April 20th will mark the ten-year anniversary of the Columbine High School massacre. Our nation learned a history-altering lesson at great expense that day, as the most deadly American high school shooting unfolded.
This tragedy took the lives of 12 students and a teacher. Twenty-three more were wounded before Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, the shooters, killed themselves. What was the lesson? Be prepared.
Law enforcement agencies across the United States and other countries studiously dissected the assault as well as events leading up to that day. From those studies Special Weapons And Tactics (SWAT) teams have implemented new strategies to quickly stabilize attempted mass shootings or hostage situations in public settings, dramatically minimizing the carnage.
I recently had the privilege of participating in one such training exercise. On March 20th my daughter, Kimberly and I were invited to assist the Maricopa County Sheriff's Department by being "victims" in a hostage rescue operation at a vacant high school.
We joined about 25 other volunteers and 63 uniformed officers from a variety of law enforcement agencies who were outfitted with bullet-proof vests and fake-but realistic training weapons.
They referred to us as the "actors" as it was our job to act like victims in a school hostage take-over. We were split into two groups and escorted to different locations on campus. Those involved in the training were unaware of our location. Eleven instructors observed from a distance as those participating located and "rescued" us.
I don't want to give away the methods I observed that day but suffice it to say that there were loud explosions and precise, rapid actions all around us. The idea was to spike the adrenaline of these responders as we forced them to contain this threat in the midst of live human beings who were hysterical and terrified. I could barely speak for two days because of all the screaming.
Sergeant Buddy Acritelli, Tactical Operation Unit Supervisor, SWAT Division, Maricopa County Sheriff's Office was in charge of the training event. "My thoughts [after the Columbine incident] were that the way we have to protect our children has forever changed," he said. Although there have been other "active shooter" type cases within the United States, Columbine was the largest and most violent incident of school place violence.
"We know that we simply can't wait when these acts of random violence occur," Acritelli explained. "Officers are trained for quick response and go immediately to the threat."
While response time, tactics and training techniques have improved since 1999 for police agencies, threats continue to occur, and not just in schools. This was most recently demonstrated in the mass attack at the American Civic Association in Binghamton, NY on April 3rd. Sadly, violence and mayhem will always be with us.
But as we remember the shock and grief of the Columbine massacre ten years ago, we can do so with a measure of gratitude that valuable lessons have been learned. We can also feel a little more peaceful knowing that those in charge of protecting our children are sharp, prepared and more vigilant than before April 20, 1999.
(For an extended version of this story please see Tribune News for a three-part series)