South Miami police train teachers to deal with crisis

South Miami Police Officer Al Alvarez has a reputation for being tough on the officers he trains.

As a senior instructor in South Miami’s police department, Alvarez said his priority is to make sure officers are prepared. And if a mistake during training “hurts them a little” today, he said, learning from that “may save their lives” tomorrow.

Alvarez knows a thing or two about facing dangerous gunmen. He comes to South Miami after 17 years with Miami’s SWAT team. And most recently, he has been passionate about training teachers for school shootings.

With the support of Police Chief Orlando Martinez de Castro, Alvarez said that this year he trained about 50 teachers at South Miami Middle Community School, Sunset Elementary and Ludlam Elementary. Alvarez also uses the opportunity as a refresher course on first aid, gun safety and detecting signs of gang activity. During the trainings, Alvarez played several scenarios with the teachers.

“I asked them, things like ‘if you hear gun shots and a little girl shows up to the door, do you open the door and let the girl in?’ A teacher, quickly said yes. And I said ‘What if the gunman is using the little girl to get inside the classroom? You, and the kids are dead.’ The teacher started crying.”

Alvarez said that unless the teacher could see the girl was alone, the teacher’s goal should be to save as many lives as possible. When developing a strategy for each teacher, he said he identifies the best hiding places for each classroom.

“It’s about giving them specific steps to follow, so that when panic hits they will know what to do,” Alvarez said.

Alvarez said he has faced some resistance from some teachers.

“I don’t give fashion advise, but women have to wear shoes that will allow them to move quickly,” Alvarez said. “This should be a requirement. But one of the teachers disagreed with me, and said that she would just take off her high-heels and run. No way. That won’t work. No platforms, no heels. Wear flats.”

Alvarez shows teachers how to hide children or get them safely out of school, and to avoid confrontations with gunmen.

Law enforcement agencies have been making adjustments after the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary in Connecticut in December. Alvarez said every one should learn from mistakes that were made.

“Instead of having a lock down when they heard the gunshots, they [ the school principal and the psychologist] left the room and confronted the gunman. He killed them,” Alvarez said. “These teachers are heroes. They will die for your kids. The ones who locked doors and hid the children survived. Every one thinks that it won’t happen here, but the truth is you never know.”

Alvarez is preparing to train officers for “a hostage situation” training at Sunset Place. He is retrofitting 50 disassembled M-16s for semi-automatic fire. Alvarez said he has to assemble each of the 50 rifles to convert them into semi-automatic weapons.

“I can’t give my officers automatic weapons,” Martinez de Castro said. “That is a set up for disaster.”

The purchase caused some controversy. The police department used the State Forfeiture fund to acquire the rifles at Lou’s Police Distributors through the Military Surplus program.

Mayor Philip Stoddard thought the purchase labeled “gun repair” was a regular expense and not “extraordinary” as the law requires. Martinez de Castro said the use of the State Forfeiture Funds “fit the legal description.”

Meanwhile, the Miami-Dade School Board is taking more precautions such as increasing the number of school lock-down drills to two per year and increasing surveillance. Alvarez doesn’t think that’s enough. He thinks teachers need a clear strategy.

“I have two daughters, and like any parent I want teachers to be prepared for that sort of situation,” Alvarez said. “Teachers are given great responsibilities and very little training. We have to fix that and we have to fix it quick.”

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