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Published: Saturday, 4/2/2005

Police teams train for tragedy at Starr

BY ERICA BLAKE
BLADE STAFF WRITER
Officers move through the halls of Starr Elementary School during an exercise. The school was closed for spring break. Officers move through the halls of Starr Elementary School during an exercise. The school was closed for spring break.
ALLAN DETRICH Enlarge

It was a lesson learned the tragic way in 1999 when two student gunmen entered a Colorado high school and opened fire.

Police surrounded Columbine High School and secured the perimeter, but did not go in. Twelve students died, as did one teacher. Several others were injured.

Yesterday, police officers from throughout northwest Ohio, as part of a training exercise, had a gunman of their own to deal with at an Oregon school closed for spring break.

During such training, two teams of officers enter the building immediately - one group to help those hurt or held captive; the other poised to bring the gunman down.

"Here we're employing a new philosophy, one that is actively engaging the threat," said Oregon police Sgt. Chris Bliss. "Traditionally, the officers contain the building and wait for the Special Response Team. This time, they go in."

The Oregon Police Department has been hosting the reality-based training exercise for four years. Yesterday, officers from nine area departments milled about Fassett Middle School on Starr Avenue, waiting to be briefed about what sort of hostile situation awaited them at Starr Elementary.

It wasn't long before the call came in. A gunman wearing camouflage was spotted in the school near the library. The school was placed on lockdown. Shots could be heard in the background.

Members of the Oregon Police Department responded, clad in body armor and carrying rifles loaded with paint pellets. Two volunteers came screaming from the building as officers arrived. Acting as students, the two spoke hysterically of a single gunman in the school's main hall.

"We're trying to make this as real as we can," Oregon Police Chief Tom Gulch. "That's the idea. Let's build stress into it."

Oregon Sgt. Kelly Thibert led a team of four into the building, where screams reverberated from the P.A. system. They found volunteers who seemed to be dead or hurt and others who were trying to flee. Sergeant Thibert's team gleaned information from them and then passed them. Saving them was the next team's job.

"It's very realistic. You have adrenaline flowing, and you know that you're going to shoot or get shot at," said team leader Noel Crawford, a Bowling Green police officer.

Volunteers Dawn Henry, the district's special education supervisor, and Richard Castillo, a ninth grader at Clay High School, said they don't think about situations such as Columbine or the shootings last month in Red Lake, Minn., where a student killed nine people before shooting himself.

"It's a learning experience," said Richard, 15, who volunteers as part of a community service obligation. "Now I know if it would happen, they would take care of it."

When School Resource Officer Scott Wells enters Eisenhower Middle School every day, he thinks about teaching and bonding with the 400-plus students, not about the possibility a gunman might show up.

Yesterday, Officer Wells led the second, or rescue, team and helped drag the wounded from the building. He recognized the training's importance. "We're practicing a scenario that we hope and pray never happens," he said. "If we can prevent things, even a fist fight, then we're better off all around."

Contact Erica Blake at:

eblake@theblade.com

or 419-724-6076.



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