Safer Schools: Bellevue district training teachers for shooter situations, natural disasters

BELLEVUE, Wash. -- We all know the role of a teacher has changed since the Columbine shooting. Teachers are the first line of defense with students acting out in a way that could turn deadly.

We’re also asking our teachers to take on another role -- with active-shooter training and first aid classes.

As part of our series on safer schools, we visited a two-day training academy at the Bellevue School District where teachers will work to get themselves and their kids home safely each night.

We’ve seen school shooting scenes across the country. That leaves many people asking the same question.

“Are my kids going to be next?” asked Woodridge Elementary paraeducator Mary Pyrah.

To prevent that, the U.S. Secret Service released new guidelines encouraging districts to put together Threat Assessment Teams to spot when a student’s behavior may turn violent.

At the Bellevue School District, they’ve taken it a step further.

“The fact that we have ex-military or ex-DEA is a huge asset to this district,” said Pyrah.

Instructors who’ve been in high-stress, deadly situations are teaching educators how to fight for their lives and the lives of their students.

“Our kids have grown up with this, but we haven’t and we’re living in denial that this isn’t reality,” said Nicholas Jacobson, one of the school district's Emergency Management Program coordinators.

The reality has forced the district to step up training with hands-on active shooter exercises where staff learn how to line up, how to take a stance, how to snatch the line of fire away from yourself and students, and how to disarm a suspect. Even for timid elementary school paraeducators like Pyrah.

“I personally don’t own firearms and I feel uncomfortable around them, but I will do what it takes to help make things better,” Pyrah said.

When her teaching career began 18 years ago in Ireland, Pyrah never imagined she’d end up here.

“Making sure your kids and you go home at night is a simple goal to remember,”Jacobson said.

“We all have that capability in us. It’s just having that confidence within ourselves to be able to think under stress and to practice,” Pyrah said.

But active shooters aren’t the only threat.

We’re due for the Big One—a massive earthquake that will rock our region. There could be the same devastation here that we saw in Japan in 2011.

“EMT’s are not coming. They’re not coming right away,” said Ginger Bonnell, also one of the district's Emergency Management Program coordinators.

So in Bellevue schools, teachers are learning what to do if they’re the only “help” around. Split up in groups, these teachers are knee-deep in mock exercises to look for survivors after a disaster.

“The definition of a disaster is that there are not enough resources to go around,” said Bonnell.

The plan is to get all district staff members prepared in case they’re called on to save lives.

Instructors say seconds matter when police and fire medics and rescuers are minutes away. The question now is what should they do when they find someone wounded in a real situation?

In a mock drill, one group left a wounded person, fearing the flames were too intense. Another group wanted to put out the flames. Bonnell says in an emergency, you rely on your training.

“You. One person stepping up, taking care of yourself and the people around you,” said Bonnell.

In that drill, it meant Spanish teacher Lindsey Herron was the team lead.

“I feel like sometimes I have to take on a lot of roles as a teacher and absolutely that is one of them,” Herron said.

In this mock situation, emotions were running high as the educators tried to figure out what to do.

“I was definitely surprised by the mock fire over here. I did not expect to see something like that as a hazard, but that definitely made you think that could really happen in an earthquake or another situation,” Herron said.

Bonnell says the classroom training, the drills, the hands-on experience is key. The district is working to get more supplies in reach.

“We are in the process of putting bleeding kits in some of our schools; eventually all of our schools. So we’re looking at getting the funding to do that,” said Bonnell.

“We, as a district, have been identifying this and we’re making a lot of progress towards making this as a guaranteed and even mandatory training,” Jacobson said.

Along with funding, time is another big concern. Teachers schedules are already jam-packed, so it would take an agreement with the teacher’s union to add the training academy as part of their mandatory training.

Starting this school year, Florida public schools will have armed guards, but you won’t see that in Bellevue schools.