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Preparing for the worst

by Sheila Gardner
sgardner@recordcourier.com

For five days last week, the sound of gunfire boomed off the walls at Carson Valley Middle School, punctuated with teenagers’ frightened screams and barked orders from law enforcement officers.

The occasion was the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office active gunman tactical training, teaching personnel how to respond to a school shooting.

“I think the community needs to know this is a serious problem,” said Sheriff Ron Pierini. “We’ve been very fortunate that we haven’t had that in Douglas County. We want to make sure that there would not be any delays in our response and that our officers would function correctly.”

The school, still empty for summer vacation, provided the perfect backdrop for the mandatory training and mock drills.

Deputies used their duty AR-15 rifles and blank ammunition.

The designated “shooters” were armed with AK-47s and handguns with blank ammunition

Investigations Sgt. Dan Coverley was supervising on Thursday.

“All members of the department, from the sheriff to the newest deputy in the jail, are required to take the day-long class which includes classroom and training,” Coverley said.

It takes all week to put nearly 100 sworn personnel through the exercises.

Instructors were members of the Special Weapons and Tactics team. They included Coverley, Investigator Brian Hubkey and deputies Dave Stanley, and Rick Koontz Jr. under the supervision of Capt. Dan Britton.

“It started with Columbine in 1999,” Coverley said. “This program has been developed by the National Tactical Officers Association to come up with different tactics and training. Hopefully, we can get better.

“When these situations first started happening, the policy was to wait until there were four or five officers at the scene before going in. We’ve now learned that usually it’s all over within the first minute and a half. There may be only one or two guys and as soon as they get there, they go in.”

In March 2008, the training was put into practice at Zephyr Cove Elementary School when an aide reported seeing a man carrying what looked like a rifle outside the school.

“It turned out to be a false alarm, but we treated it as an active scenario,” Coverley said. “We’ve never had an active shooter in Douglas County, but we have had school lockdowns.”

Coverley said shooters have become more sophisticated.

“The biggest thing I learned – and I’ve been on the SWAT team for 11 years – is that the crooks, the people who do this, evolve,” Coverley said.

“They (shooters) learn by looking at how we respond. We try to stay a step ahead of them. We have to be very, very aggressive which is not a normal law enforcement response.”

Pierini echoed that policy.

“Our officers have to take charge without any hesitation. It has to be in these officers’ minds that in a deadly situation, they will take deadly force. If you’re killing young people, we’re not playing around with you,” Pierini said.

Coverley cited a couple of recent national shootings where only one or two officers were the first responders, but they prevented more bloodshed.

“Depending on the staffing, it may be just you. But you’ve got to go do it,” he said. “What we’re doing is limiting the number of victims. The outcome is not good, but it could be worse if you waited.”

Pierini said the training serves as a reminder to the community to be alert to signs that someone may be capable of such behavior.

“I say this a million times,” he said. “If people hear things or suspect things that lead a logical person to believe someone they know could take this kind of action, to please call us.

“We don’t want to be that community when after it’s over, somebody says they suspected something beforehand. We want to be notified and defuse it and stop it before it happens. This is a reminder to the public to please report,” Pierini said.

What hits home for the deputies, Coverley said, is that most of them live in Douglas County.

“All of us, at one time or another, will have a child in school or a spouse at a local business,” he said.

He praised the two dozen teenage volunteers who were recruited from the sheriff’s office Explorers and the Partnership of Douglas County Students Taking On Prevention.

“It adds a lot of realism having the kids on scene,” Coverley said.

Sixteen-year-old Taylor Gray was cast as a gun-toting bad girl.

She tucked the handgun in the waistband of her pants and slipped past the officer who suspected the classroom teacher of being the shooter.

“They went for the teacher and I covered the gun with my jacket,” she said. “When the officer approached me, I said, ‘bang!'”

There were lighter moments as some student actors giggled on the floor while trying to appear wounded or dead.

Nicole Bennett, 15, spent an hour under a desk waiting to be rescued.

“People kept saying , ‘Stay there, we’ll come back for you.’ But they never did. Finally, I couldn’t hear any more shooting and I just walked out of the classroom,” she said.

Students reacted differently to the loud noises.

“We had an adrenaline rush, even though it was a fake ammunition, it was realistic. My ears hurt,” said Vincent Anderson, 16.

Bennett was nonplused.

“I’m around guns a lot. I’m from a family of hunters,” she said.

By the end of the day, the adrenaline was still pounding for Michael Howell, 13.

“It was very exhilarating,” he said. “You don’t hear guns every day or get held hostage.”

Taylor said she felt a measure of comfort that the sheriff’s office was putting on the training.

“Knowing that they’re being trained and that now they’re actually doing something about this makes me feel safer,” she said.

The soon-to-be high school junior said she wasn’t so naive to believe that Douglas County was immune to such violence.

“I bet the Columbine kids never thought it could happen to them, and it did,” she said.