LISBON – Dressed in mismatched camouflage and hoodies two men entered the Lisbon Central School cafeteria at 12:45 p.m. Thursday morning and opened fire.
The men were state police troopers dressed to simulate a real school shooting and the cafeteria was full of cadets from the St. Lawrence Law Enforcement Academy in Canton.
Organized in the wake of the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre in Connecticut in December, the live-shooter drill was designed to give law enforcement officers and Lisbon Central School staff members a feel for how they should react in the event of a shooting in their building. Students were released at noon in advance of the drills and no students from Lisbon participated.
Law enforcement agents and Lisbon staff took away several lessons from the drill – the first locally to include school staff members – that will be evaluated over the coming weeks to beef up the schools security.
Weve been setting this up for about two and a half to three months, State police Sgt. Chad K. Niles, the officer in charge of the operation, said.
If there was a real shooting at the school It would be every cop in the north country [responding], Mr. Niles said. If there were off-duty cops in the town and they heard of it theyd be coming up here. Its really mixed and matched.
Thursdays live-shooter drill was organized by the State Police and attended by Border Patrol, the St. Lawrence County Sheriffs Department, Customs and Border Protection and Ogdensburg City Police officers.
Because of the size of the building the drill focused on the cafeteria and middle school wing of the school.
Middle school teachers were sent to their classrooms with other teachers filling in as students.
Youve got a plan here, we expect you to roll out that plan, Mr. Niles told the teachers, referring to the lock down preparations in place at the school.
Cafeteria staff and custodians went about their business, instructed by Mr. Niles to be wherever you would be at 11:45 a.m. Niles wanted the drill to reflect that time frame in the school day.
As soon as the shooters, carrying starter pistols and a .308 rifle loaded with blanks, opened fire, the cadets in the cafeteria scattered. Some ran for the hallway, others hid behind tables and roughly five were killed.
Others managed to escape outside when the shooters werent looking.
High School Principal Eric S. Burke, who was near the cafeteria, used the schools public announcement system to alert staff to go into lock down. He called Superintendent Erin E. Woods to alert her to the situation and her office contacted the State Police.
Mr. Burke then rushed towards the gun fire in an effort to control the shooters but was killed before he could do anything.
Ms. Woods also ran towards the sounds of gunfire, but when she opened the doors to the kitchen she was also shot.
My automatic reaction is to go there [towards the shooters], Ms. Woods said after the drill.
Mr. Burke agreed. I would follow the shooting, no doubt about it.
Several cafeteria workers were likewise killed or wounded.
But thats as much death and destruction the shooters were able to perpetrate.
Teachers in the middle school wing closed and locked their doors, turned off lights and covered their windows with whatever they had available – flags, paper, cardboard.
Excellent job with the lock down, Mr. Niles said to the teachers after the drill. You would never know anyone was in there. I couldnt ask for a better response.
And even though the shooters tried to get into classrooms by claiming they were police, the teachers refused to open the doors.
At one point the shooters asked each other, Are there even anyone in the rooms?
Law enforcement agents arrived quickly.
Ogdensburg Police Chief Richard J. Polniak Jr. said, At emergency speeds its only a 10-minute ride [from Ogdensburg to Lisbon].
As agents arrived they assembled units on the spot and began searching for the shooter or shooters.
Mr. Niles said the agents were not told in advance of the drill how many shooters there would be or where they were. Few of the agents had ever been in the building and, although most police vehicles in the area have maps of regional schools in them, they relied initially on following the sounds of gun fire.
I anticipate that theyre going to have some difficulty finding their way around in here, Mr. Niles said of the law enforcement agents in advance of the drill. Its easy to get lost in this place.
Keeping this in mind, K. Juddy Plumb, a criminal justice instructor at Seaway Valley Tech in Norwood and a retired state police trooper, said law enforcement agents should take it upon themselves to familiarize themselves with the schools in their area.
One of the big things is, get to know your schools. If you dont know what youre going in to youre at a real disadvantage, Mr. Plumb said as he observed the drill.
But the shooters didnt get very far.
After failing to gain access to any classrooms in the middle school, the shooters began looking for other people.
An ad-hoc unit of Ogdensburg City Police officers and a State Trooper finally engaged one of the shooters and shot him in the leg. (No real ammunition was used; instead observers told people where and how they had been wounded.)
Once shot and hand-cuffed the first shooter began calling out to his compatriot, alerting agents for the first time to the fact that there was another shooter.
Finally pinning the second shooter down in an empty elementary classroom, law enforcement agents managed to kill him.
But the first shooter continued to call out, leaving police unsure whether or not they had secured the building.
Officers, forced to operate under the assumption that at least one more shooter was present, began the long process of clearing the rest of the building.
Each closet, locker room, bathroom and open classroom was checked before the building was declared free of shooters.
While the simulation was over within two hours Mr. Niles said, In a real shooter situation it would take a lot longer [to clear the building].
Even after the shooters are dead, police still have to sweep the building for other threats.
Mr. Niles said he hoped the drill might have opened some eyes.
In particular Mr. Niles said he plans on ensuring law enforcement agents not only have school maps at their disposal, but know how to use them effectively.
However, the biggest problem for law enforcement agents was the size of the building.
Gun shots in the cafeteria were difficult to hear from the main entrance and radio transmissions were often lost.
When you get inside a building with all that metal infrastructure theres a lot of reflected transmissions so a lot of single strength is lost, Mr. Polniak said.
The most important lesson for staff was summarized by Mr. Niles. If youre locked down and safe, stay put.
If you come up against a shooter, Mr. Niles said, Youve got to take them out. Its as simple as that . You fight for your life; use whatever youve got available to you.
But Mr. Niles pointed to the fact that no casualties occurred once the initial attack on the cafeteria was over as proof that staying hidden, quiet and still saves lives.
Mr. Niles also suggested the school makes sure to brief substitute teachers on safety issues.
Mr. Burke said he felt that whoever is in the main office should just repeat lock down, lock down over and over in order to ensure everyone is aware of the situation.
Now that the drill is over, Mr. Burke said the administration and law enforcement officials will take the lessons learned and apply them to the schools security preparations.