real crisis.

"I think that we have some areas that we need to work on, but I'm glad that we found out about that in a drill and not in a real situation," she said.

"We made some mistakes and we have some retraining to do ... especially in terms of securing the school and securing the property," said school district security director Steve Drummond. "And those things are very hard to accomplish, so we just have to work harder on those things in the future."

The drill was realistic, participants said.

"I thought it was really cool," said Rod Hamilton, a junior who "escaped" from the hostage-taker, was mistaken for a potential suspect, handcuffed and shoved in a squad car. "It was like the movies."

The drill started shortly after 8 a.m., when the first call came in over the police scanner:

"Reports of shots at Atholton High School, possibly two wounded."

By 8:30, the school campus was crawling with reporters, police and emergency vehicles.

Parents pretended to be angry and disobedient.

Tactical-situations officers had gathered, en masse and menacing.

At 8:45, Atholton juniors Adam Arnold and Steve Milner were carried out to ambulances, one with a fake gunshot wound to the chest, the other with one to the stomach.

In the scenario of the drill, a freshman, angry with his home life, had shot his parents and was holding a dozen or more hostages in the school's band room, threatening to open fire again.

The crisis was over by a little past 10 a.m., with the "suspect" shot and killed by police, four to six students "wounded," and all the evacuated students back in school in time for lunch.

It's a scene that's not supposed to happen in harmonious Howard County. And school district spokeswoman Patti Caplan said she hopes it never will.

"We all feel the way that Columbine High School probably felt, that it really couldn't happen here," Caplan said. "But we know from school districts across the country that it does happen. So sadly, we have to prepare. "

In a real crisis, said police deputy chief for operations Jeff Spaulding, more than 100 officers - instead of 40 - would have been sent to the scene, the triage and command units wouldn't be so close to the school, and parents and reporters would never have gained access to the building.

The drill will be assessed by an evaluation team from the University of Maryland, Baltimore County Department of Emergency Health Services.

The collaborating agencies plan to prepare a report, and the drill was videotaped to show to other Howard County administrators.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.