The first thing that attendees at the University of Houston’s active shooter training course will hear is the frantic voice of Patti Nielson, a teacher at Columbine High School who called 911 from the library, the room where ten out of 13 people were killed that day in 1999. It comes on loud, though the auditorium itself seems as if it couldn't get any quieter.
“Has anyone been injured, ma’am?” the operator asks Nielson, and Nielson responds, “Yes! And the school is in a panic, and I’m in the library. I’ve got — Students, down! Under the tables, kids! Heads under the tables!” She continues, talking more quietly but more frantically: “Kids are screaming, and the teachers are trying to take control of things. We need police here.”
At this moment, Nielson has transitioned from what UH Officer Jeremy Johnston will soon describe as the “denial” stage — at first thinking that maybe the person in the hall was doing a film production for class, until he pointed the gun and fired through the window — to the “deliberation” stage, instructing the kids to get on the floor as she figures out what to do. The gunman had struck her in the shoulder. She tells the operator she thinks it might be a piece of glass.
“He’s right outside of here. He’s outside this hall,” she says, gunfire crackling in the background of the fuzzy recording, which ends when both of the gunmen come inside, and Nielson tells the operator she has to go now.
Johnston clicks off the audio. “Before this,” he says to a crowd of 32, “teachers were taught to keep everybody in the classroom, keep everybody safe and just wait for the cops to show up.
“A lot’s changed in a small amount of time.”
This is about the 120th time that Johnston has given this presentation, teaching mostly faculty members how to prepare for the worst-case scenario as it continues to become less and less unthinkable. With campus carry taking effect next school year, Johnston’s colleague Lieutenant Chad Leveritt said in an earlier interview that they’ve had far more requests for the class: While they used to do one per month for roughly eight to ten people, they’ve been doing two or three times a month for roughly 30 to 50 people or even as many as 75. “We’re not doing this to scare you,” Leveritt said. “We want people to think outside that box and be able to react when these terrible situations take place."
At these training courses, the officers teach people that “hoping and hiding” isn’t enough anymore, that no one is helpless and that anything — pens and pencils, a chair, a trash can — can be a tool or weapon used to defend yourself. The presentation is somewhat frightening in the sense that you are actually watching it at all, actually thinking about what you would do if a man with a gun walked through the door at that very moment. But although Johnston swears he still gets nervous about public speaking, the confidence with which he delivers his worst-case-scenario pointers is reassuring: He delivers them like a teacher at a school in Tornado Alley telling students how to protect themselves during a twister, making you feel like this is absolutely essential training — and perhaps that’s what’s scariest of all.
The training course, officially named Civilian Response to Active Shooter Events, revolves around three main actions: Avoid, Deny (in the sense of barricading, not disbelieving) and Defend — the last being the last resort. The first priority is to put as much distance between yourself and the shooter as possible. Johnston and his colleague, Sergeant Dina Padovan, told the crowd that the next time everyone leaves work, leave the building a different way. Learn all the less-traveled-by exits. And if, in the case of an active shooter, you can’t leave the room, Johnston said, “windows are doors that just haven’t been created yet.”
But what if there are no windows, and no escape routes available? Johnston said the next course of action is to get creative with finding as many ways as possible to deny the shooter entry to the room. It might mean stacking chairs or a desk in front of a door. If you don’t have any handy barricades, it might mean using an extension cord or taking off your belt to wrap it around the door hinge tightly so at least the handle is jammed. (No belt either? “I have on clean underwear today,” Johnston said. “I can take my pants off and I can use them as a rope if I have to — those are things you have to think about.”). Even still, if none of that seems like it will work: “I promise you guys, the walls aren’t that thick here. Hitting them, kicking them, breaking through them with a chair — whatever it will take.” Johnston also said that, if your ceiling is tiled, you can help each other climb up through the ceiling and jump down into the next room that way, too. “And for the love of God,” he said, “turn your cell phone off.”
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Last, though — and this is perhaps the most unthinkable of scenarios — if you find yourself face to face with terror, Johnston said, giving up and succumbing to the fear is the worst thing you can do. It’s why he and the other officers will never teach “hoping and hiding." “How many people have a pen or pencil on them?” he said. “I’m going to tell you right now, give him lead poisoning as you’re running out the door if you have to. Go down fighting. No one is defenseless in here. Keys, pens, pencils, an umbrella — whatever you have. Something. Anything is a weapon.”
Matt Sebby, who oversees emergency management for the UH Student Centers and who had brought his staff to Johnston’s presentation, said he makes sure that all new hires take advantage of this training. There’s a certain worry among students and faculty — apparent in this professor’s PowerPoint presentation urging staff to “be careful discussing sensitive topics” — that has come with the implementation of campus carry. And that’s why Sebby said this training has been so important. “The worry has been shared across campus,” he said. “I work with Sergeant Padovan to address that worry, to provide additional training, provide an idea of what our response would be in case something happens so that we as staff members, we as community members, would be prepared for it.”
UH’s Board of Regents hasn’t yet approved the campus-carry proposal, which is among the most restrictive in the state. It proposes to ban guns in dorms (which runs against the grain of Attorney General Ken Paxton’s opinion that that is against the law), all laboratories, any spaces where disciplinary hearings take place, health care or counseling facilities, and sports arenas, among other places.
Lieutenant Chad Leveritt told the Houston Press that the implementation of campus carry likely won’t affect the active shooter training course (faculty, however, will have access to campus-carry-specific training, though it’s not yet clear what that entails). Campus carry doesn’t change the fact that active shooters are irrational people, he said, and that no matter what the law is, he and his team will still have to teach people how to logically — even creatively — respond to an illogical situation.