Note: This is unlike most of my blogs, but is a big part of my life.
It’s been twelve years since April 20, 1999. An ordinary morning.
That was the morning two teenage boys woke up, got dressed, and went to school to embark on a deadly rampage. They killed 13 people, injured 24 and committed suicide. Columbine became a household word. The bullets fired that day tore a gaping hole through the heart of America, leaving each of us groping for a sense of security that will be forever lost.
By nightfall, April 20, 1999 was recorded as the third deadliest massacre in United States history on a school campus. Since then, Columbine has dropped to #4. (Virginia Tech, 2007, left 32 dead.) Evidence shows that shooting started at 11:19. The shooters took their own lives less than an hour after the rampage began.
It’s been twelve years. Ordinary years.
I think of those students and their teacher, and where they would be today if they had not crossed paths with two evil people that day.*
Rachel Scott, the first victim, would be 29, and she would probably still be making “to-do” lists and doodling in margins and celebrating a love for community service.
Coach Dave Sanders would be 59 today, and no doubt doing the math toward “the rule of 80,” or whatever state-regulated teacher pension plan he was on.
And Steve and Kyle and Cassie and Daniel and the others would be bursting from colleges and grad schools and into society – building families, traveling, chasing dreams, and joining their friends in probably mostly ordinary lives.
Ordinary lives. Ordinary days.
Rachel Scott, 17
Daniel Rohrbough, 15
Dave Sanders, 47
Kyle Velasquez, 16
Steve Curnow, 14
Cassie Bernall, 17
Isaiah Shoels, 18
Matthew Kechter, 16
Lauren Townsend, 18
John Tomlin, 16
Kelly Fleming, 16
Daniel Mauser, 15
Corey DePooter, 17
I have had a lot of time to think about Rachel and Coach Sanders and Corey and Cassie and the others who died that day. I think of Columbine High School and Jefferson County, Colorado often. In an ordinary week, I talk about it at least once or twice. Not as often as I used to, but it does come up in regular conversation in my world.
You see, I have a day job that could land me a spot on the old television program, “What’s My Line.”
In real life, I am the Director of Communications for a national law enforcement training center based at Texas State University-San Marcos: The Advanced Law Enforcement Rapid Response Training (ALERRT) Center.
Our program teaches first responding police officers how to go into an active shooter situation like Columbine or Virginia Tech or Fort Hood and stop the shooting. In fact, Mark Todd and Kim Munley, who stopped the shooter at Fort Hood in 2009, had just been through our training. The official Department of Defense After Action Report cites ALERRT as the standard in active shooter response training that ended the massacre and saved lives.
The ALERRT program started in San Marcos, Texas in the spring of 2001, in the aftermath of Columbine. Fuzzy black and white video of the shooters in the cafeteria, photos of students running from buildings and clinging to one another were burned into our minds. The Jefferson County, Colorado after-action reports had been released. The media had shouted out questions that regular people were whispering in front of televisions in living rooms across the nation: How could this happen? Who can we blame? Where were the cops? Why didn’t they stop it?
The first responding police officers did exactly what they were trained to do. The first shots were fired at Columbine and reported. The first patrol officers arrived on the scene, secured the perimeters and called in the Jefferson County SWAT team. The SWAT team, as is standard in most communities, was comprised of law enforcement officers who volunteer for the SWAT team above and beyond their regular assignments. They answered the call-out, left their regular assignments, assembled, and arrived 49 minutes after the first officers rolled onto the scene. In that time, 13 were killed and 24 injured.
A quick history lesson takes us back to the University of Texas Tower Shooting in 1966. A former Eagle Scout and Marine killed 16 people that day from a sniper’s perch atop the landmark tower. On-duty Austin police officers Houston McCoy and Ray Martinez climbed 29 flights of stairs to the top of the tower and took out the shooter. This effectively stopped the killing. And was a turning point in law enforcement training and procedure. Elite, highly trained, special weapons and tactics (SWAT) teams were created to deal with such violent, high risk operations. The first SWAT team rolled out in 1968 in Los Angeles. A few major cities even created fulltime SWAT teams.
