Realistic St. Charles drill shows off parish threat response

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, September 21, 2011



LULING – A police helicopter circled the campus as a SWAT team of St. Charles Parish sheriff’s deputies marched through the doors of Lakewood Elementary School Friday afternoon. Other deputies manned the parking lot and outer areas of the school, while a group of students and faculty received medical attention from first responders called to the scene.

What appeared to be a nightmare scenario unfolding at the Luling school was nothing more than a well-coordinated joint training exercise designed to help refine the skills of the St. Charles Parish Sheriff’s Office, while also helping them communicate with the parish school system in the event of a real emergency.

The simulation involved a trio of shooters who descended on the school and opened fire at will. The bullets and injuries were fake, but many of the reactions seemed very real, including interactions between school and sheriff’s office officials and the media members on hand for the exercise.

“You know it is all a drill, but to see it and hear it unfold still makes your hair stand up on end,” said St. Charles Parish School System spokesperson Rochelle Cancienne-Touchard. “The students were into it, the parents were into it, and the sheriff’s deputies were into it. It felt very real.”

Capt. Pat Yoes, spokesperson for the St. Charles Sheriff’s Office, explained the purpose of the exercise was to test a multi-level response by the Sheriff’s Office beginning with emergency calls for help to the 911 Communications Center from the school, actions taken by the first responding deputies, the Sheriff’s Office Special Response Team and command staff, as well as school officials.

“Exercises like this are incredibly valuable to us because it gives us something to study in the event that the action is real,” Yoes said. “Strengths and weaknesses are examined in a reasonably controlled setting that is as real as possible.”

The action started about 1 p.m., when a voice came over the school’s intercom system alerting that a lockdown procedure was in affect because of intruders on school grounds. A constant warning alarm was broadcast throughout the campus. The gunman fired on several rooms before police arrived. Two gunman were apprehended quickly, while a third barricaded himself in one of the classrooms.

While deputies attempted a negotiation with the gunmen, members of the sheriff’s office Special Operations Response Team went classroom to classroom escorting innocent students and faculty out of harm’s way.

Friday’s drill was the third such training exercise orchestrated by the St. Charles Sheriff’s Office since 2006. In 2009, the Sheriff’s Office used Luling Elementary School as a training ground and in 2006 a similar exercise was conducted at Ethel Schoeffner Elementary School in Destrehan. The exercise was put on DVD and distributed to law enforcement agencies nationwide to be used for training.

Representatives from the Luling Fire Department, St. Charles Hospital Emergency Medical Service, St. Charles Emergency Operations Center and the Jefferson Parish Sheriff’s Office Air Support Unit and a variety of local, state and federal agencies also participated in the training exercise.