Mass drilling: At a school with guns and teachers trained to use them, emphasis is on escape during attack

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A large masked man stabbing everyone he encountered while running through the halls of Longyearbyen School might have been the ultimate case of bringing a knife to a gun fight – except the teachers toting weapons daily near students rely on a different kind of training.

“If I get a weapon in a situation like this I don’t know how I would react,” said Vice Principal Hans-Gunnar Skreslett, among the many univervsally rejecting the “good guy with a gun stops a bad guy with a gun” argument. “I might cause more damage.”

Teachers in the world’s northernmost town – about 750 miles from the North Pole – carry rifles they’re trained to use whenever they’re outdoors for protection against polar bears, but shoot only as a last resort if getting students safely inside isn’t possible. The same mentality applies to using weapons, whether they’ye being carried or stored in te weapons locker, during a violent attack.

“It’s not our responsibility,” said Åse Manengen, a high school math, science and geography teacher. “It’s our responsibility to protect the students, not engage the attacker.”

The get-to-safety mentality prevailed during two staged mass killings at the school during an evening exercise in late May, one involving a shooter and the second a knife attack. In both instances the hallways were filled with bloody bodies either dead or suffering various levels of injury. The assailant in both cases barricaded himself in a classroom – with two hostages during the first incident – forcing police in full battle gear to prepare for an counterassault while trying to talk him out.

Anguished screams filled the hallways for long minutes as both scenarios involved complications that delayed the response by emergency officials. Some staff tried to provide first aid and comfort to colleagues, others remained still in a simulated state of shock and some –sometimes with great confusion – either fled from the building or debated whether to remain in hiding where they were.

In both situations the police showed up first, with most standing guard and assessing the wounded, while a few stood outside the room where the assailant was trying to communicate in simple, clear sentences (“are you going to stay in there all day?” an officer shouted to the knifeman as firefighters with axes were stealthily peering into the window from outside the building).

Each scenario was completed in about an hour, with the assailant surrendering both times. A discussion with the teachers followed, where concerns about numerous deficiencies and how to address them were raised.

“How best to hide (the students) in areas,”  said Hilde Henningsen, the school’s special education coordinator (and badly-hobbled gunshot victim), when asked after the drills about her biggest concern. “We realized there are no real answers.”

But there was general agreement the drills will help develop preventative measures such a a detailed evacuation plan and coordinated communications with emergency officials.

Police have already learned some of those lessons during a similar exercise a few weeks ago at The University Centre in Svalbard that didn’t involve fire and hospital officials, said Police Chief Lt. Christian Svarstad, who supervised Thursday’s drill.

“The communication was much better,” he said after the first simulated attack Thursday. “It’s important that only those with something critical to say should talk.”

Problematic  communications problems with hospital officials – legitimate not simulated – led to a delayed response during the first attack. That was smoothed out during the second attack, but an intentional complication – where all police were involved in another incident on the other side of town when the knife attack occurred –forced participants to deal with extra hardships.

One thing missing from the exercise was students, which everyone agreed would drastically alter the atmosphere of a real situation. But Irene Ianssen, a teacher at the school, said she believes the drill is still helpful because “if you try this once you feel more prepared for what might happen.”

What’s the most important thing she will focus on after the evening?

“A safe way to get the kids out so we can protect the kids from the bad guys,” she said. “I’m not sure, but I think I will protect lots of kids before I protect myself.”