CRANDALL, Texas — Multiple law enforcement agencies, fueled by very real adrenaline, raced to Crandall High School in Kaufman County early Thursday morning. But the active shooters they were sent to find were actors in an elaborate training exercise designed to improve how police respond should a Uvalde happen again.
"Are there any questions," said Crandall ISD coordinator of safety and security Keith Chapman as he gave final instructions to 180 volunteer school employees who agreed to wear clothes soaked in fake blood and to pose as school evacuees when one of the fake gunmen began roaming the classrooms and hallways.
An EMS employee fired blanks to simulate the sound of gunshots. Then the call for help went out over Crandall and Kaufman County frequencies to 13 different law enforcement agencies staged less than a half mile away.
Officers, with guns rendered inoperable for the training exercise, searched every corner of the school, and had to step over the school employees who, prone on the hallway floors, had agreed to pose as fatalities.
Attendance administrator Danita Pilgreen, with two fellow employees evacuated from their offices, told me with her hands still raised that the exercise felt all too real.
"It's scary," she said.
"Even though it's fake, it's still scary," I asked her.
"Yes it's still scary to think there are people out here that would come into a school and do this to innocent people," she said before officers had her join a group of about 20 employees, hands still raised, evacuated to a back parking lot.
"As soon as we heard anything, it got to me," admitted 5th-grade math teacher Brooke Dickerson of the very real anxiety and worry the training exercise purposely created.
"We've been planning this for a really long time," said Crandall ISD Police Chief Billy Taylor who said the training exercise idea was first hatched last August. The deaths of 19 students and two teachers in Uvalde made them consider, out of respect for the victims, canceling or postponing the Crandall ISD exercise. But they decided to stick with the original schedule, with the failures in Uvalde reason enough to practice search and rescue, logistics, and inter-agency communications even more.
"Tremendously," Taylor said of the motivation Uvalde and its failures provided. "You will not see us standing there waiting for anything. You just won't. That's not how we're trained," said Taylor who plans to study every aspect of the training exercise over the next several months.
"And we decided no, this is valuable to our first responders and in light of Uvalde it will help us get stronger and do better," said Keith Chapman.
Ambulances, medics, and a life flight helicopter were part of this very real exercise: one the hope will improve responses and reaction times. And at the same time give educators more confidence that police and school employees are prepared if the unthinkable ever comes to Crandall too.