“Look at me when I shoot you.”
The young woman stalks around the darkened room, repeating those seven words. She winds her way along the back wall, where there are stacks of chairs and people cowering behind them. Then she turns back and walks up and down two long rows of tables in the middle of the room, stopping periodically. She has a gun in her hand.
‘Look at me when I shoot you.” She points the pistol at teachers and bus drivers and custodians as we hide behind chairs, beneath desks, behind each other, behind anything. We cannot fight back. We cannot run. She moves chairs, crouches beneath the desks and pulls the trigger. Halfway through, after more than a dozen shots, she runs out of ammo. So she switches to another handgun.
With each pull of the trigger, there’s a hollow pop as a small pellet shoots out of the airsoft gun and smacks into the waiting, defenseless victim. Each pull of the trigger is accompanied by the blast of an air horn.
I wedge myself into a corner, with a small chair pulled in front of me. It’s a flimsy shelter, but, miraculously, it works. There are 30-some people in that room, all waiting silently for the woman to find them. She will shoot them all, from pointblank range, telling each of them to look at her as she does it.
I don’t get shot. She walks within a foot of me — close enough that I could’ve pushed the chair into her legs, close enough that I could see her black and white athletic shoes.
It is disturbing. But there is a method to the faux carnage. This particular scenario — where we hide and wait for the inevitable — aims to show those teachers and bus drivers and custodians and me that you cannot just hide in place should the worst come to your school. If you do and the gunman opens your classroom door, you will (almost certainly) be shot. Such is the lesson of Virginia Tech, where 29 people were killed in four classrooms.
The scenario played out May 10 as part of the Natrona County School District’s ALICE training. It’s an active shooter preparation class, a four hour-long exercise that came less than three months after a shooting at a Parkland, Florida, high school left 17 dead and one week before 10 more students and staff were slaughtered in Santa Fe, Texas.
But the training predates those massacres. Andrea Nester, the district’s risk manager, has been teaching it since December 2014. That’s two years to the month after a gunman walked into Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Connecticut, and murdered children. Since then, there have been more than 200 school shootings.
ALICE — which stands for alert, lockdown, inform, counter and evacuate — has been mandatory teaching in the district since August 2016, Nester says. After that May 10 session, there was only one district employee who has yet to receive the training.
Nester is ex-military and looks like it. She promises to curse only five times during the training. She is blunt but kind and patient. If there is one message to take away from her training, it is this: We’ve been doing it wrong.
'Every second is precious'
It’s imperative that you fight back. Fighting can be swarming the gunman — it is almost always a man, or a boy — or throwing something at him to distract him, Nester explains. A book, a rock, a calculator. It can be barricading the room you’re in, or jumping from windows. Or it can be simply running away, as fast as you can.
There’s an implicit admission beneath it all: We cannot stop the killing. But we can try to minimize it.
“When (I) hear about these active killer incidents ... it sickens me,” Nester says. “I think, ‘If I could have just told them one thing.’ Keep moving. Keep running. Do something. Don’t think that anybody is going to have pity on you.”
Schools and police have tried to adapt to this reality, Nester tells the class. After Columbine, where 13 students were murdered — many of them hiding beneath desks in the library — schools across the country were desperate for a way to protect themselves. They found a solution in Los Angeles, where students were trained to lockdown: Hide in place, stay away from windows.
But L.A. isn’t Newtown or Columbine or Blacksburg or Casper. Drive-by shootings are common there, so hiding in place and staying away from windows makes sense. It makes less sense when there’s a gunman prowling the halls, she says. An open classroom might as well be a net.
Police changed, too. They treated Columbine like a hostage situation. But for the gunmen, it was kill as many as you can, while you can. They didn’t take hostages.
You don’t want to wait for the police anyway, Nester says. There’s a calculation, a formula that holds that every second is precious in an active-shooter situation. She takes a black marker and scribbles on a white board at the front of the room. It takes a few minutes for a 911 call to be placed. The police take several more minutes to respond. A gunman kills someone every few seconds. She concludes: In 11 minutes, by the time police have responded and everything is over, there’s time for 44 people to be shot.
So you run, or you swarm, or you barricade.
You keep moving.
'What could've been'
More than half of the four-hour training is preparation, learning about past attacks and talking through scenarios. But there’s a pile of face masks in the corner and a pair of black air soft guns on the desk. We know the scenarios are coming.
I had been warned beforehand from people who had gone through the training that the scenarios were intense. Nester doesn’t play the shooter. We, the trainees, take turns. After the first scenario — where the woman shot people as they hid behind chairs — is an exercise in which a gunman walks in and everyone is instructed to run out of the three exits in the building.
