Police officers in Florida surprised students, teachers and parents Thursday with an active shooter drill. And by “active shooter drill,” we mean that a Winter Haven middle school went into lockdown as two armed police officers burst into classrooms, guns drawn, leaving the unsuspecting children terrified — and their parents furious.
According to Fox affiliate WTVT, officials at Jewett Middle Academy e-mailed parents to inform them of the drill, after it took place. By that point, WTVT reports, cellphones were already filling up with texts from frightened students, who thought there was a real shooter in the school.
In a later statement to The Post, spokesperson Jamie Brown for the Winter Haven police department said they were only aware of one student who texted a parent during the exercise.
“Unfortunately, no one gets an advanced notice of real life emergencies,” Polk County Public Schools spokesman Jason Gearey said in an e-mailed statement to The Washington Post. “We don’t want students to be scared, but we need them to be safe.”
Stacy Ray told WTVT that she received a text from her seventh-grade daughter Lauren Marionneaux after two armed officers burst into her classroom. Winter Haven police told The Post that one of the officers had his duty firearm – a handgun – drawn. The gun was loaded,
The school district said officers had “weapons pointed at the ground” during the drill. “Officers will not have weapons in their hands in future lockdown drills,” Gearey added.
Winter Haven Police Chief Charlie Bird told WTVT that the surprise was exactly what officials intended. “It’s very important that, when you do your drill, you do it without everyone knowing that it’s a drill,” Bird said. “How you train and how you prepare is how you’re going to react when everything goes bad.”
Essentially, the police department will plan the timing of the drill with a school principal, and no one else will necessarily know.
“We regret any concern that parents and students might have experienced in how this drill was conducted,” said Gearey, the district spokesman. The county is still reviewing feedback it received following the drill. The Winter Haven police department told The Post that feedback following the incident to them was about 50-50 positive and negative.
Polk County isn’t the only place in America holding active shooter drills these days. According to a September report in The Wall Street Journal, the drills have prompted a cornucopia of legal complaints in the wake of similar situations at schools and businesses across the country.
In one alleged incident reported by the Journal, an Ohio teacher who volunteered to participate as a “panicked parent” in a drill was tackled to the ground by an officer.
In another, a former employee at a Colorado nursing home said she was traumatized by an attacker readiness drill, during which an armed gunman “forced her into an empty room.” According to the Journal’s report, the officer acting as a gunman in this situation thought the employees there were informed about the drill. He identified himself as an officer after seeing her reaction, but the employee “was so overwhelmed that she didn’t know whether to believe the officer’s assurances that he really was a policeman.”
In the wake of the December 2012 Sandy Hook school shootings, a handful of states — including New Jersey, Tennessee and Missouri — now require active shooter drills in schools. Many more require some sort of preparation drill, such as a lockdown, a practice familiar to many students since the 1999 Columbine school shootings. “Active shooter” bills were introduced in 10 states in 2014, including Florida, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
But not all active shooter drills are surprises: WTVT spoke to officials in two neighboring Florida counties, where police said that their officers conduct drills in empty schools, usually over a holiday break.
Other departments give advance notice that such a drill will take place. An NBC News report looked at one Missouri school system that even actively involves student volunteers in the drills. For the drill, 69 Troy Buchanan High School students agreed to play bystanders, hostages, and victims — complete with fake blood — for officers wielding firearms, filled with blanks.
[This post has been updated]