February 7, 2014 | Vol. 95, No. 32

Blank shots fired in school during mock disaster drill

IRONWOOD — Blank shots were fired in the Luther L. Wright School on Friday as the Ironwood Area School District held a mock shooting drill during a teachers’ in-service day.

Cortney Ofstad/Daily Globe
THE IRONWOOD School District held a mock shooting drill Friday at Luther L. Wright School.

All students were out of the building during the event, planned by the district and Ironwood Public Safety Department.

Some employees in the building weren’t warned about the drill that included the shots, as well as screaming, banging and other noises. Those employees scrambled and hid under desks.

According to a memo from district superintendent Tim Kolesar to staff and school board members, four staff members unaware of the drill were alone when it happened, resulting in them hiding in fear under desks and in bathrooms.

Staff members from the Gogebic-Ontonagon Intermediate School District were also unaware, and their intercoms were disconnected “by request.”

Kolesar defended the drill, saying the district “accomplished what we wanted to accomplish.

“We learned things, and revised our lockdown procedures to fine-tune it,” Kolesar said. “There is no question that running drills like this will definitely save lives, if an event were to ever happen, which I hope never does.”

Officers from the IPSD and a deputy from the Gogebic County Sheriff’s Department ran the drill.

IPSD director Andrew DiGiorgio said the drill was a collaboration between the district and the department in light of public shootings across the country.

“Basically, why we did the drill, in light of the recent school shootings, they seem to be increasing,” DiGiorgio said. “And not just at schools, but malls, movie theaters. We work very well at the school with our school resource officer and we do a lot of planning.”

The IPSD performs Code Red drills in the school two to three times a year, but different elements were added to this drill to heighten the effect.

“We do a Code Red drill up there two to three times a year and we felt that knowing it was a drill, we had some compliance issues,” DiGiorgio said. “Our idea was to heighten the stimulus of it by adding noise and verbal commands. You’ll never make it real, but our intent was to kind of show a little bit of what it could be like.”

Planning for drills like Friday’s can be “challenging,” DiGiorgio said.

“(The school district) felt it would improve the training,” DiGiorgio said. “The training itself is hard. To imagine this happening, it’s challenging. It’s one of those trainings you struggle with. You’re talking about and preparing for a school shooting. You want the teachers to be prepared, and it also prepares us. That is why we do these trainings.”

According to DiGiorgio, there were “a few things we learned that we could do differently, but overall, we had positive feedback.”

Concerns, DiGiorgio said, will be addressed in future trainings.

‘Unexpected things’

Some “unexpected things” happened during the training, Kolesar said.

“We had specific people in rooms where other people were supposed to be,” he said. “We had it all covered in each of the eight rooms, with one person in each room to help if people became overwhelmed. As much as we put in planning, two custodians were in different areas. One didn’t hear the drill and one was in a room by herself. They did what they were supposed to do, though. We were able to revise our lockdown procedures to make it better and more efficient,” Kolesar said.

The drill lasted about 15 minutes, DiGiorgio said, followed by a demonstration and debriefing with district staff members about the drill and the process officers took.

“This wasn’t something that was thrown together the day of,” DiGiorgio said. “We planned this and put safety measures in place. We discussed it with all officers involved and with the school. After the drill, we walked the teachers through everything we did, so they are aware of what we’re doing outside the classrooms.”

Some teachers “did not have a problem” with the drill, despite not knowing it was going to be taking place.

“We have a protocol and we followed it (during the drill),” Ted Sim, high school social studies/history teacher, said. “Bill Witt, of the Michigan State Police, used to say, ‘It’s not a matter of if, it’s a matter of when.’ I agree with that. The more training we can get, the better off we will be.”

Special education teacher Vicki Watson wasn’t aware the drill was taking place, but said it was “exactly what needed to occur.

“My first thought when it started was concern, of course,” Watson said, “then relief that there were no children there. I was informed immediately afterwards by an administrator in the room I was in that it was drill.

“I think (having the drill) is fantastic. It’s exactly what needs to occur everywhere. We need to know how to react, so the kids know how to react. I’m glad they had the drill. We got to talk to the sheriff and police and have questions answered. It was very productive,” she said.

DiGiorgio said it was “encouraging” to see a district being proactive about how to handle potential dangerous situations.

“It encourages me, from a public safety standpoint, that you have a school willing to address these issues and deal with it. The school has done things proactively, including adding door locks, inviting us in the schools, and we spend 10 to 15 hours in the school a week with our school resource officer. So they are proactive, without making it feel like a prison, but creating an environment that is safe for the kids. You’re dealing with it, versus just turning a blind eye,” DiGiorgio said.

“For example, Sandy Hook. Everyone said, ‘Why there?’ It could be anywhere. There are no boundaries when it comes to this.”

Kolesar plans on another drill in the future, when kids are not present in the building.

“It’s crazy out there today,” Kolesar said. “We have to be proactive. Every kid in this building is priceless. If we can do these drills and save lives, we will to make sure these kids are safe. I will apologize if someone is offended by having this, but I am not going to apologize for doing this, because we should be doing it.

“I would do anything to make sure kids are safe and secure. We will do positive things and be proactive to put ourselves in the best position to handle these situations,” he said.

School board president Steve Thomas said Wednesday he was not aware of the drill.