Suffolk County Police Emergency Services Officer Mike Hewson places his hand on his partner’s shoulder, signaling that they should move forward.
They hustle down the elementary school hallway, carefully turn a corner and immediately have to dodge a grenade that’s lying on the floor. Continuing at a brisk pace, they make their way through the gymnasium and secure the room.
That’s when the distinct “Pop! Pop! Pop!” of gunfire, along with the screams of adults and children, can be heard from a different part of the school. They immediately exit the gymnasium and continue down the hallway, in the direction of the gunfire.
“Look out! He’s in there!” Officer Hewson yells as the two raise their Glock 22 handguns and engage the “shooter” in the music room. After exchanging several rounds with the two police officers, the shooter—a fellow officer participating in the “active shooter” training drill held Saturday morning inside the Westhampton Beach Elementary School—lies down on the ground as Officer Hewson and his partner move on to finish securing the building.
But screams echo down the hall and the two come across a woman who is hysterically crying, saying, “In there! In the bathroom!”
The officers take a deep breath and open the door to the boys’ lavatory, where a second “shooter” is standing, his gun fixated on the door. The officers fire several rounds and the shooter falls to the floor.
The officers then hear the loud “Boom!” of a shotgun and, again, run toward the sound and past two off-duty officers who also responded to the call but did not have time to grab their gear before entering the school. The armed officers then continue around another bend when they hear the voice of a woman.
“Don’t come any closer! I’ve got the kids!” yelled the woman from inside a classroom, about 10 yards away from the officers. “Get me the principal! I want to talk to him!”
The officers stop abruptly, taking cover at the intersection of two halls and yell back: “Drop the gun! We can talk. Don’t do this!”
After a few moments of yelling back and forth, the woman lowers her gun—ending the simulation.
“Good job,” Southampton Town Police Lieutenant Susan Ralph, the woman who was pretending to hold student hostages, tells the two officers. They exhale in relief, remove their safety masks and return their training guns, which were loaded with rounds similar to those found in paintball guns, to drill organizers.
Hosted by the Suffolk County Police Emergency Service Section and Southampton Town Police, the training session—the second of its kind held in the past month in local elementary schools—instructed officers, as well as educators, through multiple scenarios in order to prepare them just in case such a situation should arise in the future. The first training exercise was held earlier this month at the East Quogue Elementary School.
“We need a constant dialogue to improve our school safety plans and that is part of our goal today,” said Detective Sergeant Lisa Costa, who organized the training with the Suffolk County Police Department Emergency Services officers.
Those heavily-armed officers are brought in to confront barricaded subjects, negotiate hostage situations and handle high-risk search warrant scenarios.
In addition to participating in one of Saturday’s drills, Officer Hewson followed pairs of officers and educators, guiding them through the course all morning, providing tips and feedback throughout the run, which took less than five minutes to complete.
“It’s supposed to get your adrenaline going, but it’s also supposed to make you think,” Officer Hewson said, explaining that plainclothes officers were placed on the course to show how split-second decisions typically determine the outcome of some situations and if someone reacts too quickly, innocent people could unintentionally get hurt or worse.
Officers from across the East End are encouraged to participate in such training simulations, like the active shooter drills, to prepare them if they are ever the first to respond to such a scenario in real life.
Though she began planning for such drills in early 2012—before the shooting at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, that December in which 20 children and six adults were killed by a lone gunman who later killed himself—Det. Sgt. Costa said that incident should eventually convince more East End school administrators to host similar training exercises in their respective schools.
Det. Sgt. Costa pointed out that such drills also have a secondary purpose: They allow officers from different departments, who are unfamiliar with one another, to get some hands-on training together—an invaluable experience if they are ever called upon.
“You’re not going to get 10 Southampton cops at your door,” she said to the teachers and administrators during a debriefing after Saturday’s training. “You’re going to get a mishmash, so for us, being able to train together for these situations is great.”
Det. Sgt. Costa said the primary reason she wants to see as many teachers, faculty and school administrators participate in the active shooter training as possible is to better prepare them for a scenario that, hopefully, never presents itself.
“I don’t want kids doing the fire drill shuffle,” Det. Sgt. Costa said, explaining that each drill should have a “pucker factor” and keep everyone in charge on their toes.
“So, you’re in lock down and you’re hiding, but what else? What happens when the situation changes and you hear the person? Can you get the kids out a window? Can you rearrange your room so that you can easily knock over a few shelves or a bookcase? We want you to think about that next step.”
Kerry Coonan, the principal of the Raynor Country Day School in Speonk, went through the training Saturday morning and said it served as both a wake-up call and a reminder to use resources provided by local police forces to make sure safety protocols are up to par.
“Being responsible for children on a day-to-day basis is a nervous experience—period,” Ms. Coonan said. “But the Southampton Town Police and Det. Sgt. Costa have done such a wonderful job at providing resources for us. We were lucky to be able to take advantage of that today.”
Feeling their hearts pound from nerves and adrenaline was what Det. Sgt. Costa said she hoped would happen.
“We wanted you to feel it,” she said during the debriefing. “Here’s the caveat: When something goes down, you’re the ones that are going to be there. When something happens, it takes us a couple minutes to respond. You’re the first line of defense.
“So, we want you to be thinking about what you’re going to do in those couple of minutes,” she continued. “Do you go into lock down? Do you evacuate?”
Det. Sgt. Costa said she wants to organize a handful of these drills at schools throughout Southampton Town in the upcoming weeks and months, adding that she hopes word will spread and other districts will sign on.
“It’s going to be chaos no matter what,” she told Saturday’s participating school officials. “What you can do to control the chaos is to have these plans in place.”