ActiveShooterTrainingNolensville2022-6.jpg

Sniper Pro Shop/High Ground Training Group instructor Andrew Hawkins portrays a "bad guy" while fleeing from and shooting an airsoft gun at a Nolensville Police Department officer during an active shooter training seminar inside Nolensville High School in July 2022.

As the new school year is about to begin, law enforcement agencies and school officials, including those in Williamson County, are reevaluating security measures and preparedness following the Uvalde, Texas school shooting.

That shooting was the 27th school shooting in the United States in 2022.

Williamson County has been working for some time to help prevent a tragedy as what happened in Uvalde, and in numerous other schools in the past. 

The response from Uvalde's law enforcement on the scene has also come under intense scrutiny, leaving many to wonder how their respective school systems and law enforcement agencies would respond in the event of the unthinkable, but sadly possible. 

This is how Williamson County is preparing itself in response to, and to prevent, an active shooter situation in one of its schools. 

Zollicoffer speaks to WSCO's role in WCS 

Williamson County Sheriff Dusty Rhoades said that, after the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary school shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, WCSO’s focus in schools shifted from the traditional D.A.R.E. programs to a focus strictly on school safety.

And while the threat of violence resulting in serious injury in schools is relatively low, it's still a serious challenge for schools, with prevention being identified by the United States Secret Service as the best way to combat violence.

WSCO has 74 SRO positions throughout the county, some of which need to be filled, and they are lead by Captain Leonardo Zollicoffer, who oversees the department’s school resource officers (SRO) who work inside the all of the county’s schools.

Capt. Zollicoffer, who served as an SRO for eight years at Sunset Middle School prior to his current leadership role, said that while his SRO’s make sure that schools remain a hard target, much of their work is focused on cultivating and maintaining positive relationships with students and staff.

“The unique part to me is having a caring heart for the kids,” Zollicoffer said. “Out on the street, you may see that person once, especially if you have to deal with that person in a criminal manner, but in a school is completely different. You're going to see that person again, you're going to deal with those parents again, so you have to kind of make sure, whatever you do, you're doing it with the intent of having that relationship later on down the road because that kid or that parent is gonna see that person again.”

Educator’s School Safety Network 2018-2019 Violence in Schools Report.

Educator’s School Safety Network 2018-2019 Violence in Schools Report.

“We work with the school to figure out a best way to one, stop that behavior and figure out why that behavior is taking place, and make sure that we get the resources for that child, and also help build that relationship.”

And while students will inevitably make mistakes, Capt. Zollicoffer said that they’re not in the business of criminalizing students. He added that some of the biggest contemporary challenges relate to changing technologies, with everything from sexting to social media challenges taking place online in social groups online which can often have real world consequences.

“Our officers worked very hard at building those healthy relationships with students to make sure that if something does take place, we're gonna move on and we'll be high-fiving the next day," Zollicoffer said. "Now, if there’s punishment that needs to be dealt with through the school system, let it take place through school, or if it's something that needs to be dealt with through juvenile system, that play out and how ever it plays out, when that kid come back to the school, make sure that they're welcome back into the school and push it on so they can have a brighter future.”

Capt. Zollicoffer said that SROs try to be aware of all of the things happening inside and outside of school that could bring issues onto campus, but he said that community relationships, especially with parents, are key to keeping their children safe.

“I think that's the number one prevention of a lot of issues that we have is parents doing their part,” Zollicoffer said.

School systems and WCSO don’t detail all of the physical security measures that are in place for each school, but simple efforts such as keeping all exterior doors locked, requiring visitors to be buzzed in while on a recorded security camera system and keeping trauma medical kits on premise are part of keeping schools safe.

Fletcher highlights steps WCS takes to keep students safe

Williamson County Schools Director of Safety and Security Michael Fletcher said that he and his team work fulltime to assess, prepare for and respond to potential safety issues, from threats of violence to more likely threats such as natural disasters or accidents that could impact schools and their communities. That takes a more administrative role to security.

“Safety and security of schools is inherently complex, and my responsibility is for all hazards, not just someone intending to cause violence," Fletcher said, "but you know, all the other many things out there that could impact our staff and students at our buildings, which are spread all over Williamson County.”

Fletcher, whose team is made up of professionals with military, law enforcement, emergency management and fire service experience, said that the county has invested in safety and security in ways that other communities haven’t or just don’t have the resources to do so.

“Our philosophy is, we've got to always be on the lookout for any thing that may impact us, and certainly any dangers that may come our way,” Fletcher said. “And we've got to do everything possible to prevent that. So that's awareness, that's training, that's physical measures that we put on our buildings to make them more safe and secure.

"It's having good relationships with our staff, our students, our communities, parents, certainly, our emergency services throughout the county, and realistically, the state as well. So that we're all working off the same sheet of music, and that we're collaborating together and understanding each other's roles, responsibilities, and just leaving no stone unturned, as far as anything that we can bring to bear to protect our students.”

Fletcher said that they take every threat seriously, working alongside school and district administration, and if a particular case needs it, working with local law enforcement and the district attorney's office.

He added that a big part of working within schools is making sure that they are safe environments without having those safety measures create a negative learning environment for students and teachers by creating fear.

Students are undoubtedly more aware now than at any time in American history of the threats of potential violence, and Fletcher said that students trusting teachers and administrators is key to identifying and stopping potential threats early, an awareness and value that he said he expects to grow in society.

