“This is happening.”
I repeated the phrase again, and again, and once more — part of a chorus of perhaps a dozen people sitting together in a meeting room at the university where I’m a graduate student. The exercise was part of an active shooter training, which consisted of about an hour of lecture followed by an hour-long simulation.
“This is happening.”
We chanted together during a part of the presentation about denial — that psychological reflex to dismiss the sound of gunfire as fireworks or a car backfiring — learning how it eats away at the precious seconds you have to react when a shooter has entered your building and started killing. Time when you could be locking the door or running for an exit or calling 911.
“This is happening.”
I almost didn’t go to this training. Life is stressful enough, I thought, trying to balance work and school without spending a couple hours thinking about what it would be like to hear a shooter coming down the hall from one of my classes.
What changed my mind was the Michigan State University shooting on Feb. 13. I wondered, admittedly skeptically, if there was anything in this training, hosted by my university just two days later, that would have helped those students in Michigan survive. Or, in a nightmarish future event, help me.
The instructor was a lieutenant for our university police department. I genuinely believe that he was sincere in his desire to arm us with information that could help us in a dangerous situation. He wanted to instill knowledge, he said, not fear.
And yet, fear tinged the entire experience. How could it not? It felt surreal at times. What kind of bizarro world are we living in where this is a normal, maybe even essential, part of education?
I learned that a tourniquet has to be placed right under your armpit or all the way up near the groin, regardless of where on your arm or leg you’ve been shot. And it has to hurt. Wounds need to be packed with gauze if you have a first-aid kit — if you don’t, absorbent material like tampons will work. If you can’t breathe, you may have been shot in the chest. All wounds need to be covered, both where the bullet entered and exited the body.
During the lecture, the instructor drew a comparison with school fires. The last time someone died in a fire at a school was in 1958, he said, but schools still prepare for them.
That struck me as insane. As though mass shootings at schools are out of our hands, an act of God like the errant spark that sets off an electrical fire. Like a tornado or hurricane.
Are we so powerless against killers, I thought, that we have come to accept that active shooter drills — “situational awareness” as it was called in the event invite — are as necessary as fire drills?
The instructor urged us to get over denial. If you’re on the sixth floor, don’t kid yourself into thinking a loud noise is anything other than gunfire. Lock the door and hide. Shooters know there’s limited time to kill unfettered before the police show up, he said, so they don’t want to waste time trying to get through locked doors.
He was displeased with the number of professors who keep their auto-locking doors propped open because they don’t want to have to cross the classroom to let in every late student. Doors are designed like that as an anti-shooter safety measure, he said. Each classroom has a button that professors can push to automatically lock the door (provided it’s closed) and notify the campus police that something’s wrong.
During the presentation, we took lessons from shootings at Columbine, Virginia Tech, Sandy Hook, and all the way back to the 1966 University of Texas at Austin tower shooting. We learned that the national average police response time to an active shooter is four minutes. We just needed to learn how to keep ourselves alive for four minutes, until help could arrive. Yet if my data analytics studies have taught me anything, it’s that averages can be deceiving.
It made me think of Uvalde, and how the police response to that Texas school shooting didn’t save anyone.
Among the statistics shared with us was that 75 percent of school shooters had talked about their plans beforehand. Say something, the instructor urged, to the police if you notice someone’s behavior showing signs of danger.
In the simulation, we needed three things: People to barricade the door to the meeting room, someone to call 911, and other people to check for other exits.
Even though I knew it was coming, it still felt weird and confusing to jump into action. You can know what you should do, but no one is directing traffic in this situation.
There was a camera crew in the room, so there’s video out there somewhere of me being disoriented, torn between checking the exits and helping to barricade the push-bar double doors with chairs. Don’t open the door — you don’t know whether the shooter is right outside. Someone yelled out a couple times to call 911. I’m not sure if the people who headed to the exits found them locked or not.
The final exercise was disarming a shooter who has a handgun. You have to get them off balance by making them react to you. Make sure the gun is pointed away from you, clutch the flat side to your chest, and turn it away from you back toward the gunman. That will break his finger if it’s on the trigger, and give other people a chance to take control of him by grabbing his head from behind like a steering wheel. Another person should kick the backs of his knees, and all together you get him disarmed and on the ground where you can restrain him.
During the last 10 minutes, we each practiced disarming a gunman. I really did not like the feeling of having a blue training gun pointed at me, even though the instructor asked if it was OK. I said, “sort of,” and I did it anyway to see if I could follow the disarming steps he showed us. He corrected my form.
I think it was supposed to be empowering, and I got the impression that the other people in the training felt like it was. The instructor wanted us to remember not to give up hope. To stay alive.
I left feeling like I had vertigo, trying to wrap my head around how we got here. In my view, the instructor and organizer genuinely wanted students and staff to have potentially life-saving information. But this didn’t feel like it should be normal. I didn’t sign up for this threat as part of my education. Would I even remember this, I wondered, if a shooter kicked open the door to my classroom and unloaded his gun at me and my classmates?
There has to be a better way to protect students from shootings than to train every single one how to get control of a gun.
I get having situational awareness, like checking the back seat of your car before getting inside or not walking alone in the dark to the overflow parking lot. But this is too much. This hypervigilance we’ve been prescribed as a defense, it’s not a sustainable way to live. It feels suffocating — how are we supposed to learn with that mindset?
We’re not having an active stabber drill, or an active bomber drill. It’s shootings, it’s guns. That’s the problem.
“This is happening.”
The phrase we are supposed to invoke to shake us from denial when we hear gunshots.
What people should do if they notice potentially dangerous behavior.
This is happening, school shootings, all the time. Someone should say something, do something, about it.