As Miami-Dade Police Capt. Mario Knapp entered the school, he was surrounded by bedlam and the noise of gunfire. Panicked kids rushed out in bunches. He had to step over bullet-riddled bodies.
Suddenly, a gunman emerged from around a corner. Knapp fired several times, killing him. A few seconds later another gunman jumped out from behind a door. Knapp, who hadn’t relaxed his weapon, fired again, taking him down.
Fortunately, this school assault was just a simulation — one of 600 possible at a high-tech facility where Miami-Dade police train to take on active shooters — and Knapp was using a laser gun with a CO2 cartridge instead of bullets.
But a month after the massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, where former student Nikolas Cruz killed 17 and wounded 15 others, the computer-generated scenario underlined the difficult reality of protecting vulnerable schools and school children from heavily armed assailants.
In response to the Parkland shooting, Florida lawmakers and Gov. Rick Scott have approved an unprecedented $67 million program to train select school personnel — not full-time teachers but staffers like coaches — to carry and use weapons on campus.
Whether they’ll be capable of stopping a killer like Cruz, armed with an assault-style rifle and high capacity magazines, remains uncertain. Every mass shooting is different but police officers who constantly train for worst-case scenarios know one thing for sure: Even with years of weapons training and street experience, confronting an active shooter and successfully taking one out poses a staggering challenge.
“You have to make split-second decisions with a fraction of information. It’s difficult to figure out where the shooter is,” said Knapp, a 24-year veteran who oversees the Miami-Dade police department’s training center in Doral, which is complete with mock-up street scene dubbed “Survival City.”
“The biggest challenge in active shooting is it’s hectic, highly stressed and there’s blood everywhere,” said Knapp. “That makes it a perfect recipe for disaster.”
Hollywood movie heroes and video games can make putting a bullet into a bad guy look easy. Reality comes with no script. An armed responder not only must put their own life on the line but potentially put a lot of unarmed and innocent people in the line of fire at moments when it may be hard simply to tell potential victims from villains.
And, stressed Miami police Cmdr. Dan Kerr, no amount of simulations and target practice can prepare somebody for the surging flight-or-fight stress of facing live fire.
“The fear for your life is such a unique thing,’’ said Kerr, who ran the department's SWAT team for a year, has taken active shooter training and been involved in a gunfight. “The ability to perform and your decision-making is almost impossible to replicate.”
There was a trained and armed school resource officer at the Parkland school, for instance, but he remained outside the building as gunfire echoed inside — action that cost him his job with the Broward Sheriff’s Office and has stained his reputation.
Earlier this month, Gov. Rick Scott signed legislation that did something Florida lawmakers haven’t done for decades: make it at least a little bit tougher to buy guns, imposing a three-day waiting period on semi-automatic rifles and raising the age to buy one from 18 to 21.
The law also created something more controversial: the “Coach Aaron Feis Guardian Program,” named for a Stoneman Douglas coach who was killed by Cruz while protecting students. The bill requires school personnel who choose to arm themselves to undergo much of the same training used by police — 80 hours of firearm instruction and another eight hours of training on a simulator like the one used by Miami-Dade police. They also must spend eight hours in active shooter training and pass a psychological evaluation and a drug test.
School personnel who don’t teach full-time like coaches and those who are current military or former law enforcement are in line for the training. Lawmakers left the choice of arming school staff to each individual school district.
State lawmakers who supported the measure are betting that trained school staffers will respond appropriately, or at least have the ability to stall an active shooter and reduce the death toll. State Sen. Dennis Baxley, R-Sumter County, argues that armed school staffers are particularly important in rural areas and smaller counties, where it may take law enforcement longer to respond to assaults or where they may not even have SWAT teams.
“It’s a situation where they may be the only person who can intervene in the first five minutes,” said Baxley. “We know what happens in the first five minutes is critical.”
Cruz’s spree took just six minutes.