In that scenario, only a handful of people are hit by the small white pellets. But it’s intense enough that two participants run out of the building and so far away that it takes about 10 minutes before we’re all back together again.
For the third scenario, it’s “full ALICE,” Nester explains. She paces in front of the two long rows of tables as she talks. That means we can tackle the gunman, we can run, we can throw things at him or her.
I shouldn’t say we, and I shouldn’t say “or her,” because I raise my hand to play the killer. I’m sent outside, where I pace nervously and the adrenaline begins to pump so rapidly that my hands shake and I practically vibrate as light rain falls around me.
After briefing the other trainees, Nester comes out and hands me the gun. She asks me how many people I think I can shoot and which door I want to use. She tells me they can throw bottles and shoes at me. I nod (I later find out she didn’t mean it — the participants could only throw small plush balls). She asks me if I want both guns or just one. I take one and flip the safety off.
I turn from her and walk in and shoot five people, killing two of them as nearly everyone runs in a packed mob. I don’t remember how many times I squeezed the trigger. I remember a man rushing me and tripping before I shot him. I remember a Natrona County High teacher hiding under a desk. I shot her, too. Someone else — I remember his gray shirt — is behind a desk, lobbing the plush balls. I turn and shoot him.
It ends there. Most people are gone. I hit Gray Shirt in the upper shoulder, he curses, and I take my mask off and apologize profusely. People hate the media enough as it is.
It is disturbing. I agonized over writing this part at all: This story is not about getting into the mind of a killer. I couldn’t do that if I tried. I add it only to attest that the flurry of movement — the man rushing me, the dozens rushing out, Gray Shirt flinging plush balls at me — distracted me. I wonder if I would’ve shot more had the man not rushed me, if I would’ve shot anyone if he hadn’t tripped. Probably not.
The point is there was a response. Nester tells us that the death toll at Parkland sickens her because it was so high, because it was a lockdown school. It isn’t victim blaming, distinctly not. But it’s sorrow and frustration at what could’ve been — at what could’ve not been.
I wonder if Nester personally supports arming staff. Perhaps aware that a reporter and a photographer are in the audience, she waffles when the training inevitably goes there. But she doesn’t endorse it. The final scenario — which I’ll refrain from describing for the benefit of future trainees — supports that stance.
Throughout the entire four-hour training, I notice something. Nester references many past massacres: Columbine, Virginia Tech, Newtown (the one that makes her heart hurt most). But she refers to those gunmen as active killers. They are just active killers, faceless boys and young men carrying handguns and assault weapons and an intent that is deadly but otherwise unknowable.
She explains at the end that she won’t say their names. Not today, not ever. They’re sick, she says, and people don’t — won’t — understand them.
“One of the survivor accounts from Virginia Tech said, ‘I thought it was weird he didn’t say anything before he shot me,’” Nester says. She pauses and stops pacing. “Why is that weird?”
You won’t understand them, she says again.
But she will say other names. She wants us to remember these people.
First is 17-year-old Oregonian Jake Ryker. In 1998, he was shot in the chest and hand in a cafeteria after a boy walked in with a rifle. Ryker stood back up and tackled him. Two students were killed and more than 20 injured.
Next, she writes Frank Hall’s name. He was an Ohio teacher in 2012, when a gunman walked into his school’s cafeteria. Hall slammed his hands on a table and yelled at the teen before chasing him out of the school, as the gunman turned to fire at Hall. Three students died, and three more were wounded.
Third came Virginia Tech Professor Liviu Librescu. He was a Holocaust survivor who was teaching a solid mechanics class when the gunman began killing people. Librescu held his classroom door closed as his students scrambled out the window. The professor was shot five times and died, as did one of his 15 students.
Finally, Nester writes the name of a 6-year-old. Jesse Lewis was a student at Sandy Hook. The gunman walked into his classroom and killed his teacher. Then he ran out of ammo. Jesse yelled at his classmates to run. Nine kids did. The gunman reloaded and killed Jesse.
“That first room (at Sandy Hook), there was one survivor because they fell with everyone else,” Nester tells us. “But there were nine from the second room because of Jesse Lewis. Jesse Lewis did not survive. But he is a hero.”
Nester continues, speaking quickly and powerfully, a point on every word.
“These are the people we should remember.”
She wants us to leave with one thing, if nothing else, the lesson from these four people, a teenager and two teachers and a child.