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MCS Police Officers Train for Campus Crises

MCS Police Officers Train for Campus Crises
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MCS police participate in active shooter training in the indoor firearms training simulator at Samarcand Training Academy. Participants train with drills in a virtual simulator instead of training with live rounds on the range. MCS police officer T.J. Hawthorne takes aim. Ted Fitzgerald/The Pilot
Mary Kate Murphy, The Pilot

Moore County Schools Police officers Chris Coleman and TJ Hawthorne issued clear and concise commands to the shooter:

“Drop your gun! Put it down! Do it now! Put it down!”

It’s almost as if they weren’t paying attention to the other officer lying crumpled by a desk, or the prone bodies of students and staff in the hallways.

If they were in a real school rather than a sound stage at Samarcand Training Academy, or the shooter were more than a two-dimensional video recording, they wouldn’t have that luxury.

Moore County Schools Police officers have spent the last few weeks of summer in empty buildings and make-believe ones, working through scenarios they hope never to experience in the halls where they work every day.

Moore County Schools is one of two K-12 public school districts in the state to control its own police force; Charlotte-Mecklenburg is the other.

School resource officers spend most of their time in middle and high schools. On top of their traditional law enforcement role, a lot of the job consists of counseling students to make better choices. They rarely have occasion to discharge their weapons. The usual scenarios they face have almost nothing in common with the shooting ranges where they renew their firearms qualifications each year.

Prior to this year, Moore County Schools Police last participated in active shooter training in 2017. That’s when Samarcand Training Academy in Eagle Springs opened its firearms training center to local and state-level law enforcement agencies.

That lag didn’t sit well with Board of Education members when they learned that earlier this year. Administrators were openly taken to task by board member David Hensley for allowing that lapse in training.

Chief Rodney Hardy, who took over leadership of the department this past March, got the message.

The department has other needs too: about a dozen more officers to post at elementary schools full-time, more sophisticated weapons and equipment in case of an on-campus threat. Hardy and district administrators are working on a comprehensive plan to present to the county commissioners, who have expressed interest in seeing the full scope of the department’s needs.

Training in Samarcand’s use-of-force simulator is free to local agencies. Moore County Schools Police returned there earlier this month.

The simulator holds a database of more than 400 scenarios for officers to confront — in a risk-free environment that feels like anything but.

Screens surrounding a sound stage project a panoramic view of a school hallway. Classrooms, office doors and other hallways extending left and right offer an almost incomprehensible number of options and few clues to where a shooter might be hiding.

The scene would be eerily quiet if it weren’t for the piercing wail of alarms and intermittent screams of actors. Even among well-trained officers, the sympathetic nervous system goes into overdrive. Pulse and respiration elevate. Every natural instinct says: flee.

MCS police officer Chris Coleman takes aim as fellow officer T.J. Hawthorne goes down (at right). Ted Fitzgerald/The Pilot

Simulated active shooter training forces officers to practice self-control as much as anything else. While they’ll never get comfortable in that environment, they can develop clearer thinking in a crisis to make the instantaneous decisions that can save lives.

“It helps you to slow your heart rate, your respiration and be able to make good decisions. Especially if you’re discharging your weapon, you’re breathing heavy and the gun’s rising and lowering,” said Hardy.

“I have every belief that my officers are prepared, that in the event of something bad happening, they’re going to where the problem’s at, and they’re going to do what they have to do to take care of that problem.”

At Samarcand, officers are fitted with an electrical “shock box” that serves several purposes. Instructors can use it as a corrective measure to redirect a trainee during the exercise — should they go the wrong way or react too slowly.

Multimedia technician Ethan Kellihan at the controls. Ted Fitzgerald/The Pilot

The shock can also simulate what it’s like to be shot. As if they were confronting a real shooter, the expectation is the same: keep going.

“Everybody that gets shot doesn't die. And you have to fight through it,” said Samarcand Rangemaster Mike Kimbrell.

“It’s just part of the training,” he said. “Because we’re going to the threat. We’re trained to go to the gunfire, and you have to continue toward it.”

The simulator at Samarcand includes scenarios based at Pinecrest, North Moore and West Pine Middle schools. Staff filmed footage of the schools’ empty halls and superimposed pre-recorded actors as students and teachers.

Other scenarios were filmed “live” with professional actors in other schools around the country.

Trainees are equipped with Glock handguns, similar to their duty weapons in feel and action but retrofitted to emit only a laser. At the end of a scenario, the simulator screens show a colored “tag” where the suspect was hit.

When two or more trainees participate as a team, those tags are color-coordinated to each weapon. Sometimes the scenarios involve one partner being “tapped out” as if incapacitated by fire.

Others don’t call for deadly force at all. Some test the communication skills that school resource officers might have to call on to calm down, for instance, an agitated parent or a student threatening to jump from a second-floor balcony.

The scenarios can present almost as many variables as real life. The end goal is for officers to develop trust in their ability to make decisions in the face of the unexpected; all while communicating with their partners and the “people” in the building while working to ascertain who might be a threat.

MCS police participate in active shooter training at Samarcand Training Academy Thursday, August 18, 2022. MCS Police Chief Rodney Hardy describes one of the virtual scenarios in the indoor firearms training simulator. Ted Fitzgerald/The Pilot

“They will be required to talk like they were calling in on the radio: giving their location, if somebody’s hurt, if somebody’s down, if they’ve shot somebody where is that person because they’re still moving to the gunfire,” said Hardy.

Hardy’s goal is for all of his officers to undergo active shooter training every six months, though quarterly would be ideal. Time is the limiting factor; there are already more school campuses than officers, so training during the school year leaves the schools without police presence.

Training at Samarcand came at the end of several weeks of live-action exercises in partnership with the Moore County Sheriff’s Office. That took place in several facilities around the county, including the old Aberdeen Elementary campus now owned by the town of Aberdeen.

Training on location is harder to orchestrate but creates a fully immersive experience for officers to experience, complete with helmets and protective gear. While the simulator effectively generates the scenario around the officer, rapid deployment training requires them to actively move through the building, navigating the same auditory overload and actors who could be a threat or innocent bystanders.

“There’s people that are not part of the deadly force situation that are present and you’ve got to be able to quickly distinguish who they are and is it dangerous to take that shot,” said Hardy.

It also gives the district’s resource officers experience communicating with first responders from other departments. In most of Moore County’s public schools, the first backup officer to arrive in a crisis would likely be a county sheriff’s deputy or municipal police officer.

“What we want to do is be able to reinforce to them that we have to communicate back and forth no matter who your partner is,” said Hardy. “Because we all have the same goal: to save lives and cease the threat.”
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