By 1999, even smaller populations had multi-agency teams who would answer the call to action when needed. The Jefferson County, Colorado SWAT team was one. The Hays County SWAT team based in San Marcos, Texas was another. And the standard procedure that law enforcement trained to was to do exactly what the cops at Columbine did. Secure the perimeter and call in SWAT.
So ALERRT was born when the Hays County and San Marcos SWAT team members Terry Nichols, David Burns, John Curnutt along with Sheriff Don Montague and Police Chief Steve Griffith started looking at ways to better prepare. A training program that would offer our local first responding officers basic, life saving SWAT tactics and skill sets to enable them to go into an active shooter situation and stop the killing.
Flash forward from April 20, 1999 to the summer of 2001. The economy was tanking and small newspapers were taking the hit. I had left a career in journalism to take a job as the City of San Marcos grants coordinator.
Terry and David and I created the first grant proposals for ALERRT, with strong support from Texas State University and the Texas Tactical Police Officers Association, to share this new training program with other law enforcement professionals. We were awarded a few hundred thousand dollars from the governor’s office in early 2002 to take this training to other small agencies around Texas – agencies who didn’t have fulltime SWAT teams and could not afford much training.
9-11 happened about two months after we rolled out the program around Texas. ALERRT tactics and training was not exclusive to school violence.These tactics and principles would work with domestic terrorism and workplace violence. Our program became the first law enforcement operational training delivery approved by the United States Department of Homeland Security and today, ALERRT remains the only active shooter response program in their state catalog.
By 2003, the ALERRT program became a training center in the Texas State University’s Department of Criminal Justice. Five of us came to work fulltime to support this vital program.
Today, in our tenth year, we have trained more than 32,000 officers around the country through more than $23 million in federal and state funds. We have trained in 41 states and have been adopted as the state standard in a dozen states, with more on the request list to ramp up their programs. Beyond the small agencies we targeted from the beginning, large metro areas have adopted ALERRT as their standard training for active shooter response. (San Antonio, Houston, Dallas, Atlanta, New York, to name a few). And our request list continues to grow.
Our program teaches first responding patrol officers to go into a live fire situation, head toward the sound of gunfire, and stop the killer. In reality, that generally requires deadly force.
And it saves lives. I could go into detail about the fact that we also teach terrorism response, team maneuvers and low light tactics, entry breaching, and building approaches, but the ultimate goal is to stop the shooting.
I am honored to be a part of this program. It is anything but ordinary; and a good, if unlikely, profession for me.
I consider among my friends and heroes, John Michael Keyes and his wife Ellen, who lost their daughter, Emily, to an active shooter in Platte Canyon, Colorado. They turned from a successful software industry to create the “I LOVE U GUYS” Foundation, named for the last text they received from Emily. They developed a Standard Response Protocol, advancing student and school safety, that is available at no cost to school districts around the nation.
And I am proud to know A. J. DeAndrea, one of the Jefferson County SWAT team captains who led the charge into Columbine High School, as well as the Platte Canyon High School shooting in 2006. I’ve visited with Darrell Scott, whose daughter, Rachel, was the first fatality of the Columbine shooters; and I regularly talk to boots-on-the-ground heroes from around the country who have been first on the scene of active shooter situations that have made headlines.
But most importantly, every day I am privileged to work with people whose actions and efforts prevent tragic headlines. And allow for ordinary days to play out in unremarkable ways.
So that the Rachels and Kyles and Laurens and Coreys in our communities can grow old.
And live ordinary lives.
Really, it’s not too much to ask.
Listening to: Joan Baez – “Forever Young”
(* Without even thinking, you can probably name the University of Texas tower shooter by name – but do you know the names of any of the victims of any of the active shooter events through the years? It is a sad fact that more people know the names of the shooters in these events than the names of the victims. We ask the media to stop making celebrities of these evil shooters. Wishful thinking? Maybe so. But we can hope.)