Howard organization promotes safety in response to domestic terrorism

"A lot more people are having their worlds shattered by violence with mass shootings than ever."

According to Ellicott City resident Angie Kozlowski, many people were taught to stop, drop and roll at a young age if their clothing were ever to catch on fire.

"I can talk to anyone who grew up in this country who is my age, or maybe younger, and ask, 'If your clothing caught on fire, what would you do?'" Ellicott City resident Angie Kozlowski said. "Every person would say, 'You stop, drop and roll.'"

But, as the number of active shootings, bombings and other forms of domestic terrorism rise, Kozlowski said its time for citizens to learn to "run, hide, fight," educating the citizens on what to do if they find themselves in the middle of tragedy.

"A lot more people are having their worlds shattered by violence with mass shootings than ever," Kozlowski said. "If I'm just the random person in the supermarket or in the movie theater, I don't have that benefit of [knowing what to do]."

That's why Kozlowski joined the National Center for Citizen Safety, working to close "the gap in the education and public awareness" in schools, businesses and other gathering places and potentially save lives. As an effort to raise funds for survivor programs, the nonprofit organization is continuing to spread the word in preparation for their Survivor Strong 5k Run & Walk on Aug. 30 in Columbia.

NCCSAFE founder and president Lois Blevins began the groundwork for the organization during her work with U.S. Secret Service's National Police Challenge relay in memory of fallen police officers, Concerns for Police Survivors, or C.O.P.S., as well as the Department of Homeland Security's Surge Capacity Force, where she helped survivors in New York.

"A year after Hurricane Sandy, I thought all these shootings and bombings started to become such an epidemic in America," she said. "I thought it would be really interesting if we could bring these types of survivors together."

Unfortunately, Blevins' team of volunteers and interns have found that many people do not know what to do in such a traumatic event. The first step, Kozlowski said, is to address the issue.

"Americans typically say, 'Oh, that was horrible. Let's not talk about it and then it won't happen,'" Kozlowski said. "Our mentality is let's just not go there again because we don't want it to happen again, but we really need to change that."

According to Blevins, active shootings generally occur within a 10-minute timeframe with first responders at the scene within the first five minutes "if we're lucky." Although the responders perform phenomenally, Blevins said, citizens need to know what to do until they get there.

One example Blevins shared occurred January 24, 2014 when 19-year-old Darion Marcus Aguilar, of College Park, shot and killed two employees at Zumiez skate shop in the Mall in Columbia. Former Howard County Police Chief William McMahon said he received the call around 11 a.m. that Saturday morning as he and his wife were about to embark on a three-day trip.

"I wasn't too far away and got there fairly quickly," McMahon said. "Our first concern was the welfare of the two people, Brianna Benlolo, [21, of College Park] and Tyler Johnson, [25, of Mount Airy], who were shot. It became apparent to us pretty quickly that both of those young people, unfortunately, were deceased and the young man in the shooting also killed himself."

A year before, McMahon said the police department participated in an annual simulated training exercise at the mall, enhancing officers' familiarity of the building and relationships with mall management and staff. The department also worked with the community to spread awareness of tactics should an incident take place.

Although the mall was very busy that day, McMahon said he was pleased to hear people inside responded appropriately, running away or hiding in nearby stores.

"They left the area or were ushered into stores [whose employees] brought in and let them shelter in place," he said. "Many of them did exactly what we told them: Get out of harm's way. Get some place where you can be sheltered."

Over the next 17 hours, police worked to clear the area and proceed with the investigation. Today, McMahon said he has stayed in touch with Blevins about NCCSAFE.

"It's a passionate group," he said. "Mrs. Blevins really has a passion for this that she's bringing to these young people to help them understand the ramifications. Every avenue you take to increase our public's knowledge [and] awareness of these incidents helps us all."

Before the race on Sunday, some survivors will share their stories as they rally the community for the cause. Former Howard County resident Michele Gay will also be among the crowd, speaking about her experience as a survivor after her daughter, Josephine Grace, was one of 20 children and six adults killed in the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting on December 14, 2012 in Newtown, CT.

A Columbia native and former teacher, Gay said began her own organization, Safe and Sound: A Sandy Hook Initiative, to honor her daughter and other survivors.

"Our whole platform is about empowering school communities to make their schools safer," Gay said. "For us, school safety is a broad term that covers anything that has to do with keeping children and staff save."

Since its foundation, Safe and Sound members speak nationwide to improve security in schools and provide platforms for building community relationships with first responders.

"Lois and I began talking and there was just a great synergy between what she is doing in advocating for citizen preparedness, violence prevention in communities and her work to support survivors," she said. "It's a great fit. The one great effort is that these events, in a large part, are preventable. There's a tremendous amount that we can do to empower our teachers and our students and our citizens and enhance our situation of awareness."

NCCSAFE member and Ellicott City mother Susan Weilminster said she's determined to voice readiness to her family and others.

"When Lois said she was starting the organization I thought, 'I want my kids to know what they should do,'" Weilminster said. "I want my kids to know what to do, I want your kids to know what to do and I want my family to know what to do and everybody else's family to know what to do. A simple run, hide and fight is all you need to do to save yourself. It's so easy and it's so lost right now."

Registration for the race is $35 and will begin at 7 a.m. on Aug. 30 at 6940 Columbia Gateway Drive in Columbia. The ceremony is scheduled promptly at 7:45 a.m. with the 5k start beginning at 8 a.m., rain or shine.

A large part of the organization's event planning was contributed by the following NCCSAFE interns: Matt Kerrigan, 21, of Crofton; Amanda Smith, 19, of Eldersburg; Mina Mathur, 19, of Ellicott City; Yixuan Wang, 24, of Baltimore; and Jiselle Lopez, 20, of Ellicott City.

Information on the Safe and Sound Initiative, go to http://www.safeandsoundschools.org.

For more information on the race, contact the event organizers at info@nccsafe.org or 1-844-4ACTSAF.

Copyright © 2019, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad
90°