What disaster looks like

Posted 5/19/11

“I need the P.D. gone,” Brown told Powell Police Officer Matt McCaslin during a terse phone call.

“You know and I know that the P.D.’s not going to leave,” McCaslin responded, urging Brown to put his red, plastic pistol on the ground …

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What disaster looks like


Southside school conducts drill

If I let the kids go, and I let the teacher go, I’ve got nothing,” the armed man told the police negotiator.

As a classroom full of rather bored fifth graders looked on, the frustrated Johnny Mock Brown worked to negotiate his way out of a Monday morning standoff with Powell police inside Southside Elementary School.

“I need the P.D. gone,” Brown told Powell Police Officer Matt McCaslin during a terse phone call.

“You know and I know that the P.D.’s not going to leave,” McCaslin responded, urging Brown to put his red, plastic pistol on the ground and exit Carla Newman’s darkened classroom with his hands up.

Seeing the jig was up, Brown told police he’d be coming out.

After a brief scuffle in which Brown attempted to use Newman as a shield, the man was handcuffed and taken into custody. A moment later, he returned to the classroom, uncuffed, with officers.

There, it was reiterated that Brown — actually city of Powell Engineer Sean Christensen — was only a pretend character in a emergency preparedness drill.

Though Newman’s students generally assessed the drill as “kind of boring,” security officials dubbed it a success.

“Overall, it was the tightest lockdown I’ve ever seen,” said Tom Quisenberry, a private security consultant hired by Park County School District No. 1 to help test the school system’s emergency procedures.

“The security design of your building is fantastic, and your staff used it to good advantage,” said Powell Police Chief Tim Feathers during a debriefing after the drill.

Under the scenario drawn up by Quisenberry’s Patriot Services, school personnel, Powell police and the Park County Homeland Security Department, Brown was attempting to say goodbye to his son at Southside — something a court order barred him from doing.

On his first trip into Southside on Monday morning, Brown was extremely polite in asking to see his son. As expected, Southside staff turned him away and, after receiving word from district administration officials that Brown had been reported by his ex-wife to be acting strange, locked down the school as he was leaving.

“That was fast. That was very fast,” said Patriot Service’s Rob House as the school’s doors clicked shut.

In fact, it was so fast, that drill operators had to open the locked doors for Brown to allow him to return, armed, to the school under the second phase of the plan.

“Under the circumstances of this scenario, it was over with before it actually started,” said Mart Knapp, Park County’s Homeland Security Coordinator and a controller in the drill.

But with more procedures to be tested, Brown was able to make it into Newman’s class, where he was taken into custody roughly an hour later.

During the course of the drill, Powell EMTs successfully helped a staffer experiencing a simulated panic attack, and a parent — who had been asked to try entering the school as part of the drill — couldn’t see anyone inside and police told her she couldn’t be there.

Two second-graders acting in the drill went door-to-door and pleaded, amid a few giggles, to be let in. Following procedure, teachers did not open their doors.

As expected, the drill did identify areas for improvement: The lockdown notice was hard to hear in some of the rooms. It took several minutes for the teachers out at recess to notice the building had gone on lockdown. Responding EMTs and Powell Volunteer Fire Department personnel had some difficulty getting into the building. It was unclear who was in charge as the incident commander.

Powell school district Superintendent Kevin Mitchell and others said communication needed to be better between the schools and with police.

“We really didn’t know anything what was happening at the school,” said Mitchell. For example, the folks in administration didn’t know the students at recess had been taken to the Dick Jones Trucking parking lot, the school’s evacuation area.

Knapp said communications are always the weakest point in emergency drills, and on Monday, there were a couple significant miscommunications.

An officer’s broken transmission saying an area of the school was secure was misunderstood as word that the suspect had been secured.

“I know I was very surprised when you said suspect’s in custody, and I was just down there and I knew that he wasn’t,” Knapp said.

Police said they plan to work on improving the radio reception in several Powell schools.

Another miscommunication was that Newman had actually emailed the office before Brown got to the classroom, sending a message that everything was fine. That caused confusion, especially since all the windows except for the room with the hostile adult were covered up with paper. Officers had no way of knowing which classrooms had students in them and were secure.

“If I hadn’t looked though the (classroom door) window and seen him (Brown) ducking behind the corner, it would have been, could have been, a different scenario,” said Officer Paul Sapp.

Officials discussed possibly setting up a system where teachers could indicate their room is safe and secure, such as by pushing cards underneath their door.

Southside Principal Ginger Sleep said the drill was a little stressful, but good to practice.

“I think the biggest thing is if our kids are safe,” she said. One issue during the drill, Sleep said, was that several students had to go to the bathroom in trash cans during the lockdown.

Many safety precautions were taken during the drill, such as policemen’s firearms being stripped of all ammunition. Further steps were taken to avoid any children getting scary dreams as a result of the drill: hence a fifth grade class was chosen to host Brown, police carried their long rifles only in the empty hallways, Brown never pulled out his gun and the pretend scenario had no injuries.

Newman’s students were hoping for more excitement.

“Are we just going to sit here or are they going to do something?” asked one as Brown paced between sporadic conversations over the intercom with Sleep.

“You should shoot someone,” suggested another student to consultant Quisenberry.

Quisenberry, who fielded students’ questions during the drill, sought to make it a teaching moment.

“I know you want to have something to happen,” he told the class, “but in real life this is what usually happens — you wait and you sit quietly.”

“And you hope nothing happens,” added Newman.

And you prepare.

“You hope it doesn’t happen here, but prepare students just in case,” said Powell school district safety manager Rick Fisher.

Monday’s drill coincided with the 25th anniversary of the Cokeville incident where a man and his wife held the town’s elementary school students hostage with a homemade bomb and guns.

Editor's note: This version of the story corrects the spelling of Sean Christensen's last name.