After Newtown, school police try to train for the unimaginable

Charles Cowden, left, of Oklahoma City plays the part of a bystander during the “Active Shooter Response” class while  officers Mark Carney, center, of Maine and Robert Blackmon, right, of Maryland enter a classroom to look for a gunman.
Charles Cowden, left, of Oklahoma City plays the part of a bystander during the “Active Shooter Response” class while officers Mark Carney, center, of Maine and Robert Blackmon, right, of Maryland enter a classroom to look for a gunman.
Published July 22, 2013


The class promised training for a seemingly untrainable moment. • Six school resource officers filed into a hotel meeting room last week for a 24-hour crash course in handling a crisis like the Sandy Hook school shootings in Connecticut. They would learn about the mind-set of a school shooter, how precisely to enter a classroom under siege, even what to tell the media when it was all over. • The "Active Shooter Response" course was part of the National Association of School Resource Officers' annual school safety conference. But unlike the rest of the conference fare, the shooter response course would go on location to an actual school. It would get physical.

It began with PowerPoints, but ended with guns in a middle school, with men slumped over desks screaming "Help me! Help me!" Then they'd smile and stick out their tongues, because they were only pretending to be children in the cross hairs.

• • •

More than 800 officers attended the weeklong conference last week at the Rosen Shingle Creek Hotel, the largest turnout since before the recession. One in 10 came from Florida, including officers from Tampa, Largo and Tarpon Springs.

"Obviously what happened in Newtown changed everything," said Kevin Quinn, president of NASRO. The group has held at least 90 training courses for more than 1,200 school resource officers since January.

Chris Wallace, an Ohio police officer and SWAT team sniper and trainer, was brought in to teach the Active Shooter Response course. It has become his specialty, and this year so far he has trained nearly 100 people. There are an additional 1,400 waiting.

How does that compare to last year? He laughed. "That wasn't even being thought of last year."

• • •

The six officers came from all over the country, soon calling each other "Louisiana" and "Oklahoma.'' During breaks, the banter was casual — the weather, football, how difficult it can be to guess a woman's age. In class, the focus was intense.

"When you look for a criminal on the street, what do they do?" Wallace asked.

"Try to get away," said Larry Langston, an officer from North Carolina.

Not so for school shooters, Wallace said: "These people are different because their only intention is to kill, not to leave the scene."

He ran through a history of school massacres, statistically profiled the public-space shooter, and classified massacres based on the number of attackers and amount of planning.

He took them out in the hallway and demonstrated techniques for approaching a room where a shooter could be hiding.

"Space is your friend," he said, angling around the entrance from a few yards away. He lined up his shot so that his assistant never saw it coming.

• • •

"Bam! Bam! Bam!"

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Darren Campbell, a school resource officer from Topeka, Kan., yelled out, pretending to open fire in a sixth-grade classroom at Freedom Middle School in Orlando.

Robert Blackmon, a school resource officer from Gaithersburg, Md., played the part of a child. He clutched his chest, hit, as he tried to get away, tripping over chairs.

Outside the classroom and down the hall, Charles Cowden from Oklahoma heard the "blasts.'' He ran down the hall, hugging the opposite wall, then bent down into a crabwalk as he approached the door to the classroom. He raised his gun and pointed at Campbell.

"Bang bang bang bang bang!" yelled Cowden.

"Easy, tiger,'' Wallace said. "You got him."

The men ran drills for hours, carrying real guns that they only pretended to fire.

They shouted "help" and "bang" and "bam," alternately portraying victims and shooters.

They adjusted footwork. They calculated shot angles. They listened for clues and took the shooter down.

But in the surreal peril of a school shooting, would they remember any of this?

• • •

While the six men trained, the larger conference went on.

They missed a presentation from the school resource officers who responded at Sandy Hook Elementary. They did not hear Lenny Penna describe the fog and odor of gunpowder as he entered the school. He didn't hear any shots. He didn't know which way to go. He saw two lifeless bodies and more blood than he thought possible. It was so real, he said, it didn't seem real.

He opened a door. A first-grader, the same age as his youngest daughter, was covered in blood. "I'm scared, and I want to go home," she told him. All her classmates were dead.

He got her out of the building, then an injured teacher. He went to the firehouse. He helped parents reunite with their kids. He helped parents who never would.

There was another thing he remembers: how his training kicked in when he needed it. He remembers how he and the other officers fell into formation. How they didn't have to say a single word.

Contact Lisa Gartner at You can also follow her on Twitter (@lisagartner).