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Posted: July 15, 2007 8:15 p.m.

School violence

SWAT team, deputies prepare for worst with ‘active shooter’ exercise

Remember, this is only a drill.

A fire alarm shrieks in a distant corridor, echoing down the empty halls of Eastside High School. A sheriff's deputy on duty at the school rushes out the door as a small cluster of his fellow officers emerge from the back parking lot.

The six deputies briefly meet outside the door before entering the main corridor, side arms drawn.

"Get in formation," one deputy orders.

They converge as a cohesive unit, gathering into the wedge formation. The configuration allows the officers to cover ever angle possible while never exposing their backs to danger.

Rounding the last main passage, the deputies come upon the sprawled bodies of three teenagers in a darkened corridor. Two of them appear to be victims of fatal gunshot wounds. The deputies stay in formation and creep down the walkway, checking each room as they pass. The second victim blocks their way, so a deputy detaches from the group and pulls the girl to the side, a red smear trailing behind her.

Fortunately for those involved, the would-be carnage was all part of a joint "active shooter" exercise between the Newton County Sheriff's Office and the Covington/ Newton County SWAT Team on Friday.

Real officers with real weapons practiced for the worst case scenario with fake bullets and blood. Student volunteers played hostages and victims while Lt. James Pilgrim acted as the lone shooter.

NCSO Captain Mark Thomas said this type of training is vital to law enforcement agencies in the wake of the massacres at Columbine High School and Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University.

Randy Downs, a SWAT team member and a NCSO sergeant, believes it is only a matter of time before Newton County is exposed to similar school violence.

"This helps us to be prepared for when this happens," Downs said. "It isn't a question of if, but when this will happen."

Downs, who was in the military for 10 years, said he likes to train without a prepared outcome.
This allows the team to stay focused in on a situation Downs describes as overwhelming difficult. The group practiced maneuvers all week, but was only told beforehand the information they would normally receive before being called into action.

Deputy Justin Hipps said staying the wedge formation was one of the hardest parts of the drill.

"It's very difficult, but it's the only way to do it," Hipps said.

A few years ago, deputies like Hipps would never have gotten close the gunman or the classroom.
According to Thomas, the initial response officers used to be told to secure the area and wait for SWAT, but not anymore,

"We tell officers to let them confront you instead of the victims," Thomas said. "You've got a vest and a gun, so if somebody has to get shot at, let it be you."

During the drill, contact is made. One gunman with several hostages held up in a classroom.
SWAT is needed. Two officer's rush down the hallway and outside to make the call.

"C'mon, you don't want to go out like this man," a deputy shouts over the alarm.

The deputies try to buy time and bargain for hostages. The minutes creep by, but the gunman finally concedes and lets two hostages go. The kids run around the corner toward two waiting deputies.

Almost silently, SWAT teem members enter from a side entrance, directly down the hall from the situation.

Two teams of four covered by a point man with a ballistic shield. Each member carries an assault riffle or shotgun.

More hostages are released.

"Down on the ground," the SWAT team members yell. The male hostage falls to the ground.
"Crawl to me, crawl to me."

After five more hostages are released, SWAT moves in, trading places with the deputies, who find a cart to wheel the wounded away.

Two short bursts of gunfire echo through the hallway.

"Perpetrator down!" an officer yells. Medical first responders are escorted inside.
"Game over," the SWAT members say, the phrase passing down the line.

Thomas said had the gunman started shooting hostages before SWAT arrived, the initial unit of sheriff's deputies would have stormed the room and taken out the gunman.

The consensus of the officers seemed to be that the exercise went well, but that they can do better.

"It went as well as can be expected," Hipps said. "It helps us learn our faults, which is important."
In the best case scenario, the shooter would have surrendered with minimum causalities, Downs said.

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