Buckhannon-Upshur Middle School hosts large-scale active assailant drill

The Inter-Mountain photo by Amanda Hayes From left, PRO officer Cpl. Rocky Hebb, chief deputy Mike Kelley and PRO officer Cpl. C.J. Day discuss the active assailant exercise at Buckhannon-Upshur Middle School Wednesday

TENNERTON — About 400 people, from Upshur County Schools employees to emergency responders, participated in a large-scale active assailant drill at Buckhannon-Upshur Middle School Wednesday.

The drill, which took place on a day when classes were not in session, built on a June 2, 2018 drill held on a Saturday at Buckhannon Academy Elementary School.

The drill was organized by JH Consulting who contracts with Upshur County Schools on emergency and safety planning.

“We knew it was going to be bigger in scope,” owner Jeff Harvey said. “Last year, we didn’t have an opportunity to have as many board of ed employees involved so we wanted to try to make it easier for school employees to participate which is why it was on a Wednesday and school was canceled. We had over 400 people that were playing today in various roles — school people as well as emergency responders.”

About 10 community agencies were involved as well as the exercise played out.

There were some parts that were scripted, such as the path the active shooter would take through the first four rooms, but what would happen after that fourth room was up to the individual playing the role of the active shooter.

“We had some elements of that response that were scripted out and we had some victims who were staged,” Harvey said. “We knew about half of what we wanted to happen with the actors was scripted. Everything else was then based on their interactions with emergency responders. We did not want to get in the way of players in terms of how to interact with 911. We wanted them to be able to relay what they saw and what they heard and things like that.”

Renee Warner, principal at Buckhannon-Upshur Middle School, volunteered her school to host the second exercise.

“I will be real honest with you; I felt like I was going to throw up all morning,” she said. “I’ve been very nervous and excited to have it here because being in a very public place along Route 20, we know the dangers that we can face here. I was excited that we were the one to do it during an actual work day, to have the rest of the county staff come was exciting for them to be a part of it as well. It was a learning experience for all of us. I was thrilled to be able to be the host today.”

After the initial qualms and nervousness, Warner said the exercise had taught she and her staff a lot.

“In the big picture, it went very well,” she said. “It gave us a good idea of how our staff would respond in a situation like that. Our general rule is that we stay calm and when we are able to do that, as leadership, than the rest of the folks can rest in the fact that they know we will get it done. The most important thing we know to do is to stay calm.”

Mike Kelley, chief deputy with the Upshur County Sheriff’s Department, said he was in command of the law enforcement aspect of the active shooter drill.

“It’s about the closest thing we can simulate to a situation like that, without actually having one,” he said. “Each situation is going to be unique. We just have to improvise and adapt.”

“Communication was a little bit of an issue but we got it worked out,” he said. “Our PRO officers were here from the middle school and the high school. They are very familiar with the building and we have blueprints ourselves in case of a situation like this.”

Although they are not always doing active assailant drills like Wednesday, Kelley said sheriff’s deputies train in various ways

“Most of the guys have had SWAT training,” he said. “Eight of us are SWAT certified and we get together to qualify for weapons and train.”

Jodie Akers, director of student services for Upshur County Schools, said the school system drills constantly.

“We work with JH Consulting and we are doing drills on a quarterly basis in all of our schools,” she said. The drills are not always a full-scale exercise like what happened Wednesday morning.

“We had our first exercise last June 2 and the conversation started shortly after that event that we had,” she said. “January is when we started the detailed planning all the way up through last evening. The first exercise that we held on June 2, we just focused on one school and what we gathered after that exercise was that we wanted to give all of our staff the opportunity to participate. This is a great learning opportunity and it brings all of our agencies together.

“We want to continue to do these,” she said. “I don’t know if it will be at this magnitude and where the next ones will be but it brings us together and gives us an opportunity to learn and to grow.”

Superintendent Dr. Sara Stankus said, “We are practicing so in the event of an emergency we will be better prepared to respond. Hopefully, we never have to use what we have learned here today but when families send their children to school, they expect the children to be safe. That’s why we are working with our very supportive community, first responders, they were wonderful today. EMS, the sheriff’s department, police officers who responded, all of this practice helps us identify areas in which we need to approve. We are always trying to get better.”

One of those areas is communication, according to Stankus.

“We are always looking to improve communication, how we communicate during something of this magnitude and we are always thinking of our families and how they would be impacted and about a reunification site.”

With the exercise behind them, Harvey said Wednesday afternoon would be a debriefing to get initial impressions of how the exercise went. A more formal process will then transpire.

“Evaluators will get notes back to the planning team and we will put all the findings into a report,” he said. “We will share that report with all the agencies that played today. That way they can have an opportunity to make sure we don’t miss anything and then they can also take our recommendations and turn those into corrective actions or action specific projects. I think it went very well. The number of people involved, the number of agencies involved… I’m proud to be an Upshur Countian today. This was a good event for all these people to come together for a worthy cause.”

Warner also said her staff would be meeting to reflect on their involvement in the exercise.

“We will take some time to reflect over the next few days and then we will gather as a faculty and staff and make some decisions there,” she said.

For example, some of the staff turned to an app on their phone to communicate to not have information over the radios, but then it was discovered not all of the staff used that app or don’t have the capability.

“We have some things that we are going to clean up, but in the big picture I think it went very well,” she said.