By Kathy Jefcoats
JONESBORO — The juxtaposition of brightly-colored construction paper bulletin boards stood in stark contrast to spent gun casings scattered on the gleaming floors of quiet hallways.
It is a school.
Children go there every day to learn the alphabet, to master the art of tying shoes and to make friends. Last month in Newtown, Conn., 26 children went to school but never returned home.
A monster got them.
Jonesboro police Chief Franklin Allen doesn't want that to ever happen here.
"Right now, I think the department is somewhat prepared but the training will get us better prepared if we have an incident like Sandy Hook," he said.
Allen and officers from his department and Lake City Police Department, deputies with the Clayton County Sheriff's Office and SWAT medics from the Clayton County Fire Department gathered Saturday at Suder Elementary School to train for an active shooter scenario.
The exercise carried the blessing of the Clayton County Public Schools, said spokesman David Waller.
"Obviously, you can never over-prepare for a situation that might compromise the safety of our students," he said. "Their safety has always been the first priority of the school system and we appreciate the fact that local law enforcement agencies also make it their first priority. All of the agencies involved should be commended for being proactive in the planning for any possible threat to our students."
The scenario involved an active shooter inside the school. One exercise had him, played by Clayton sheriff's Deputy Tony Kessler, with a teacher-hostage. Another had him hiding around a corner from officers who went from classroom to classroom, clearing each and ensuring the safety of students.
No students were involved in the exercise but volunteer Kristen Taylor portrayed the teacher-hostage.
Guns that fired detergent bullets were used. Flash-bangs that create loud noises and smoke were detonated. The officers wore real uniforms and yelled out commands that echoed against walls covered in tributes to the late Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. The exercise played out every bit as real as if Kessler had been an actual gunman.
Allen said being able to use a real school was beneficial to the training.
"We're working with the school system and are grateful to them for allowing us to use the school," he said. "I believe we are the first department in Clayton County since Sandy Hook to begin actively training for a specific act of violence in a school. We're doing this with a specific mission and purpose in mind."
About 30 officers gathered at the school Saturday for hours of classroom lessons followed by the actual exercises. Allen and other officers monitored the training and provided evaluation.
"You methodically came down the hall and worked through it," he told one team. "You went too far into the room without leaving someone to hold the room. But you didn't allow distractions to interfere with what you were doing, that's good."
Allen said there is always room for improvement but the teams performed well together, learning from the evaluation, figuring out what works and what doesn't. He said he simply wants to ensure officers are fully trained for an event no one wants to ever have to face.
"We're ultimately responsible for getting ahead of the learning curve," he said. "I want us to have a response plan in place for all five schools here and in Lake City."