John Smith was still reeling from a break-up with his ex-girlfriend, a junior at East Bridgewater High School.
So Smith, a fictitious 18-year-old student created by East Bridgewater Police Sergeant Michael W. McLaughin, decided to teach her a lesson.
Shortly before 7 a.m., he detonated a home-made pipe bomb at the school’s entrance, seriously injuring a school bus driver and two students, then he shot and killed the school resource officer and another student.
Within seconds, the high school senior was inside firing his .22 caliber revolver, leaving a trail of carnage behind him as he made his way down the halls, finally barricading himself in a classroom and taking seven students hostage.
The realistically gruesome scene, complete with pools of fake blood and Hollywood-grade prosthetics, was staged last week as part of a training exercise that McLaughlin scripted for the South Eastern Massachusetts Law Enforcement Council’s SWAT team, which has members from 28 police departments in the region.
The gunman, played by 16-year-old Brett Harvey (son of the school resource officer) walked side by side with McLaughlin, who launched a non-lethal stun grenade to mimic a pipe bomb explosion, then fired rounds of blanks as they made their way down the hallways where volunteers had already taken their places as wounded or dead victims. Harvey and seven other volunteer teens waited in the former school’s art room for police to arrive.
The Aug. 21 exercise took place a day after a man armed with an assault rifle entered an elementary school in Decatur, Ga., and exchanged shots with police before surrendering. Although no one was injured, organizers of last week’s SWAT training said the Georgia incident set a dark tone for the start of the school year and highlights the need for more, and increasingly realistic, mass shooting simulations.
The sentiment is in line with President Obama’s directive after the school shootings last December in Newtown, Conn., that the FBI help train local police on how to deal with mass shootings.
A year in the making, the drill in East Bridgewater provided a rare opportunity for law enforcement and the town’s police. With a new school opening this week and the old school building scheduled for demolition, McLaughlin was able to concoct a realistic scenario replete with bloodied and severely wounded victims in a macabre setting meant for shock value, if not for cleanup.
It also afforded SWAT team members the chance to practice techniques, such as ramming locked doors open and using non-lethal ammunition, without having to worry about damaging school property, McLaughlin said.
“This is like a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, having a building like this to use,” McLaughlin said. “If we do do it again, it may just be in a regular school, opening doors gingerly.”
Once he got the go-ahead last year from town officials to use the old high school building, McLaughlin worked with the Southeastern Regional Planning and Economic Development District to secure a US Department of Homeland Security grant to pay for a wound-simulation kit, complete with fake blood and prostheses mimicking shotgun wounds, burns, and deep gashes.
To save on overtime costs, the drill took place on a regularly scheduled training day for SWAT team members, who were kept in the dark about the extent of the scenario so that it was “more visually overwhelming than they ever had before,” he said.
“It’s going to feel a little bit more realistic for them, so that if they do ever come into this situation, then they’ll be better prepared to act in the manner in which they should, and not freeze up,” McLaughlin said, adding that part of the shock value was using local kids as actors.
“My son could be in that school, and I’m going to have to walk by him to stop something from happening so nobody else gets hurt. That’s the toughest thing, and that’s what I want them to see,” he said.
The exercise — the shootings and hostage situation — lasted over two hours, as local police, SWAT team members, and negotiators from the Plymouth County Sheriff’s Department ultimately talked the culprit into releasing the hostages and surrendering.
The response by law enforcement, none of which was scripted, was recorded for later reviewing. A live feed was also provided so area police chiefs could watch the action unfold from a command center set up at Town Hall.
Mary Lyons, Mattapoisett’s police chief and president and control chief of the regional law enforcement council, said drills like this are needed everywhere.
“No one knows if it’s going to be a school, a mall, or a movie theater,” Lyons said. “The sensationalization [of mass shootings] on TV [leads copycats] almost to one-up the last person, or the next event.”
Whereas training for such situations before the 1999 Columbine High School massacre focused only on SWAT teams, the current approach is to share specialized techniques with first responders, typically local police officers, said Greg Comcowich, FBI Boston spokesman.
“Previously, almost all law enforcement was trained to secure the area and call the SWAT team in,” Comcowich said. “Post-Columbine, that training switched to: the first officers on the scene are now supposed to respond and enter the building. . . . If someone is actively shooting, more people are dying while we wait for the SWAT team.”
As he waited for his turn in the makeup chair, where a fake fatal bullet wound and vats of blood awaited him, East Bridgewater School Resource Officer Mark Harvey stressed the importance of receiving SWAT-level training.
“This makes you think, ‘I need to go to the schools. I need to know where to go in case something like this happens,’ ” he said. “I’ve been looking forward to this all year, and I’m not even on the SWAT team. . . . We’re the first guys on scene, so I need all my guys to know these schools. When the new high school opens, I’m getting all my guys in there for a tour.”
Julanne Joubert, 48, watched in stunned silence as a fake bullet wound was applied to the head of her 14-year-old daughter, Kaitlyn, before the drill began. Kaitlyn, already covered in fake blood from a wound glued to her left arm, smiled as Joubert snapped a cellphone picture of her.
Joubert said she worries about school shootings, especially after Newtown and last week’s incident in Georgia.
“When we were in school, that thought never entered your mind. The only thing you worried about was an occasional playground fist fight,” she said. “Today it’s a whole different ballgame. It’s awful.”