WOODSTOCK – For Spanish teacher Christi Dewispelaere, it was surreal to hear what sounded like gunshots outside her classroom Monday morning – it didn’t matter that it was just a drill.
“Hearing the gunshots, I thought, was very real,” said Dewispelaere, a teacher at Marian Central Catholic High School in Woodstock. “I could feel the force of the shots.”
What she heard was blank ammunition being fired from a starter pistol during an active shooter drill at the high school.
Six months in development, the drill was conducted by the Woodstock Police Department, along with the McHenry County Sheriff’s Office. Also participating were “players” from the Woodstock Fire Rescue Department and Centegra Health Systems.
Woodstock Police Sgt. Jeff Parsons said crisis plans have long been in place at most schools, especially after the shooting in April 1999 at Columbine High School in Colorado.
The teachers institute day at Marian Central Catholic allowed for a more comprehensive exercise than usual, Parsons said.
Students were not in the building Monday, but teachers such as Dewispelaere still went through the motions. Lock the doors; turn off the lights; wait for an all-clear call.
There was never any real danger, but Parsons said authenticity was key during the drill.
From the call about 9:30 a.m. reporting fictitious gunmen and a possible bomb, to the treatment of injured victims, the atmosphere was meant to produce realistic levels of stress and intensity.
“The bottom line, we want to make sure everything works,” Parsons said. “Without actual functional exercises like this, it’s very difficult to understand our communication levels and working together as a team in this situation.”
The seriousness of the drill was conveyed on responders’ faces as they ran quietly throughout the school, checking every room with unloaded weapons drawn.
The fire rescue team, too, played its part authentically, going so far as to physically carry over their shoulders multiple “victims” down the stairs.
Those who played students – most of them part of local fire department explorer programs – applied fake blood and bluish make up to appear injured or dead; and the “critical” patients were even transported to Centegra Hospital-Woodstock so medical personnel had a chance to practice protocol, too.
Marian Central Catholic Principal Barb Villont said the school for years has conducted regular lockdown drills, but Monday’s exercise was the most comprehensive yet.
Even so, she added that it’s difficult to have a truly comprehensive plan as every crisis situation will likely be unique.
“We have a plan of action and you try to give people instruction on what to do to reduce as many casualties and injuries as possible, but without knowing what you’re looking at, you can’t really fully prepare,” Villont said. “But I do think what we did today worked well.”