COLUMBIA—A frightening scenario played out at Lange Middle School on Wednesday morning.
With guns steady, officers crept down the hallways, peering around corners and sliding against metal lockers.
“He’s got a gun,” one yelled.
The team took off down the hallway, in pursuit of a hypothetical shooter.
“Go get him!” Sgt. Lance Robbins yelled to the team.
Then he laughed. “I just can’t help myself,” he said.
Although the Boone County SWAT commander managed to find humor in the situation, the drills at three Columbia schools this week tackled a serious issue: How first responders would deal with an armed intruder in a school.
It was the first time Columbia public school faculty and law enforcement agencies collaborated for active shooter training.
“This is as realistic as we can make this kind of thing,” Columbia Police Chief Randy Boehm said.
Columbia police have been developing the training program for several months with John Warner, West Junior High School resource officer. Warner helped get several Columbia public schools on board.
Warner said there are one or two incidents in Columbia schools every year — such as threatening notes or bomb threats — but the situation hasn’t escalated.
“We have to know that it can happen here, just like it’s happened other places,” Warner said.
Warner compared the preparation to wearing your seat belt. “You put on your seat belt and you don’t plan to crash and hope you won’t, but in case you do, it’s there to save you,” he said.
Robbins said the school shootings at Columbine High School and Virginia Tech came up frequently during planning sessions for the events.
But he noted that many problems begin in the home and encouraged parents to pay special attention to cries for help.
“Kids usually don’t just snap, they leak it out,” he said. Posting angry Internet messages, artwork or letters can alert families, friends and faculty of a potential problem.
Columbia has never had a school shooting. Rock Bridge High School was locked down in April when a shooting victim was pulled over in a car at Reactor Field alongside Providence Road.
Officers from the Boone County Sheriff’s Department, Missouri State Highway Patrol, Columbia Fire Department and police departments from Hallsville, Centralia, Ashland and MU trained with the Columbia Police Department in a number of intruder scenarios.
“By incorporating as many agencies as possible, we can reduce the confusion in a very chaotic situation and keep everyone on the same page,” Columbia Sgt. John Worden said.
Robbins also stressed the importance of agency cooperation. “That’s the only way any of this is going to be effective,” he said.
As first responders, “officers need to get here quick and know what we’re doing, and that’s what this is about,” Robbins said.
Participants faced hostage situations, bomb threats and invasions from all sides during several simulations.
“We have a raw idea and some things in place — the rest is adapting and overcoming,” Robbins said.
Wearing helmets and other protective gear, teachers and Explorer Scouts played the role of hostages and victims. False bullets called “simmunition” were used so police could respond naturally without harming participants.
Superintendent Phyllis Chase said that the teachers involved will bring their training back to their schools to share.
“We just want to be prepared for the expected or the unexpected,” Chase said. “The chances of having an incident are there, even if they are small.”
Officers trained Monday at Hickman High School and will finish the week at West Junior High School on Friday.
“Our most innocent citizens are these kids,” Warner said. “Parents expect them to come home every night the way they left.”