Sixth-grader Brooklyn Welch stood near the entrance of Eatonville Middle School on Tuesday covered in fake blood and smiling after an unusual day at school.
The 12-year-old volunteer was one of hundreds of participants in an active-shooter drill coordinated by Pierce County Emergency Management and hosted by the Eatonville School District. For about three hours, the drill took over two schools and several blocks in the Mount Rainier foothills community.
The event, which included 17 agencies from multiple counties, was the culmination of about nine months of planning meant to prepare students, school officials and emergency responders for a large-scale school shooting.
Earlier, Brooklyn portrayed the first victim in one of two shooting scenarios. She waited on the floor of the front office for about 40 minutes with a fake gunshot wound to the shoulder before being carried out by a SWAT team officer in full gear.
“It was scary watching the SWAT team come,” she said.
Students at both the middle and high schools showed up for a regular school day, only to go into full lockdown mode at 8:45 a.m.
Emergency dispatch radios chattered and helicopters hovered overhead. Responders with unloaded weapons surrounded the area and evacuated hostages covered in makeup and fake wounds.
Rich Stewart, the district’s superintendent, said he initiated plans for the drill after a real lockdown in spring 2012. Police alerted the district that an angry parent, possibly armed and just out of jail, might have been spotted near the schools. Although nothing serious developed, Stewart said the incident led the district to review its policies and uncover holes in response procedures.
“The first responders and schools weren’t prepared,” he said Monday.
Now officials say Eatonville is better prepared for the unthinkable. Leading up to Tuesday’s drill, school district staff completed the county’s violence response training. Marci Scott, program manager for Pierce County Emergency Management, said that training was a huge success.
“(School violence) is happening everywhere, and if we’re not prepared to respond to this type of event, then we aren’t doing any justice for our children,” Scott said.
The planning for Tuesday’s drill was well underway before the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting last December that left 20 students and six teachers dead in Connecticut. Officials say that tragedy only heightened awareness of the need for training.
Eatonville’s drill involved two simultaneous scenarios: an active shooter inside the middle school and a hostage situation on a school bus near the high school. The latter involved negotiations with the suspect by Pierce County SWAT team members and ended in a fake shootout and detention of an individual on the bus.
Agencies from Pierce, King and Snohomish counties participated Tuesday, with the help of $37,000 in grants from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.
The Eatonville community knew the exercise was taking place the first week of June, but the exact time, date and location were kept secret.
Scott said the surprise factor is important in drills of this scale to test a school’s response on the fly.
That point was reiterated by Ken Wilson, safety and environmental manager for Tacoma Public Schools.
“If you make it too formulaic, people have already thought about what they’ll be doing,” he said. “This puts them back on their heels a little bit.”
Wilson was one of several officials from other school districts who observed the exercise to gather information for possible drills of their own.
Sgt. Jerry Bates with the Pierce County Sheriff’s Department said this type of training is especially important for law enforcement agencies to get on the same page in case they have to respond to “the real thing” together.
Despite the fact that it was a drill, a pair of very real medical emergencies occurred at the scene.
A University Place police sergeant was sent to Good Samaritan Hospital in Puyallup after sustaining a leg injury during a helicopter drill with the Pierce County SWAT team. He was scheduled for surgery Thursday.
Also, Eatonville Middle School Principal Ken Andersen had a medical incident during the exercise, unrelated to the drill, and was transported to a hospital, officials said. No further information was disclosed.