On lockdown

Amber Gillenwater

February 16, 2014

BIDWELL — River Valley High School was locked down on Friday afternoon and the Gallia County Sheriff’s Office SWAT Team stormed the building in search of an active shooter loose inside the school. The gunman, who had barricaded himself into room 112, shot one first responder, before taking his own life as the SWAT team arrived on scene to secure the facility.

This awful scene, which has played out at too many schools across the country, including at Columbine, Virginia Tech, and Newtown, Conn., was — thankfully — just a scenario all in the name of training at RVHS on Friday, as staff members with the Gallia County Local School District learned what to do and how to react in such a crisis.

A plain-clothed Gallia County Sheriff’s Deputy played the part of the shooter during the drill, firing blank rounds in the hallway and holding several teachers and staff members, who were posing as students, hostage, while other staff members fled the building before the “all clear” was given.

According to Gallia County Local Schools Superintendent Jude Meyers, this drill, while nerve-racking for the teachers and staff members, is a very necessary practice run.

“We’re going to continue to grow this,” Meyers said. “By law, you have to have crisis drills every year, but I think the frequency is what we need to talk about. We need to make it more important and make our buildings available to law enforcement, because this happened at River Valley, but what if it happened at Addaville; what if it happened out at Hannan Trace? So, we need to make sure we have a pretty good idea of what we want to do in all our buildings, and where our evacuation spots are. We want to grow this throughout the district.”

The superintendent further thanked the first responders who participated in the event and extended his invitation of a continuing relationship between law enforcement and the school district to help his staff better prepare for such a crisis.

“It’s nice to know that we’ve got this kind of relationship with law enforcement and the community, and we extend the invitation to them to work in any of our buildings so that they can become familiar with them,” he said. “I think our staff did a nice job today. It’s definitely a lot different when you experience it first hand. We do fire drills every month and fires have not impacted schools because of the practice, so today was an important day. We need to continue to work and develop plans and policy based on today to continue to protect our kids and our staff and our community. I think it was a great step forward, but we still have a lot to do.”

Gallia County Sheriff Joe Browning, whose office was invited by the school district to participate in the training and coordinated the event along with the Gallia County 911 Center and Gallia County EMA, stated that Friday’s drill was just as important for training purposes for deputies with the sheriff’s office, personnel with Gallia County EMS and other first responders as it was for the staff members of the school district.

“It’s a good opportunity for us to train inside the buildings. We have really nice, new school building that are a lot bigger than the ones that we’re used to participating in, and it is beneficial for us to have the ability to get inside those schools and train. We need to do that and keep that training up,” Browning said. “We’ve trained in other buildings as well, but just having the ability to get our road deputies, our tactical personnel in, I think it is really important for us.”

Director of Support Services for the Gallia County Local School District, Michael Jacobs, reported that the district, following the Newtown shooting in December 2012, began to drastically change their policy in regard to crisis training and drills, along with many other school districts across the country — and Friday’s drill was a direct result of that.

“We did not make the decision to move forward with this until after what happened at Newtown. It took 20 second graders to die for school systems, including Gallia County, to begin thinking that what they were doing was not working,” Jacobs said.

Jacobs further stated that a committee was formed just a week after the Newtown shooting to look at how the school district would respond to a similar event.

This committee, according to Jacobs, included law enforcement officials, officials with local fire departments, principals, teachers, school board members and parents, who looked at the former crisis plan and made recommendations to change it.

“We got information from experts. They said what we needed to do. We needed to change the way we are teaching our kids to defend themselves,” Jacobs stated, while adding that the committee further suggested that the teachers and staff members receive additional training — a recommendation that the board of education has resoundingly approved.

“Now our board of education has given our teachers the ability and the authority to make responsible decisions. That is important,” Jacobs said. “Our teachers don’t have to get underneath the tables. If they want to get out, they can get out. If they want to barricade, they can barricade. If they want to fight, they can fight. They can make the decision. They don’t have to wait on me, they don’t have to wait on the administration to make the decisions. They get the right now to protect their life. They have the right to protect our kids’ lives.”

Jacobs further discussed a school shooting that did occur in Gallia County several years ago at River Valley Middle School when a man shot his wife — an employee with the school — an event that Jacobs hopes never happens again due to the continued training and vigilance on the part of the schools and administration.

“A lot of people don’t know that, but it’s happened in Bidwell. It’s happened in Gallia County, in our schools. We’ve told our kids to get under the table. We’ve told our kids to stay there. We’ve told our kids, pretty much, we’re going to get you shot,” Jacobs said. “We need our kids from kindergarten up through to understand that you don’t have to stay there to get shot. You can do the same thing here with these kids as you do in your own house. Why should it be different when I have my kids here? These teachers will treat these kids like they are their own children, and they want the right to protect them.”