What would you do? Catholic schools train for armed intruders

The gunfire occurred suddenly, erupting without warning from the side of Classroom 306 at Bishop DuBourg High School in south St. Louis.

Bang. Bang.

Two quick shots.

Bang. Bang. ...

Then two more, maybe another -- who knows how many shots Mike Fumagalli got off as he bull-rushed to the front of the classroom? Hard to tell in the heat of the moment.

Not that there was time to determine that anyhow. The "students" in the classroom needed to react quickly against the "active shooter" ... in their school ... in that very classroom ... at that very moment.

Immediately, they threw projectiles at Fumagalli, and as if hit by a chair instead of squishy balls for this exercise, he went down between the teacher's desk and the wall.

"Get him! Get him! Get him!"

DuBourg math teacher Ryan Newcomer sprung into action, moving toward the "danger" from a desk four spots back in a row by the door.

His reaction was instinctual, he said later.

With Fumagalli's gun -- a cap-gun for the exercise -- on the floor beside him, Newcomer pounced. He and fellow teacher Dan Bader pinned Fumagalli on the floor by the front wall.

"Hold 'im there. Hold 'im there."

With the "shooter" neutralized and unarmed, the cap-gun was secured, retrieved and put into a recycling bin to be carried away but, more importantly, to prevent the incoming cavalry -- responding police officers -- from mistaking the retriever for the shooter. A crucial safety tip.

Elapsed time for the "active-shooter" drill was just 15 seconds -- a quarter of a minute -- between the first shot and the end of the exercise, as called by Corey Zavorka of Tier One Tactical Solutions.

Police officers wouldn't have arrived for almost another three minutes -- 2:45 to be precise, based on the FBI's assessment of the average police response to active-shooter situations. Or for about five minutes based on another estimate.

Either way, three minutes or five, that's ample time for an individual hell-bent on destruction to do so, leaving it up to teachers, administrators and students to respond first before the actual first-responders arrive to answer 9-1-1 calls of shots fired.

"It disgusts me to have to give this training, but it's the world we live in," Fumagalli told DuBourg faculty and staff before the role-playing session. A Tier One trainer whose main job is as St. Louis County police officer, Fumagalli merely played the role of the "bad guy" for the exercise. "This is difficult to think about, but do we look the other way or are we prepared?"

Training in Catholic Schools

DuBourg opted for preparation, as other schools -- public and private -- have done in the St. Louis area. DuBourg joined St. Pius X, Cardinal Ritter College Prep, John F. Kennedy Catholic and St. Mary's among high schools in the archdiocese to have had Tier One training. St. Justin Martyr, Holy Rosary, Most Sacred Heart of Eureka, St. Frances Cabrini Academy and St. Gabriel the Archangel are among the elementary schools.

With 141 schools, there's a long way to go in bringing the tactical training to every school throughout the archdiocese, but it's a start -- a necessary one, as Fumagalli noted.

Starting in 1999 with Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo., schools nationwide have experienced mass shootings and murders -- Virginia Tech University and Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., among others. But schools haven't been the only targets. The Century movie theatre in Aurora, Colo., and locally Kirkwood City Hall and ABB Inc. in north St. Louis also have been the scene of mass shootings.

"When this happens, I want you to be prepared," Fumagalli told DuBourg's staff.

School president Father Mike Lydon and principal Bridget Timoney contracted Tier One Tactical to bring the "active-shooter" training to staff on a professional development day, Feb. 3. With students dismissed at 11:10 a.m., the adults got down to business 20 minutes later, first with a presentation and then role-playing with either Fumagalli or Zavorka as the "bad guy." Zavorka also is a St. Louis County officer, in addition to being a Tier One trainer.

The training is based on the four "E's" of educate, escape, evade, or engage, if necessary. The four "E's" provide options for teachers in responding to an intruder in their school or, worse, in their classrooms. "So they feel empowered to make decisions and keep their students safe," Fumagalli said.

Often, school principals make decisions about addressing such situations on school intercoms. But with an intruder firing a weapon, that tact would waste precious time. "Lockdowns" often are ineffective, too, as a first defense. In a glass door/window vs. weapon competition, the weapon often wins. Teachers have to decide quickly and under stress whether escape to a school exit is the best strategy for keeping students safe, or whether staying in the classroom -- evading -- is the way to go.

If they decide the latter, they must secure the classroom door -- often open at schools -- with power cords, belts, whatever, then cover the door window to prevent the "active-shooter" from seeing inside. Also, they must shove desks in front of the door, anything to obstruct the bad guy. Faced with such resistance, he might move on.

With the cap-gun being shot in the hallway, DuBourg faculty and staff handled escape and evade exercises well, but the scenario with the shooter in the classroom came as a total surprise, which is how it would go down in the real world. They were ready, though.

In the presentation, they had learned that they needed to disrupt the shooter. Throw things, throw him a curveball, so to speak, so that while his mind-set might be methodical, the disruption might confuse him long enough for students to escape the classroom or subdue him by engaging him -- as Newcomer did Fumagalli in the exercise.

"As soon as I saw the gun on the floor and not in his hand, I went right for him," Newcomer said. "I didn't even think about it. I just covered him. I assumed if I did, someone would be after me."

Sure enough, that's what happened, and the exercise was over in 15 seconds.

The teachers learned a lot in that brief time, and they learned much more in four thought-provoking hours with Tier One Tactical. Father Lydon picked up practical tips for securing doors and covering windows. Timoney hoped the training prompted teachers to join DuBourg's safety committee and to sign up for the next level of training -- Train The Trainers -- so they could bring that training back for students.

Mary Aubuchon called the training "the best professional development" she's had in 35 years teaching at DuBourg.

"Maybe it's scary, but this is a scenario that could happen," she said. "We need to be prepared."

The 4E's

Bishop Dubourg staff learned the 4E's from Tier One Tactical Solutions if an "active-shooter" is in their school or classrooms

Educate

Teachers and administrators must know their options, chose one quickly under duress.

Escape

If they can safely reach an exit or safe space, by all means teachers and students should do so.

Evade

If escape isn't an option, the classroom becomes a refuge, with the door closed and secured, windows covered and desks used as obstructions.

Engage

If all else fails, the "active-shooter" should be engaged by distrupting his actions with projectiles, trophies as weapons, you name it, anything to distract him long enough for people to escape or subdue him.

"Active-shooter" training

For information, contact Tier One Tactical Solutions, (314) 495-9792, tieronetacticalsolutions.com/contact; or Dave Shelton at the Catholic Education Office, (314) 792-7305, shelton@archstl.org. 

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