N.J. school becomes police training ground

By KASI ADDISON, Star-Ledger staff writer
Newark Morning Ledger 
Gunshots and yells brought the team of police officers down a hallway at Belleville High School and into classroom where three students crouched along with a masked gunman.

"Put the gun down," shouted one of the Belleville police officers.

But the suspect pointed the gun at the four officers who responded by pulling their triggers. The rapid pop of gunshots filled the room, flecks of pink and blue dotted the gunman's chest, and he kneeled before collapsing on the ground.

Seconds later the plainclothes police detective, sat up, removed his mask and began talking with the students, also plainclothes police.

Law enforcement officials from around Essex County gathered at Belleville High School, which was closed this week for winter break, to participate in a training exercise designed to prepare first responders for a school shooting situation yesterday morning.

Since Monday, the Belleville police have conducted two four-hour training sessions each day for law enforcement personnel from around the county, showing them what to do if they encounter a gunman in a classroom, hallway, stairway or in front of the building.

By the end of the week roughly 400 officers will have received training.

To get the word out about the training, and the need for proper equipment, Belleville police, the Essex County Prosecutor's Office and Essex County Chiefs of Police sponsored the mock school shooting, and a preceding press conference.

"During an active school shooting scenario, every second can make the difference between life and death," Essex County Prosecutor Paula Dow said. She added the training would ensure first responders have the proper training for a rapid response in the case of a school shooting, like Columbine in Littleton, Colo., or more recently, Lancaster, Pa., where a number of Amish school girls were killed after being held by a gunman.

Police patrolmen are usually the first on the scene of a shooting incident and they need to know how to react, said Belleville Police Chief Joseph Rotonda, whose department is sponsoring the week-long session.

"We learned from school shootings like Columbine that police departments can no longer wait for SWAT teams to arrive at the scene of an active shooter," he said adding officers have to enter and confront the suspect.

Yesterday's practice run began when police cars, sirens blaring, pulled up to the high school. The officers jumped out of the cars, donned protective gear and ran towards the front doors.

Once inside, the officers followed the sound of gunshots and yells down the hallways. Along the way they stepped over their prone co-workers who pretended to be wounded students, until they reached the classroom with the mock standoff.

Each step demonstrated the need for the training and the proper equipment, Rotonda said. Patrol cars should be outfitted with heavy-duty vests, helmets, carbine rifles so that if necessary officers are able to safely engage a shooter, he said.

Also, Rotonda added, in the case of a school lockdown, the front door and classroom doors are locked, so without "breech tools" like a sledge hammer, crowbar and bolt cutters, first responders can't get into the building. Once inside, they can't get into classrooms because of a similar safety measure, wire mesh between two panes of glass, he said advocating that more federal and state dollars be funneled toward equipment upgrades.

"We are asking our first responders to enter with little more than a pistol often facing suspects armed with automatic weapons," Rotonda said. "Do we ask firefighters to enter buildings without proper equipment?"

Copyright 2007 Newark Morning Ledger Co.

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