But the measure has an array of critics, some who blast it as a taxpayer-funded appeasement to the politically powerful National Rifle Association, which lobbied hard against all the state’s gun control measures.
Scott, though he signed the bill, expressed doubts about arming school staff, saying, “I still think law enforcement officers should be the ones to protect our schools.”
School leaders in Broward and Miami-Dade County — the two largest school districts in the state — and in several other urban counties also have been vocal opponents of putting more guns on school campuses. The Broward County School Board passed a resolution calling for a ban on semi-automatic weapons and asking for more school resource officers. But they also voted in opposition of arming teachers. Though no formal decision has been made in Miami-Dade, Schools Superintendent Alberto Carvalho has said anyone who believes in arming teachers “is absolutely out of their mind.”
Stoneman Douglas teacher Alicia Blonde, a world languages department chair who hid in another building with students as Cruz massacred people nearby, called arming school staffer to take on killer, potentially armed with a high-capacity weapon, a “crapshoot” at best.
“It’s naive to think a teacher is going to leave her classroom and hunt down a shooter. It wouldn’t have helped if someone had a weapon,” she said. She’s also concerned about teachers who might choose to arm themselves. “I worry about them psychologically.”
Bradley Thornton, who graduated from Stoneman Douglas High in 2016 and now attends the University of Central Florida, said he’s also worried about accidental injuries. And they do happen. Earlier this week Dennis Alexander, a reserve police officer and a teacher at Seaside High School in California, accidentally fired his weapon while pointing it at the ceiling during class. A bullet fragment slightly injured a student and Alexander was placed on administrative leave.
Thornton also questioned whether the millions the state set aside for weapons training could be put to better education use. “I remember when we couldn’t afford printing paper. There was a big shortage. No funding for simple school supplies,” said Thornton. “Where does the money for these weapons training programs come from?”
For police, training for mass shooting is a continuous education — a seemingly endless string of events often creating new training demands.
Different scenarios from recent mass shootings like at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando and in San Bernardino, Calif., have forced departments like Miami-Dade to adapt techniques. Now, officers are taught to not only move toward and confront an active shooter but also to extract the injured in the same environment.
Away from the computer, police officers undergo training in even more real-life scenarios. Off in a corner of the Doral center is the training area known as Survival City. It’s Main Street has stop lights and stop signs and single-story and two-story structures, even a replica of a Domino’s Pizza store.
During a training session earlier this week about a dozen officers wearing protective gear and firing rubber bullets confronted an active shooter on a staircase at the end of a street. Officers advanced in groups of three or four, seeking cover where possible before forming a line and climbing the staircase to eliminate the threat.
Instructors took up the rear, noting errors. Knapp immediately pointed out how the group left its left flank open, offering a possible escape for the shooter, who could have leaped out a window or jumped off a stairwell.
Miami-Dade police are required to take 80 hours of target practice and 16 hours of active shooter training using the high-tech computerized simulator every two years. The life-like scenarios they confront are purposefully confusing and stressful — a suspicious man at a bus stop full of people, an unidentified shooter at a strip mall — and get tougher for seasoned responders.
Staying sharp takes constant training, practice and focus. And sharpness is critical for any hope of success. Trying one scenario, for example, a Miami Herald reporter shot a man holding a gun. A caulking gun.
“You never know how you’re going to respond,” said Knapp.
Knapp, keenly aware of the heated politics surrounding gun control measures, would not pass judgment on the state plan to arm more school employees. Some staffers might be up to the task, he said, but they’ll face hard choices. They can do what teachers are trained to do now: Get kids in a room and act as the last line of defense. Or they can try to hunt a killer down, who may well be armed with far more firepower and prepared to die.
“It depends on the person,” said Knapp. “The person either has the aptitude or not. It’s safer for that trained person to sit and wait. The drawback to that is that someone is actually killing somewhere else. You never know how you’re going to respond.”