Illinois State University is increasing efforts to train faculty and students to Run, Hide, or Fight if an active shooter comes to campus. This comes eight months after the deadliest high school shooting in the U.S.
Illinois State University Police Chief Aaron Woodruff fires a starter pistol into the empty hallway of Metcalf School, signifying the start of ISU’s annual Run-Hide-Fight drill.
Dozens of ISU faculty, students, and staff scramble to barricade classrooms or escape from the supposed shooter while ISU Police and Emergency Management volunteers scream in the hallways.
“We have a couple of people out in the hallway trying to create a realistic environment so someone's firing off a starter pistol to create that sound,” said Eric Hodges, ISU’s Emergency Management director. “Others are out in the hallway screaming, begging to be let in, screaming that somebody's got a gun and so forth. Again, to get people kind of in the mindset of what's going on, and it works. If you look at the people in the room and their reactions, they take to those, the senses that they're hearing.”
There are two sessions: morning and afternoon. In the morning, trainers tell people in each room what they’re doing: Running, hiding, or fighting.
In the run room, participants hear the shot fired. They use the sound to try to determine how far away the shooter is, and break out of the classroom through the nearest door.
People in the hide room have electric cables to tie doors shut. They use tables and chairs as barricades.
Meanwhile, the shooter breaks into the fight room too fast for the subjects to barricade any door.
Hodges said he expects participants to throw foam objects at the shooter to disorient her until the group can swarm and take the shooter down.
“So the intruder made their way in the room right away before anyone had a chance to run or barricade that room. And so I saw people acting immediately, within seconds. These typically ended today in about 4 to 5 seconds,” Hodges said. “They were throwing the foam objects that we gave them to use at the intruder and they swarmed them, and they got it done within 4 to 5 seconds."
For the afternoon training, participants get no coaching and have to decide how to respond.
When Prevention Fails
On Feb. 14, 19-year-old Nikolas Cruz walked on the campus of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, with an AR-15 and killed 14 students and three faculty members.
Forty-five calls of concern about Cruz and his family were sent in to local law enforcement over 10 years, CNN reported after the shooting. But even after consistent reports of behavioral issues, Cruz somehow slipped through the cracks.
Classmates called him “stressed out," a teen with anger management issues and a fascination with firearms and gun violence.
Woodruff said there is almost always one final straw that breaks the camel’s back. The passing of Cruz’s mother three months before the shooting in Parkland was that straw.
Woodruff said his department at ISU receives almost daily reports about students with suicidal thoughts or actions. He said the university can only control the environment that student is in. That is, lessening the risk of that student spiraling out of control.
Woodruff stressed the importance of, “If you see something, say something.” He said early notification and stress reduction can prevent a student who poses a threat from making a threat.
Woodruff said when prevention fails, you must be prepared to respond.
Jannette Lee teaches seventh grade Spanish at Metcalf. Without the security of knowing what would save them, she said she was nervous before the afternoon drill.
“I feel like we have to make a decision in that split second to either run, hide or fight, and everyone's going to be thinking something different and I feel like it's going to be chaos,” Lee said. “But I feel like what we've learned here we have some great strategies, either try to escape or barricade the rooms and try to take down the shooter."
Woodruff and Hodges agree that run is always the your best option, if possible.
Kelly Murphy works at ISU's Julia N. Visor Academic Center.
“When it happened, I noticed a couple of the people in my group ran out the door. So I got up, to run out the door. Another section of the group went and started barricading one of the doors, but I wanted to run,” Murphy said. “And so as I was headed with another woman out the door, we heard gunfire that sounded too close. So my first thought was, 'Oh no, now I'm stuck in the room.'”
She said there simply wasn’t enough time.
In the case of the Florida shooting, Cruz pulled the fire alarm, causing students to flood into the halls and out of potentially safe classrooms and then started firing.
It’s why Woodruff said not to pull the fire alarm if you become aware of an active shooter.
Students in Parkland tried to find shelter within the school by ducking into classrooms. Cruz picked off whoever couldn’t escape for six minutes before dropping his rifle and blending in with fleeing students.
Woodruff said the average active shooter situation lasts five to six minutes, and all you do in that short period of time is try to buy yourself more of it.
If you can’t run, Hodges said hiding is the next best option.
Sarah Mayer, ISU Police's public safety education coordinator, acted as the shooter at the Run-Hide-Fight training.
"Typically they've shown with these types of situations that when an active shooter comes to a door and they are not able to get in they just typically move on,” Mayer said. “And so that was what we mimicked in this case."
