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DeMatha Mass Shooting Drill Preps Police, Students

Police, students and faculty take part in live-shooter drill at DeMatha Catholic High School.

At 12:57 p.m. on Friday, a Hyattsville City Police Officer pulled up to the Convocation Center on the campus of DeMatha Catholic High School for a report of a disturbance. Soon, though, the situation revealed itself to be something much more serious. 

Screams and the sounds of gunfire soon filled the hallways of the all-boys school. Two shooters were loose on campus, and they had already taken their first victims. 

The officer radioed for help. Within minutes, officers from Hyattsville, Riverdale Park and other local jurisdictions were on the scene. Guns drawn, they approached the school buildings and began to sweep for the shooters. 

A little more than eight minutes later, both shooters had been taken into custody by police.

But this was no tragedy. Instead, it was all a part of a training exercise-not only for police, but for students and faculty, too–conducted at the high school yesterday.

Drilling Deadly Scenario

The exercise featured a group of students and staff acting specific roles, mimicking the type of sights and sounds first responders would encounter if a gunman were ever to open fire on campus. 

Unlike any live-shooter drill known by Cpl. Mike Rudinski, Hyattsville police's training director, to have been conducted anywhere before, this drill was held during school hours with the full student body present. 

The shooters were played by two school staff members, Donna Davis, an administrative assistant, and Justin Cunningham, DeMatha's assistant dean of students. 

When the scenario got underway, the school was put on lockdown. Teachers cleared the hallways and gathered students in classrooms where they huddled away from the door. Other selected students acted dead and wounded, lying in the hallways. 

The drill was the result of 10 weeks of preparations between members of the Hyattsville City Police Department, the Riverdale Park Police Department, the Prince George's County Police Department and DeMatha Catholic High School officials. The drill was originally scheduled for Oct. 30, but Superstorm Sandy forced the drill to be rescheduled. 

Before the event, school officials sent out emails and letters outlining the basic purpose of the drill. School officials also gave parents the opportunity to pull their kids from class on the day of the drill if parents thought their kids might not respond well to the drill. 

According to Fr. James Day, rector at DeMatha, no students took up the offer for the excused absense. 

"We've always wanted to do a large safety drill involving multiple jurisdictions," said Dave Gardiner, DeMatha's dean of students, in an interview before the drill began.

"It was over much quicker than I thought it was going to be," said Cunningham after the drill. He was the last "gunman" to be taken into custody by police.

Davis was apprehended fairly quickly, located by police in the first floor of DeMatha's main building. She said afterwards that if she had been a real shooter, police would have easily taken her down. 

Once Davis was apprehended, police turned their attention to locating and neutralizing the second gunman, Cunningham.

Bearing a red plastic gun, Cunningham was found holding a classroom hostage on the third floor. He said an officer poked his head around the corner of the doorway and spotted him with the gun. The officer then retreated for a moment, calling through the door for Cunningham to drop his weapon. When Cunningham refused multiple orders to surrender, the officer burst around the corner and "shot" him before taking Cunningham into custody. 

Drill Debriefed

Organizers had anticipated it would take 20 minutes for officers to take down the shooters and sweep the campus. But it was over much quicker than that, with officers taking both shooters into custody in eight minutes and 35 seconds. 

"That's pretty incredible," said Rudinski after the drill. 

After the drill, Rudinski gave a presentation to the schools' student body on bullying, which he said was the leading cause of school shootings across the country. In today's digital world, bullying reaches into the lives of its victims in a way unimaginable to people who grew up before the advent of the internet, social networking and online bullying.

"Bullying now happens 24-7-365," said Rudinski to the students. "It used to be that when you went home, when you went to your neighborhood, the bullying stopped."

During the drill, police divided their force to search for the shooters. That's a recent tactical development designed to speed response time. Older tactics called for police to keep their forces together as they swept the building, according to Hyattsville Police Chief Doug Holland.

After the drill, DeMatha's principal, Dr. Dan McMahon, said that he was thrilled with how the drill was conducted. For school officials, campus security has been an increasily complex problem to deal with, especially considering the school's sprawling five-building campus. 

"It's become important to us how we can make our campus safe," said McMahon. "Unfortunately, this is the world we live in today, but we want to be on the front of that."

The drill exposed a few security improvements which McMahon said the school needs to explore. For instance, some of the school's security cameras were unable to view some areas of the campus. McMahon also said that communication was problematic at times, leading him to wonder if the school needs to review how it uses and distributes walkie-talkies to staff. 

DeMatha religion teacher Joshua Lattanzi said that his students reacted very well to the drill. But he also said there's only so much you can do to prepare yourself mentally for mass shooting.

"I told them to take it with a certain requisite amount of seriousness," said Lattanzi. "You don't know how it's going to be if it ever happens for real." 

John December 08, 2012 at 03:58 PM
I don't think the concern for local residents was "inconvenience" as much as terror if anyone thought this was a real shooting.
azu'car December 08, 2012 at 09:35 PM
This drill needs to be conducted in all schools. This drill was to bring awarness to students as well as staff. We all tend to go about our business thinking that something such as this would never happen however, it does. I'm a parent of a DeMatha student and I'm very proud to be. A big thank you to DeMatha staff and students as well as the officers who were involved. St. John's of DeMatha pray for us!!!!
Dave Jov December 08, 2012 at 11:04 PM
The neighborhood was notified. I had an officer come to my door the morning of the event and saw it on our community notification system. Thank you, Hyattsville Police for everything.
Brendan Murray December 15, 2012 at 07:46 PM
I hope this drill, in whole or part, sets up a nation wide model so other schools and jurisdictions put this means of self defence into practice. Periodic fire drills a required yet gunfire has stolen more young lives than flames. God bless the victims, families and friends in Newtown, Ct.
Debbie December 17, 2012 at 03:11 PM
Another wonderfully inspired forward thinking idea put in place by DeMatha. Great to coordinate with the entire community so that police and students have a dry run in case something serious does occur. I was a teacher for years and we knew "the drill" on paper, but didn't know its actual effectiveness if something serious were to occur.

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