“I think sometimes people get a little tired of it, but, see something, say something,” Fletcher said. “Our kids, they, they understand the seriousness of this, and they more than ever come forward and report things when kids say things or post stuff on social media. That's where we're getting the reports coming from. And we're so appreciative of that, because those kids understand that this is serious.

“Kids that are in school now understand the importance [of school safety,] and when they become adults and pillars of the community and decision makers, they're going to have that same desire to put the emphasis on it that it deserves."'

NPD holds active shooter training

In July, the Nolensville Police Department attended a two-day active shooter training in Nolensville High School, which served as a unique real-world experience that few departments get to experience.

ActiveShooterTrainingNolensville2022-4.jpg

Nolensville Police Department Officer Allison Humes practices entering and clearing a classroom inside of Nolensville High School during an active shooter training seminar in July 2022.

The Williamson Home Page was given exclusive access to that training, which included the use of air soft guns and an instructor portraying a “bad guy” who would run scenario-based exercises with officers.

Some of those scenarios included a shooter taking cover behind cardboard cutouts that represented students, which forced officers to make their way down the school’s hall, locate the source of gunfire (simulated by the use of blanks), enter a classroom and neutralize the shooter while avoiding hitting the civilian cutouts. 

That training was led by Denny Elliott, a former Williamson County Sheriff’s Office deputy who has extensive firearms training experience throughout his more than two decades of local and federal law enforcement experience, and now serves as the CEO of Sniper Pro Shop/High Ground Training Group. 

Elliott and his fellow instructor Andrew Hawkins began the training days with safety checks of officer’s unloaded weapons, threading zip ties through the chambers and down barrels, and holding briefing and debriefing meetings before and after each exercise to review what worked and what the challenges and lessons learned were. 

“The goal of that training is to begin a process of conditioning,” Elliott said. “You cannot expect to get a warrior's response in an eight-hour day, so the problem you are contemporarily seeing or have seen most recently is where officers just lock up. They're equally armed, they've got superiority in numbers and they stop instead of going in and engaging somebody who has been and and continues to actively shoot people.”

ActiveShooterTrainingNolensville2022.jpg

Sniper Pro Shop/High Ground Training Group CEO Denny Elliott instructs members of the Nolensville Police Department during an active shooter training seminar in Nolensville High School in July 2022.

During the early portions of the training some students could be heard laughing, talking and playing during summer programs in distant halls inside the school. A very real reminder to the trainees why they were there and what was at stake.

A large part of the training was not just weapons handling and accuracy, but changing how officers think about their surrounding. For example, this could include consideration for where threats could come from or what the cover and concealment would be in an environment like a school hallway, referred to as a “tube” in training. 

Most of that training involved officers working in two-person teams or solo in an effort to replicate the conditions that an officer is likely to be in when responding to a potential active-shooter threat while on a routine patrol.

“Overall, the training was very successful,” Elliott said. “We're throwing a lot at them, we're changing up a lot of how they have been trained to go in with a group, and we're pushing them and making them go with just a partner or alone.”

Elliott said that the training opportunity came about because of the leadership of NPD Police Chief Roddy Parker, who took the initiative to make sure that his officers are as prepared as they can be to serve as first responders should an active shooting incident occur in the small but growing community.

“Doing it in a school, particularly in a school in their jurisdiction where they are going to be one of the primaries there, there's a SRO or two, there, but they will be the first responders coming to that to that scene to aid those SROs or jump in and help fix a problem,” Elliott said. “So getting actually train in your potential battlefield is a plus.”

Elliott said that one of the goals of his company is to give officers a “training footprint” that they can then take to their agencies and implement their own training programs based on what they’ve learned. 

“We're seeing more agencies the size of the Nolensville Police Department buying into training that they know they're gonna have to do besides that bare minimum that the state requires," Elliott explained. "They're developing some trainers inside of their agencies, so that's going to be crucial and developing some expertise in the ability to stage some of these events rather than by themselves on their own because that is the other part of the conditioning is the repetitive mechanical training.”

The Franklin Police Department has also invested in new tools to help in the event of an active shooter with the acquisition of the KBT Kinetic Breaching Tool.

That tool uses 45 caliber firearm blanks set inside of the device by way of an 8-round cylinder (similar to a revolver) to quickly extend and force a steel plate between a door and a door frame which can then pried open.

“The FPD will not wait: we’re trained, we’re ready, and we’re going in to stop the threat – any threat, especially one that endangers our community’s greatest VIPs: our children,” FPD Public Information Officer Charlie Warner said in an email. 

Sheriff Rhoades said that at the end of the day he wants parents and the community at large to know that, in Williamson County, they will not repeat the apparent mistakes that occurred in Uvalde, Texas, where inaction by law enforcement undoubtedly cost the lives of more children and their teachers.

“When I heard about this Texas shooting, it made my heart just sink,” Sheriff Rhoades said. “This waiting stuff went out with Columbine. We're coming, and we're gonna be bringing the army. It may be 10 officers, it may be 20, but it’s coming and we're gonna keep coming until the situation is neutralized.

“We work real close with all the other agencies in the county, and they work close with us, and we have a great team effort. That’s number one on everybody’s plate, to make sure our kids have a safe place to go and get an education.”