Bad Guy 101: Sonora students schooled on responding to armed intruder

Teaching survival at Sonora school

Police and sheriff's departments team up to prepare students in the event an armed intruder attacked their campus. The aim is to slow the gunman and escape. Deke Farrow/
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Police and sheriff's departments team up to prepare students in the event an armed intruder attacked their campus. The aim is to slow the gunman and escape. Deke Farrow/

A cafeteria table probably won’t stop a bullet. But it’s better than nothing.

An armed intruder on a school campus is there to claim as many casualties is possible, and bunching together to hide makes that easier. Spread out.

Whether you have an eraser or a rock, throw it at the bad guy. He’ll try to dodge it either way, improving your chances for escape.

A Sonora police lieutenant and a Tuolumne County sheriff’s sergeant got real with students at Sonora Elementary School on Monday, training them on violent intruder preparedness and response. The instruction incorporates the ALICE concept, which stands for alert, lock down, inform, counter and evacuate.

Grab a fire extinguisher, pull the pin and blast him. If you have that foam blasting in your face, it’s going to disrupt your thinking. Then you have a metal cylinder that can be used to hit him.

Lt. Turu VanderWiel, instructing eighth-graders on making use of what’s available to slow an attacker and escape.

“It’s a simple concept, something that goes off our basic survival skills, something we’ve been teaching our children as parents – stranger danger, getting away, fighting back, yelling and making noise and telling an adult,” said Lt. Turu VanderWiel. “We’re taking those concepts and putting them in a school or public setting.”

He and Sgt. Jim Oliver, both certified ALICE trainers, have been talking with parents and training teachers, administrators and students on preparedness for three years. They give age-appropriate presentations to kids as young as kindergartners, though Monday they worked only with fourth-, fifth- and eighth-graders.

“You are the leaders on campus,” Vanderwiel told eighth-graders during their turn for training. He and Oliver talked with them in more mature terms than they did with the younger groups.

“It’s about doing something to save your life if you can,” the lieutenant said. “When someone gets into that room you’ve locked down and are barricaded in … you only have a couple of choices. Let’s do what we think is best to save our lives.”

We want the children to have practices so that if something ever happened, it would just be rote. They would know exactly what to do and it would kind of alleviate some of the fear.

Tracy Webster, Sonora Elementary School assistant principal

The instruction and training drills were held in the school gym. The kids were told that when VanderWiel shouted an alert, they were to move quickly and quietly to barricade the doors with rolling bleachers, tables and stacks of chairs, pull the curtains, find something to arm themselves (foam rubber balls were provided) and turn off the lights.

The instruction to stay quiet was quickly forgotten by nearly all the kids, who squealed, shouted and screamed as they went to work. Excited at the idea of getting to throw balls at cops, many also armed themselves before barricading, which was to come first.

But learning from mistakes is what drills are about. VanderWiel asked students: What’s the first thing to do, even before locking the doors, barricading and turning off the lights? Not getting a correct answer, he provided it: “Stop, look and listen. Look for your teacher and listen to what she is telling you to do.”

The training for the eighth-graders, because they’re bigger, touched on overpowering and disarming a gunman. “Enough people of smaller stature can overcome one of larger stature,” VanderWiel told them.

I’m not telling you to go fight, but to protect yourselves, because why else would someone be breaking in if not to cause harm?

Sgt. Jim Oliver

And noting that some of the kids may hunt or shoot with their families and think they know their way around guns, Oliver warned that if students get a gun away from an intruder, they absolutely should not use it. Who knows how the gunman may have altered the weapon and how it may perform, he said.

“The other thing is when law enforcement shows up and you’re holding a gun, I don’t know if you’re a good guy or a bad guy,” he said. “We don’t want you walking around with a gun.” If the gunman has been subdued, just take the weapon to a trash can and put it inside, he said.

If an armed intruder is on campus, the objective of ALICE lies in that last letter: “e,” for evacuate. Or, more simply, escape.

The “c,” for counter, is simply the means to the end. Combating the intruder would be a last resort, Oliver told students. “I’m not telling you you have to engage that person,” he said, but it could take authorities five minutes to reach the scene, and that’s a long time for students to defend themselves.

The children were asked to picture various places on campus they could be, and what they’d have to throw at an intruder: textbooks, basketballs, trash cans, staplers, erasers and more. VanderWiel pointed out that when students threw rubber balls at him, his efforts to duck and dodge them were real, even though he knew they wouldn’t hurt. It’s instinctive to duck something being thrown at your head, he said.

In a moment of decision, the best thing you can do is the right thing. The next best thing is the wrong thing. The worst thing you can do is nothing.

Theodore Roosevelt, quoted in an ALICE Institute book for families

Students asked a lot of questions of the trainers, and made some good observations. Eighth-grader Kaden Herzog noted that if a gunman got through a locked and barricaded gym door, students would have to unbarricade another door to escape. That’s correct, the trainers told him. There’s no perfect answer in a situation that may constantly be changing.

By and large, the students had fun during the training drills. Sometimes, too much fun, as kids would throw a ball at VanderWiel, then do it again and again instead of escaping as they were supposed to do.

A couple of younger children did admit to being a little frightened by what they were learning. The kids were assured there was little chance they’d ever need to put their training to use. They were asked to think of it like a fire evacuation drill, or knowing to stop, drop and roll if on fire. “Having your clothes on fire would be really scary, right?” VanderWiel said. “But do you have to be afraid all the time of that happening? No. But you should know what to do.”

Deke Farrow: 209-578-2327