Sheriff's deputies train in active shooter simulation at Harris County High School

mrice@ledger-enquirer.comDecember 21, 2012 

A different kind of bell was ringing at Harris County High School as bells rang across the country at 9:30 a.m. Friday to commemorate the moment a week ago when an intruder fatally shot 20 first-graders and six teachers in Newtown, Conn.

This bell signaled the end of the first block of classes, but the school was closed for Christmas break. Instead, Harris County sheriff's deputies used the empty campus to simulate the same horrific emergency that has shaken the nation.

"This is the way we pay reverence," Harris County Sheriff Mike Jolley said. "We pay our reverence by being prepared."

In fact, Jolley had scheduled to use the school at this time for this training months ago. But he welcomed the coincidence for the chance to increase the resolve among the 42 deputies who went trained in shifts Wednesday or Friday.

"I spent 20 years in the Army, and I've been in law enforcement 20 years, so I know it," Jolley said. "You can prepare to stop an intruder once they've started, but there's no amount of preparation that's going to stop someone from coming into a school if he is determined to do it."

So the question Friday for the deputies was what to do after they get a call about shots fired at a school.

And, for Lt. Kyle Senette, this was personal.

"Very personal," said the 13-year deputy with four children in Harris schools and his wife teaching in the district.

Senette said the news of the Connecticut shootings was "an eye-opening experience" for him.

"A little town like that, it shows it can happen anywhere," he said. "No one is immune from it. We just try to protect the community the best we can."

The Friday morning scenario required one deputy to go down a hallway and find the intruder after the school went into lockdown.

"It's totally different from the old training," Jolley said. "In the old way, we would secure the scene and wait for SWAT. Now, the first deputy that gets there goes in and tries to confront the shooter, because every 30 seconds someone is getting shot.

"The shooter will either commit suicide or flee when confronted. We want to stop the carnage, so he has to be confronted as soon as possible."

During the active shooter simulation Friday morning, the deputies had two tries to "kill" or be "killed." Senette was among those who passed the first time.

He "killed" the acting intruder with four simulated bullets to his body and without shooting any bystanders or getting shot himself. Four off-duty state troopers played the intruder and bystanders.

"It's an ever-changing environment," Senette said. "You've always got to be on your toes. You've got to make sure you are aware of your surroundings so you don't shoot the wrong person. Avoid the tunnel vision but stay focused on your task."

Jeannie Hughes, the school's receptionist, also must stay focused on her task. She volunteered her time, along with school bookkeeper Deborah Browning, to help with the simulation Friday. Hughes' assignment was to get on the intercom and calmly announce, "Attention teachers. Lockdown. Intruder."

"You don't make it wordy," she said, "just nice and brief."

Wednesday's simulation had extra realism because it was conducted while the faculty was at the school for an in-service day. Hughes, who has worked in the district for 22 years, praised the teachers for locking their doors and staying in their classrooms.

"You wouldn't believe how silent it got," she said. "It was very, very intense, almost eerie."

But the deputies' performance was comforting, Hughes said, just as it was when a tornado hit the school last year.

"I feel great about them," she said. "There's no doubt in my mind about them."

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