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Drilling for the worst: Boyle first responders use massive exercise to train for school shooting

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At 8:04 a.m. Friday, a shooter entered Boyle County High School through a side door, aided by an accomplice who held the door open for him. He dropped an improvised explosive device by the door and then quickly entered the cafeteria and began firing his shotgun. It was the beginning of an active shooter drill that involved hundreds of people and took about two hours to complete.

Ben Kleppinger/ben.kleppinger@amnews.com
A shooter and his accomplice walk through the hallway of Boyle County High School during an active shooter drill Friday morning.

None of those initial moments were known to Boyle County Deputy Ricky Sellers or the other law enforcement officers who arrived minutes later at the high school, sirens blaring. They had been kept in the dark about the specifics, just as they would be if the shooting were real.

Sellers was at the front of the first team into the high school and wound up being the officer that brought the bad guy down, just minutes into the drill. As he entered the high school’s front entrance, Sellers asked the actors in the cafeteria area where shooting was coming from; he led the team down the hallway in the direction they indicated. The shooter had actually headed the other way around the high school’s main hallway loop. Halfway around the loop, the officers found the shooter and cornered him in a room.

Cafeteria staff hide from an active shooter during the drill. (Photo by Robin Hart)

Boyle County Schools Assistant Superintendent Chris Holderman said he was on a radio with the shooter, giving him information about police movement in order to make it even a little more difficult on the first responders.

“I cheated for him a little bit,” Holderman joked during a post-event de-briefing with students and school staff. The school got more than 115 students, parents and community volunteers to participate as actors, in order to make the drill seem as real as possible.

Sellers, who got a round of applause from the students for taking down the shooter, joked to Holderman that made him an accomplice. “Could you please put your hands behind your back?”

Frank Thornberry with the Kentucky State Police, followed the shooter around the building as the drill progressed. He said the communication and effort of the team searching for the shooter was excellent.

“That was phenomenal — those guys weren’t just walking through it,” Thornberry said. “Their tactics were still there. Their communication was still there. … Their communication was phenomenal and the response to the shooter was phenomenal.”

Ben Kleppinger/ben.kleppinger@amnews.com
A student portraying a shooting victim is loaded onto a stretcher for transport to the hospital.

But catching the shooter was only a small piece of the action. Teams of law enforcement officers and tactical medics swept through the high school, clearing rooms and freeing teachers and students who had locked themselves in rooms; Boyle County EMS personnel began tending to wounded and transporting them to a triage area set up outside. A total of 21 injured students were taken by ambulance to Ephraim McDowell Regional Medical Center, about a mile and a half away, where there was a hospital-wide mass-casualty drill. Three were killed by the shooter in the scenario; the shooter was also killed.

Agencies participating in the exercise were Boyle County Schools, Danville Police Department, Boyle County Sheriff’s Office, Boyle County EMS, Boyle County Emergency Management, Boyle County Fire Department, Danville Fire Department, Kentucky State Police, Ephraim McDowell Regional Medical Center, Kentucky Transportation Cabinet, Boyle County Road Department and the Kentucky Office of Homeland Security. Air Evac planned to participate but fog kept their helicopter grounded.

Ben Kleppinger/ben.kleppinger@amnews.com
Boyle County High School students who hid from the shooter exit the school safely after being found by first responders during Friday’s drill.

The whole event was captured with high-definition video cameras, enabling first responders to review their actions after the fact, identifying positives and negatives about what they did. Boyle County Emergency Management Director Mike Wilder said those involved with the drill will get back together in about two weeks for an after-action review. That’s the final step in the whole drill process, which has taken more than a year to complete. The drill is required by Kentucky Emergency Management and the Federal Emergency Management Agency in order for Boyle County to continue receiving the federal grant that helps fund the county’s Emergency Management Agency, Wilder said.

Wilder said he’s heard from many in the community who are pleased how all of the different agencies are working together to prepare for a worst-case scenario.

“Years ago, this wouldn’t have even been thought about,” he said.

Ben Kleppinger/ben.kleppinger@amnews.com
Danville Police Chief Tony Gray, right, speaks with members of his department outside the high school during Friday’s drill.

The cooperation between all of the first-responder agencies and organizations like the schools and the hospital is not something that should be taken for granted, Wilder said, explaining that in other areas, agencies sometimes have “turf wars” with each other that get in the way of good communication. That’s not the case here.

“I’m just tickled to death with it,” he said. “I wouldn’t live any other place in the world than Boyle County.”

See more photos from the drill, taken by Robin Hart and Ben Kleppinger: