Donoven Brooks encourages staff in Harford County Public Schools to run, hide or fight were an an active assailant situation to occur in their school.
Donoven Brooks encourages staff in Harford County Public Schools to run, hide or fight were an an active assailant situation to occur in their school. (Erika Butler)

In the morning, about 50 Harford County Public Schools staff learned the whys of “run, hide, fight” when it comes to an active assailant situation in their school. In the afternoon, they put what they learned into practice in four different situations.

Friday’s sessions were the culmination of the school system’s effort since November to train every one of its 5,500 staff members in Active Assailant Critical Response Training, or ACRT, led by Donoven Brooks, the director of safety and security for the school system.

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“Our goal is to keep students, staff, administrators and visitors safe while in our schools and to show them how to keep themselves safe, as safe as possible,” Brooks said.

The training is part of Harford’s Stay Safe Program, developed in response to the 2018 Maryland Safe to Learn Act, which also includes training of school resource officers, school safety evaluations and mental health services.

Later this quarter, students from pre-kindergarten through 12th grade will begin to receive their introductory training. It will include discussion and walk-through responses only, no simulated drills.

After videos, examples and discussions in the morning, staff were given four scenarios in the afternoon to react to.

“You’ll be given the opportunity to participate. That’s where empowerment comes from, you’ll try things you don’t think you can try,” Jackie Tarbert, coordinator leadership and development, said. “It’s important stuff, empowering for you as a person. It’s not just what might happen in school, we know it’s everywhere. It’s a terrible place in our society right now. Having training helps provide us with a survivor’s mindset.”

Media was invited to attend the morning classroom session Sept. 13, but, for safety reasons, not the afternoon practical application.

The reasons

In March 2018, at a town hall-style meeting in Harford County following school shootings in Florida and in Maryland, parents told their leaders Harford isn’t doing enough.

During a planned walkout a month later, Harford school leaders asked that students instead participated in an in-school assignment — 95 percent of them did, Brooks said.

“I can’t tell you how valuable it was. They were directed to talk about the impact of events on them, express ideas and their reactions,” he said. “A lot of what was put into our program was based on information we received from primary stakeholders, our students. What they think and what they have to say matters.”

Part of what students said was that they wanted more than to be told to crawl under a desk and wait.

Staff were warned at the beginning that the training can be emotional and cause anxiety. They will wonder if they’ll be able to react if or when necessary.

“It’s terrible to have to do this, but it’s something we have to do,” Tarbert said. “You have to go through this training for yourself first. You can’t help but think about your own children, children in Harford County Public Schools. Focus on yourself as a learner and what you’re supposed to do.”

Throughout the training, Tarbert and Brooks talked about a survivor’s mindset, that the staff will survive an active assailant.

“Can you get through an active assailant incident? We want you to say, ‘yes,’ ” Tarbert said. “That’s where we’re going to be at the end of the day. Think about what you will do, the sense of strategy you will employ when faced with an active assailant, and you can say yes, because we have a survivor’s mindset.”

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No one knows how they will react in the event of an active assailant incident, Brooks said. The training provided to the staff is to give them options, and hopefully they will make the right decision if faced with the threat.

“What we learned over time, is that we can’t take a one-size-fits-all approach to every situation, but that’s pretty much what we did previously,” Brooks said. “Our hope is that when you leave here today, whatever it involves, you decide to fight for your life.”

Shelter in place vs. run, hide, fight

For years, staff and students have been taught to shelter in place in the event of an active assailant situation, Brooks said. But in many cases, sheltering in place and waiting for help to arrive doesn’t work.

“Locking down is not the only option,” Brooks said. “You have options in an active assailant event. Run, hide or fight may save your life and the lives of others tomorrow."

Staff are the first responders to any type of active assailant incident, and they need to be prepared when something happens, he said.

The average response time in an active shooter situation is 4 minutes. Such attacks, however, only last seconds, maybe a minute and a half, Brooks said. When you’re dealing with a situation, time seems like an eternity.

He clapped out 10 seconds.

“How much damage can be done in that time? A lot,” Brooks said. “Your will to live through an active assailant situation has got to be greater than than the will of the person who’s trying to do you harm.”

Fighting, rather than complying, will provide a chance to stay alive. And if you’re hurt, keep fighting — being hurt doesn’t mean you’re going to die, Brooks told the staff.

The assailant

The FBI has stayed away from creating hard and fast profiles on active assailants, particularly students, Brooks said.

Most active assailants in schools are familiar to the students and staff, they know the building where they intend to carry out an attack. They study, and study some more, as they plan.

Nicole A. Cevario, a student at Catoctin High School in Frederick County, kept a journal as she planned an attack on her school. Her parents found the journal and called police before she could carry it out, Brooks said.

That journal chronicled movements of the school resource officer for hours.

“Why?” Brooks asked. “Who will a shooter take out first? The only person with a gun.”

Cevario also knew the evacuation points in the school and planned to put explosives there to fill escaping bodies with shrapnel.

“That makes it seem like there are multiple assailants in the building,” Brooks said.

Cevario studied other shooters, looking for their mistakes. She looked at the shootings prevented and found that a lot of assailants changed their behavior leading up to the attack, Brooks said.

“What’s chilling about this, she was an honor student. Her grades never dropped,” he said. “She was on nobody’s radar, and that was intentional.”

Assailants usually can’t be talked down once they begin their assault, Brooks said.

“We’re preparing because we’ve seen enough that when a person makes a decision to go hurt people, they’re going to do it,” he said.

There are various types of shooters: a disgruntled individual, a self-motivated terrorist, a revenge seeker or a fame seeker.

Ten years ago, most shootings ended in suicide, a trend that is slowly changing, Brooks said.

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“If the goal is to top the last shooter by five [people], they think ‘how will I know that if I die? If I go out in a blaze of glory with the cops?'” Brooks said. “A lot don’t have suicidal plans any more. Some can’t wait to talk to detectives. They know they’re going to jail — papers come to jail, they can see the news on TV in jail. At some point they will see if they reached their goal.”

ACT — Actions Changes Things

Factors that matter in an active shooter incident are time, space and distance, Brooks said.

If a gun is being fired on the first floor and you’re on the second, is there time to get out of the building, to create space, then distance? If the answer is yes, Brooks said, do it — run.

If they can’t get out using a door, consider a window, and break it in a corner with a hard object. The shatterproof protective glass often found in schools will shatter like a spiderweb and that can break the window.

“Are a few scrapes, cuts, abrasions better than dying?” Brooks asked. “I’d take stitches over a eulogy any day.”

Jumping from a second-floor window to the ground and sustaining a possible broken ankle is a way to avoid bullets.

Those factors also matter if a shooter is only 5 feet away. In the time it takes to react, a victim will decide if they’re going to create more space or close the distance between him or her and the shooter.

“If you close the distance, chances are you’re going to get into a fight,” Brooks said.

When choosing to fight, Brooks urges staff to “use anything for a weapon.”

“Anything to disrupt an assailant’s attention,” Brooks said. “Do whatever you can. There are no rules when somebody is trying to take your life.”

If you must hide, stay calm and remember that help is on the way, he said. Lock the doors, keep the students calm. Turn off electronics to keep them quiet and not give away their location. Block the doors with furniture and other items.

In Harford schools, student drills were designed with support of teachers, because they’re the ones who will be with students.

“Students look to take direction from their teachers,” Brooks said.

Student training

Information regarding the HCPS Stay Safe Program and the ACRT protocols will be shared at upcoming Parent Academies and on the HCPS.org website.

“We will look at introductory concepts, the options of run, hide, fight for all students,” Jackie Tarbert said. “What does the message look like for a 5-year-old, a 12-year old, a 16-year-old?"

The message will be the same, but the way it’s delivered slightly different, she said.

“The key message is adults will keep you safe, listen to them,” Tarbert said.

At the elementary school level, the training will be “dorky, fun, upbeat,” she said. Middle and high school students will be shown the video staff was shown during their training, which depicts scenarios in a school building and options that are available.

Walk-through, talk-through drills — not simulated action — will go over with students where they are, what options they have, what kinds of things are in the classrooms that can be used to barricade a door or as a distraction.

“The concept of fight seems like fists, but it’s also about distraction — what can they throw to distract an assailant?" Tarbert said, suggesting pencils, books, computers, even the shoes they’re wearing. “We all have something all the time, we all have something to distract. “Don’t underestimate the power of distraction.”

With their training in hand, the school system’s staff is encouraged to share what they have learned.

“We have 4,700 people who are part of our message," Tarbert said. “You guys are part of the message now.”

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