St. Charles conducts campus safety drill

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, March 25, 2009


LULING — A sudden and deafening burst of gunfire broke the silence of the school day as disgruntled teenagers stormed the hallways of Luling Elementary Friday afternoon taking down anyone in their path. A small explosion that rocked the walls and filled the halls with a cloud of smoke followed the rapid round of shots.

It was a scene that has unfortunately been repeatedly played out in schoolyards across the United States, but on this particular day in Luling the actions were part of a controlled instructional drill organized by the St. Charles Sheriff’s Office and public school system.

The multiagency training exercise brought together representatives from the Luling Fire Department, St. Charles Hospital EMS, Jefferson Parish Sheriff’s Office Air Support Unit and other state and local agencies in an effort to prepare first responders and school officials to handle a potential campus intruder.

“There are a limited number of things you can do if something of this caliber happens,” said St. Charles Sheriff Greg Champagne. “It’s hard to prepare for an actual violent attack because you just don’t know how it will play out. Our ability to respond and your ability to respond can minimize potential injury and save lives.”

Friday’s exercise is the second such event of this type to be staged by the St. Charles Sheriff’s Office. Champagne said the same agencies participated in a shooter scenario in the fall of 2006 at Ethel Schoeffner Elementary School in Destrehan. The exercise was put onto a DVD and distributed to law enforcement agencies nationwide to be used for training.

“Events of this nature go a long way in strengthening the relationship between the school system and the Sheriff’s Office,” said St. Charles School Superintendant Rodney Lafon. “This is a great opportunity for both sides to teach and learn.”

The drill began with a briefing for teachers and administrators from each school’s “Safe School Team” on what may transpire during the exercise. The group was then split up between participants, who played active roles, and observers, who watched the action play out on a series of cameras positioned throughout the school. Joining those teachers were a group of about 60 students from the school system who played the roles of victims and bad guys. The bullets were blanks, and the wounds were fake, but the intensity was very real.

The action started about 12:30 p.m., when a voice came over the school’s intercom system alerting that a lockdown procedure was in effect because of intruders on school grounds. A group of teachers hurried through the hall and into classrooms, locking the doors behind them. Then, without warning, the scenario played out.

Three teenagers armed with guns stormed the hallway and fired off a few rounds. One of the intruders grabbed a fellow student and used her as a hostage to try and coax teachers to open classroom doors.

“Please let me in! He’s right down the hall!” cried the young girl. “You have to let me in! He’s going to kill me!”

After several unsuccessful attempts, the gunman made his way into a classroom, but before he could move much further the first wave of deputies arrived on the scene.

The deputies burst through classroom doors checking for wounded and searching for the culprit. It wasn’t long before deputies came across the infiltrated classroom and apprehended the gunman. As the perpetrator was being escorted out, a girl from another building ran in yelling of gunfire in another building. Another wave of Special Response Team members stormed in and escorted those who were able to walk to safety.

The scene outside was reminiscent of television coverage that documented the events of the Columbine massacre in Colorado. Lines of students and teachers were escorted from buildings with their hands on their heads. Emergency medical staff carried the wounded to a triage area set up in the parking lot. Police radios buzzed with descriptions of the remaining shooters, who were apprehended not long after. The worst of the event was over.

With the bulk of the activity behind them, teachers and students assembled to talk about what took place a few moments before.

“I think we learned the magnitude of the event and the need to have such cooperation,” said Tiffany Cologne, a counselor at New Sarpy Elementary. “When you would hear the students knocking on the doors, and you know the voice but you know you can’t open the door, it’s a tough decision to make.”

To conclude the exercise, authorities with the Sheriff’s Office will gather the film and other information obtained so that an updated DVD can be created in the hopes that more agencies take advantage of the valuable training tool.