Participants moved tables, desks and chairs in front of all classroom doors, barricading it from the inside. They wrapped electrical cords around door arms, over and over and over until the door could hardly open.
Before the training, Woodruff and Hodges showed participants how to barricade a door with a single chair. By taking the leg of a chair and looping it through an outward opening door handle, the chair holder puts all of their weight pulling the door closed with the chair.
Mayer, the shooter, said the size of the chair holder doesn’t matter.
"The chairs were extremely effective. I couldn't get in at all. The cables, I would say practice. If you don't have it exactly right and I'm able to wedge the door in, that still could leave an opening for the shooter to gain at least partial entry,” Mayer said.
She said practicing will help people know what to do should a situation arise.
"I think people may rely too heavily on locks. In this situation, we were able to defeat the lock, and there was no secondary barricade that effectively stopped it," Mayer said.
Often, active shooters plan their attack long in advance. So Mayer used a key throughout the drill.
"People need to remember, with these, the windows were right next to the locks. So, someone could easily have gone that way, broken the window and gotten in that way,” Mayer said. “So that's why it's not good to just rely on locks, and I think they did an excellent job in the presentation. If you haven't seen it, come to it. How to effectively barricade a door and not rely on the locks, because that's truly where you're going to find the impact."
But for Kelly Murphy, the woman who ran out of time to run, her group failed to barricade the door, and Mayer had a key.
“There were two rooms that I couldn't get in with ease or at all, so then I moved and kept checking different doors,” Mayer said. “And then the third door, unfortunately, this scenario was the one that I was able to get into."
Murphy said it happened too fast. After she couldn’t run, she said she feared barricading the door would let the shooter see her through the window.
“So we just locked it and we kind of all just were very quiet,” Murphy said. “Someone did say 'Call 9-1-1,' and we were hiding. But then they broke in.”
When the shooter breaks in, there’s only one option left: Fight.
Hodges said one of the best methods of fighting is to gather a group and charge swarm the shooter. But it can be difficult convincing others to swarm when their lives are at stake.
Murphy said those in her room grabbed objects and began throwing them at the shooter, hoping to confuse her. But Mayer shot Murphy in the head with a water gun stream.
“I think I was so surprised that our first reaction was to hide and throw things, instead of thinking about how to get around behind and try to jump on this person, or something you would think if you were watching from a distance,” Murphy said. “I would think, 'Why isn't someone jumping that person?'”
So what was it like to see the shooter break in?
"It's still really creepy. It really was. I was surprised that it hit me that way. I've never been in a situation like that before,” Murphy said. “I think this was a great training tool, and taking away from it, it makes me want to try to figure out in our own surroundings now some thoughts before anything like that would happen."
Hodges said every active shooter situation is different, so trainers can only provide general guidance and hope people respond in the moment.
“In the real life situation, our biggest hope out of this is that they recall something they learned during this training so that they can apply it immediately and help those around them," Hodges said.
Jannette Lee, the Spanish teacher, said she was glad she participated in the training, but no training will ever be realistic enough.
"So when we first started in the rooms, we all knew what to expect, so we had all of the stress balls ready to throw. But if that happened all of a sudden I was in the middle of a lesson, it would just take more time,” Lee said. “But I feel like going through the training, I feel like what I learned would kick in and hopefully I would be able to instruct the students on what to do and try to protect ourselves."
Illinois is part of the majority of the U.S. with no Duty to Act law. Our state’s Good Samaritan law only applies to medical professionals, so you have no duty to take care of those around you in an active shooter drill.
However, many primary and secondary education teachers like Lee look at their students like their children. How do you protect them? And do you ask them for help?
"I feel like this would be a great conversation to have in prevention with my seventh-graders. I know they've already gone through the training with the principal, but I think as the Spanish teacher I'd want to go through it one more time in the classroom setting to see what would we do in case something like this happened and I would feel comfortable with some of those kids if I was in there by myself teaching, I would definitely ask for help,” Lee said. “But if they didn't feel comfortable, of course, they wouldn't have to."
Hodges said there’s no easy answer, and every teacher might have a different response. His advice? It’s probably safe to ask kids in sixth grade and older to help barricade a room. But, it is possible teachers of young kids, or even faculty and staff who have an office to themselves, would be on their own.
Murphy said she could be alone one day at the academic support center.
“I'm going back to work and I'm going to start thinking about what we could do so that if this did happen, we're not trying to figure it out on the fly like we were today," Murphy said.
Throughout the day, the shooter only broke into one barricaded room: Murphy’s.
ISU Police and Emergency Management hold one Run-Hide-Fight training a year. Those interested in learning more about how to prepare for an active shooter in their workplace can reach out to police.
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