The staccato sound of gunfire within the walls of a Mt. Juliet elementary school sounded eerily real Tuesday morning as emergency agencies countywide partnered in an active shooter training exercise there.
As the surreal scene played out in what was staged as a "real time mentality," four "armed" suspects invaded the school, attacked the SRO officer and began shooting at students and faculty, according to Lt. Tyler Chandler with Mt. Juliet Police.
The mock shooting event took place at Elzie Patton Elementary on Woodridge Place. Students just went on summer vacation and the school, which houses more than 600 students, was vacant and staged for the exercise that was coordinated by the Mt. Juliet Police Department in conjunction with the Tennessee Highway Patrol, the Wilson County Sheriff's Department, Fire Department of Mt. Juliet, Wilson Emergency Management Agency and Wilson County Schools.
"We never want to have to respond to this type of incident in real life but want to make sure we are trained so we can respond in a proper way," Chandler said at a news conference. "The risk is low, but the risk is still there, we need proper training and the means to respond to this type of incident if it should happen."
As the grim simulation played out, students were taken hostage, there were explosive devices, students and facility were wounded and there were simulated fatalities. Multiple officers responded to the scene on the initial call. Then MJPD's Special Response Team and THP's Special Response Explosive Ordnance Disposal Team also responded, as well as WEMA and FDMJ.
The simulation lasted more than an hour. Law enforcement engaged the armed suspects in and around the school. The shooters were eventually shot and killed by police. A robot bomb detector was released and guided to the front door to locate explosive devises the shooters had placed.
As part of the training exercise, a distraught "mother" of a student broke through the ranks to try to find her child. She cried, screamed and fought as law enforcement detained her and led her from the scene.
Eventually the students were evacuated, with hands above their heads and transported to a "reunification center" set up at Mt. Juliet Middle School.
Chandler said more than 150 actors were involved in the simulation. Many were students from Mt. Juliet High School who volunteered to take part. Wilson County Schools Public Information Officer Amelia Hipps said in addition to the student actors, 25 principals and assistant principals also were in the school during the event.
"They were observers so they can learn from this," she said. "They are all here to play their roles and to test our own crises plan."
Hipps said this was the first time the school system has been involved in such an elaborate training exercise. She noted the teachers involved in a potential real scenario play vital roles while law enforcement rein in the situation.
"The teachers and principals can also make a difference between life and death for the students," Hipps said.
Initial response from organizers of the exercise was favorable. However, agency officials will get together to review and analyze skills they learned in case the unthinkable happens.
"We also have the Federal Bureau of Investigation here to evaluate our exercise," Chandler said. "We will be evaluated on where we need to improve and where we did well. It's all about being prepared."
Writer Laurie Everett can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.