It's about 8:42 in the morning, and you have just sat down at your desk with a cup of hot coffee. As the sheriff of this small rural community, you are reviewing the overnight reports from your graveyard shift deputies. It was, as usual, a relatively uneventful night.
Unbeknownst to you as you read your reports, only about five minutes before, a nondescript car with tinted windows along with two minivans just rolled into the parking lot of your local county elementary school. They stop near the school's main office, parking along the curb.
The doors suddenly fly open and out rush teams of hooded, armed men. They are carrying military load-bearing equipment, handguns, canteens, small backpacks and have rifles, M-16s and AK-47s. They rush to the doors, and immediately two of the men move directly to the front office. The men charge inward, a team of three others follows behind, and two more are hand-carrying a large kit bag between them. The hooded intruders begin to fan out through the school, several rushing down the halls toward the side door exits.
The secretary at the front desk jumps up with her mouth open, ready to scream, but she is slammed to the floor as the two men with weapons pointing shout for all to move away from their desks. One of the men grasps the microphone for school announcements. The other man rounds up those in the office - the vice principal, a student - and orders them to sit down on their hands; another hooded man comes in and begins to quick cuff them. The team with the kit bag moves to the auditorium shouting for the workers to move from the kitchen inside the room. A teacher in the hallway upon seeing armed men running toward her begins to scream, some doors open as teachers peer out. Systematically, armed men enter classrooms screaming orders while blasting air horns for the children to move to the lunchroom. It's chaos at one end of school. Rapidly, students and teachers are herded to the auditorium that doubles as the lunchroom.
An accented, angry voice comes over the intercom system: "Attention, attention teachers. You must move your students to the auditorium immediately." There are screams and confusion in the hallways; one teacher in her classroom begins to argue with one of the men; he shoots her in the head in front of her class. Another teacher, sensing the spreading danger, closes and locks her classroom door, quickly she yells to open the windows and tells the children to climb out and run away. A driver passing by sees a group of children rolling off the school's window ledges and darting across the athletic field.
The auditorium begins to fill. Armed men demand that everyone sit down on their hands; teachers are being beaten and cuffed; children are crying and wetting their clothes; others sit in silent, stunned shock. The men with the kit bag begin to unload homemade bombs. They look like military mines, plastic explosives packed with BBs and buck shot surrounded by duct tape. White milk jugs filled with jelled gasoline are brought out, too. The terrorists are booby trapping the student body.
Its now 8:47 a.m., and you receive a call from the city police, who relay that they just got a hysterical 911 call from the school. "People with guns are in the school!"
What you don't know is that this scenario is also simultaneously playing out in rural schools in Oregon, Colorado, Kentucky and Maine.
What do you do?
As you jump up, you yell a code word alert for the school; you rush to the arms room and order all deputies to move with you. What is your manpower? What deputies and police are available? What is the response time for your special weapons team? Do you have one? Your police dispatch is crying - she has two children at that school. Who do you call at the state level?
As you climb into your cruiser slinging on a flak vest, a city patrolman is at the scene. He can't tell much from outside; he does see vehicles parked at the curb. The alert teacher who sent her students through the window comes running to the patrolman and describes what she saw. As you speed to the school, cable news networks are breaking in around the United States with reports of a school under attack or seizure, first from some small-town location in Kentucky, then another state; the news is confusing.
You arrive by the field across from the school; it's 8:56. You are thinking of the need to seal the area. A state trooper cruiser speeds in. You hear the sounds of fire trucks en route. You are thinking whether you know the layout of the school; whether you know where all entry and exit points are; whether there are clandestine entry points. Finally, you remember what happened in Russia, and you can't believe this is real. Can you try to contain or control this situation? Have you prepared for this test?
I hope so. I hope, too, that the state has planned for it; that procedures, chains of command and jurisdictions are clear. I hope all first responders have thought about this and trained for it. I hope our schools have plans, alerts and procedures in place to react, not from instructions from the principal, but from good instincts and "triggering activities." I hope in terms of combat response that our police can act quickly if need be - to stop a massacre on their own without support - and they have at least practiced once for it.
Time is of the essence. Lt. Col. Joseph C. Myers, a Huntsville native, is a graduate of West Point and Tulane University. He has served in a variety of infantry and foreign area officer positions within the United States and overseas. He is an expert on terrorism and insurgency and served as chief of the South America Division at the Defense Intelligence Agency. His e-mail address is Joseph.Myers [at] maxwell.af.mil.
Last updated 11.26.04