Photos by Jason Hawk and Valerie Urbanik | Oberlin News-Tribune
Oberlin officer Billie Neadham makes his way through the hallways of Amherst High School as a member of the Lorain County Sheriff Office’s SWAT.
“The number one thing you have to think is survival,” said Billie Neadham, reflecting on an active shooter drill last month at Amherst Steele High School.
Justin Forthofer, 29, of Avon, played a gunman in the safety drill planned for more than a year by Amherst police Lt. Dan Makruski.
Its purpose was to prepare not only teachers but local police, SWAT, hospitals, sheriff’s deputies, helicopter medics, EMTs, and other life-saving agencies to respond to a tragedy involving mass casualties.
We had a chance to be on the scene to observe.
Since then, a combined 12 people have been killed in shootings at Umpqua Community College in Oregon, Northern Arizona University, and Texas Southern University.
In that light, we sat down to recount the events with Neadham and get his perspective on what the public should know about steps taken to protect local schools against the worst.
Forthofer, a member of the National Guard, entered the high school around 9 a.m. He signed in, then disappeared into the bathroom, coming out with a mask on and a .357 Magnum and M-4 rifle (neither with live ammunition) and opened fire.
Neadham — who is both a SWAT team member and the police officer assigned to patrol the Oberlin Schools — charged into the building with his rifle at the ready.
“It was about as real as it can get,” he said of the drill. “When you do the scenarios you totally forget it’s training because it was set up so real.”
He was part of the first SWAT team that arrived at the scene following Amherst and South Amherst police and a LifeCare Ambulance.
His team split into three groups, escorting a medic inside to care for the injured.
They moved down hallways, stopping for the medic to assess wounds of the fallen and coordinating the evacuation of those who needed immediate treatment.
Neadham and his team hugged the bricked walls as they moved through the building knocking on doors, checking staircases and bathrooms for the mock shooter.
He said teachers are trained to lock their doors and not open them to anyone — because it could be the shooter. Doors are to be unlocked with a key to let the teachers and students out of the room when the area is cleared.
In the two-hour drill, Forthofer was “shot” and escorted from the building.
Neadham said as Oberlin’s school resource officer he has talked with students and staff members about active shooter scenarios and what to do should a threat rear its head.
Survival should be everyone’s number one concern, he said: “What are you going to do to survive? Is it exiting the building or is it taking on the intruder when he comes in?”
Attacking an intruder seems crazy but Neadham said a coordinated group of five or six have a chance of disarming a threat if they move together.
“I talk to the kids about it all the time and I let them know that as the school resource officer my number one job is to come in and get that shooter,” Neadham said. “If we don’t do these trainings or talk to the kids and staff about this and an incident happens, everyone freezes. But now that we’ve talked about it and trained for it, your mind works.”
He said the discussions and training allow people to know what they are supposed to do. It also helps to suppress panic.
Amherst has 435 staffers take part in the active shooter drill. Teachers could be seen climbing out of first floor windows and running from the building. One group of educators stacked chairs and desks to barricade a classroom doorway while others helped the injured out of the building.
Neadham said anything you can do to stop a shooter from getting in a room is a great idea and if you have to break a window so everyone can escape, do it.
“Always keep your mind open that it can happen at any time and have some type of idea of what you’re going to do before a situation even occurs,” Neadham said.
Valerie Urbanik can be reached at 440-775-1611 or on Twitter @ValUrbanik.