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Atascadero police and other local law agencies get a hint of Columbine horror

jjohnston@thetribunenews.com

Even though the scenario was fake, Atascadero High School freshman Sigrid Derickson could feel the thud of her heart pounding when a shooter wearing a camouflage mask stepped inside her classroom Monday morning and yelled, “Bang. Bang.”

The high school was closed Monday, but about 100 students and 10 teachers volunteered to play victim in what police describe as a staged Columbine-like shooting and bombing.

The Atascadero Police Department organized the mass-casualty training with other local agencies to learn how to better communicate and work together in an emergency.

The start of the day was scripted — but students really screamed. Classroom windows really shook after fake bombs went off.

“It was surreal,” Derickson said.

“The sobering thing for everyone is to realize why we have to do this,” Atascadero schools Superintendent John Rogers said, noting such tragedies can occur anywhere.

In April 1999, students Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo., killed 13 students in a mass shooting.

A piercing buzz of the school’s alarms kicked off the event at 11 a.m. Two students with unloaded weapons were told to run through campus and charge into classrooms, pretending to shoot.

Each group, depending on their role, was given a script. Little information was shared so surprises kept the training real, police said.

The students were told to phone police dispatchers for simulated 911 reports. Others were directed to run around campus and try to get into locked doors, or collapse on stairs and picnic tables when they became injured.

“We could hear people scratching and banging on the doors, trying to get in,” Derickson said.“But we couldn’t open the door because they could’ve been under the influence of the shooter,” freshman Rebecca Mason said.

The San Luis Obispo County Regional SWAT team directed their class to put their cell phones on their desks “so we couldn’t call our parents,” Mason said. “Then they’d come and get hurt.”

The teens then crawled single-file out the door on their elbows, shielding their heads with their hands.

Senior Brad Priest, selected as a shooter, stood in a paramedic triage zone, holding an IV bag and pointing to the fake gunshot wound on his abdomen as he described his role.

He was given free range to run through school and told to dodge police to keep the search real.

About 75 responders were on scene, representing various local fire departments, paramedics and police. Twin Cities Community Hospital also took part — specifically requesting burn victims for training.

“We all hold our own scenarios,” Atascadero’s acting chief of police Steve Gesell said. “But we never hold them together. That’s the real takeaway.”

The need for more walkie-talkies, identifying which individuals had knowledge of the buildings’ layout and keys to doors were among the lessons learned. The agencies plan to debrief in the coming weeks on other ways to improve.

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