BELEN—A mother and her two daughters running late to class were what allowed a fictitious gunman to enter a school during an active-shooter training last week.
His face covered and dressed all in black, Belen Consolidated Schools director of support services David Carter portrayed the “bad guy” during a training scenario at Rio Grande Elementary School Thursday morning.
A member of the district safety committee, Carter created the scenario in which an angry, armed parent “piggybacked” off the entrance of a woman and her children to gain access to the school.
“You can only plan to a certain point because your don’t know how it could go,” Carter said. “We needed a scenario, and I knew I wanted to be the bad guy, so I started thinking what would I do? Started thinking like a bad guy.”
As the harried mother and her children were buzzed into the building, Carter grabbed the door before it could close and lock behind them, allowing an armed intruder free run of the campus.
Carter made his way across the campus, slated for demolition later this year, firing blanks, angrily shouting for the principal.
He was finally stopped by law enforcement officers in the hallway of the 400 building.
The active-shooter drill was just one of several emergency response drills and activities that happened at the RGE campus last week.
With the new school nearly complete, Belen Consolidated Schools allowed fire department personnel, medical and rescue and SWAT teams from around the county to run real-life drills on the campus, giving them the ability to break down doors, smash windows and in one case, blow a hole in the side of a portable classroom.
Belen Police Chief Victor Rodriguez said the drill was not only a great opportunity to train with other agencies, but a great chance to perform real-life reactions.
“To be able to go through the building like we would in real life, we learned a lot first hand,” Rodriguez said. “It gave us a first-hand look at what that type of response would look like.”
Rodriguez said the exercise highlighted the department’s strengths, as well as areas that need work.
“It showed us we need to improve in our communications, what each officer is seeing was critical. For instance, if I’m first on scene and hear shots form the west side of campus, as officers are coming I need to communicate that so they won’t come into a hot zone,” the chief said. “This was a good opportunity to come together with our fellow law enforcement agencies, fire and emergency medical. We rarely train together, so this was a great experience to see how they respond and how we can communicate to make each others responses better.”
Carter said an active-shooter situation on a school campus is something that no one wants to happen, but everyone needs to be prepared for.
“With the involvement of staff, they have some idea of what to do. It’s never going to be what you think, but they will have some idea and can try to save as many lives as possible,” he said.
Belen Fire Chief Bret Ruff said fire and medical personnel did well setting up their sectors.
“One thing we took away, with the unified command system between the fire and police department, there’s a different way of communicating for fire and police,” Ruff said. “It was a really good training for us.”
Fire and medical personnel were able to work triage and extraction teams, Ruff said, as well as doing a simulated loading of a patient on a medical evacuation helicopter.
Diane Vallejos, Belen Consolidated Schools superintendent, said it was her hope the four-day training would benefit the entire county.
“This was not just about Belen. It’s important that people know this is a county response,” Vallejos said Thursday. “In a real situation, it would be the entire county responding. It’s important to have these kinds of drills that allow the different departments and agencies to learn how to communicate with each other across systems. We had great cooperation today.”
One of the big lessons learned during the active shooter training was the amount of time involved, the superintendent said.
“The amount of time it takes to clear buildings — it will take longer than people anticipate,” she said.
Another thing that will take time is medical assessments of everyone coming off the campus, regardless of whether they’ve been injured.
“All students and staff, regardless of condition, will need to speak to medical personal before being released,” Vallejos said.
In a real situation, a reunification site for parents and children would be established near the school.
“There also won’t be a lot of information available in the beginning,” Vallejos said.
During an actual emergency, the superintendent said information and updates will be put on the district’s website — beleneagles.org — not on the individual schools’ page, as well as its social media accounts.
Many agencies took advantage of the training by shooting video and photos during the exercises, and New Mexico Tech sent videographers to get footage for their training videos.
Jerry Esquivel, the Belen High School media arts teacher, shot video for a district training video from a teacher’s point of view. When law enforcement sweeps a building, those in hiding are asked to come out with their hands up. The first thing they often see are weapons trained on them.
“If you aren’t expecting that, it can be shocking,” Vallejos said.
Psychologists were on hand during the drill, just like they would be in the event of an actual shooting.
“Even during a drill, it can trigger unexpected emotions,” the superintendent said.
Rodriguez said, bottom line, nobody wants to have to respond to an active-shooter incident.
“Unfortunately, we live in a world where this is a reality and we have to prepare for it,” the chief said. “My sincere gratitude to BCS for taking the initiative to really put out how important this training is, and allowing law enforcement and fire to participate.”
Members of the Belen police and fire departments, Valencia County Sheriff’s Office, Los Lunas Police Department, Valencia County Fire Department and New Mexico State Police participated in the drills last week.
Julia M. Dendinger began working at the VCNB in 2006. She covers Valencia County government, Belen Consolidated Schools and the village of Bosque Farms. She is a member of the Society of Professional Journalists Rio Grande chapter’s board of directors.